Beehive bent offices and minds

An early sketch of the Beehive by British architect Sir Basil Spence.
An early sketch of the Beehive by British architect Sir Basil Spence.

Even before the "great Beehive shift" of 1979, the new house of power was controversial. But after MPs had set up their offices, the Beehive would become the venue for some of the weirdest moments in New Zealand's political history.

It was in the Beehive that Rob Muldoon drunkenly announced a snap election and stoned staff landed on the prime minister's balcony. Clear-headed moments have allegedly been had there, too.

The Beehive was famously designed by British architect Sir Basil Spence on a napkin. Or at least that is how the story goes, says parliamentary historian John Martin.

SEAT OF POWER: The Beehive.
SEAT OF POWER: The Beehive.

While the actual napkin has never been tracked down, Sir Basil's early drawings, such as one in the Parliamentary Collection, are loose sketches.

The original Parliament House, built from 1912 to 1922, was only ever half-finished - the never-built half would have extended to where the Beehive now sits.

With a growing need for more room, Sir Basil was commissioned to look at three options - extend the existing Parliament House to the original drawings, rip it down and start again, or build a modern executive wing alongside it.

He went for option three, drafting up a sketch of what would become the Beehive.

To illustrate his concept to then prime minister Keith Holyoake, he pulled out a box of Beehive matches. And so the name was born.

The new design had its critics, including Dr Martin's own father, an architect. "People thought it should have been a national competition, while my father believed the original Parliament House should have been completed."

But six years after his initial sketches, construction began.

Detailed design was undertaken by the Works Ministry.

Two years after the Queen "officially" opened the Beehive in 1977, MPs began shifting in in September 1979.

Press gallery life member Richard Griffin remembers the early days of derision, including walking through the atrium with Mr Muldoon at the opening.

The prime minister looked at a piece of carpet covering the central pillar of the main atrium, designed by leading artist Guy Ngan with large holes exposing the marble beneath.

"He looked at it and said, 'Heh, it looks as if the moths have been at the carpet already'," Griffin remembers.

While the building - at least in some people's minds - was attractive from the outside, inside was a "disaster".

For one, MPs were distanced from each other by a building not designed for casual encounters.

In early September 1979, journalist Richard Long managed to get the press gallery banned from the top three floors.

While the Cabinet - including a security- mad Mr Muldoon - were out for lunch, Long caught a lift to the Cabinet room and walked in.

He did not touch the confidential documents on the table but left his business card, illustrating the security lapse of unlocked lifts opening directly into a Cabinet room strewn with secret documents. It made the lead story in the following day's paper.

As he wrote in The Dominion in 1979: "The fortress Beehive is on its way."

There was concern that the layered-by- hierarchy, closeted design of the new building meant there was a "them and us" culture developing between MPs and the Cabinet.

"Previously Cabinet ministers' rooms were studded about the old Parliament Buildings. There was a mixture everywhere of Cabinet ministers, MPs and everyone else.

"Now the ministers will turn right after leaving the parliamentary chamber and disappear into their tower. Ordinary MPs will turn left. Gone now will be the easy lobbying in the corridors, catching a minister as he emerges from a meeting."

Long's liking for the building's interior never really grew from there.

Sir Basil's circular design had called for oddly shaped rooms. As Long wrote in 2008: "Weird decisions, it seems, can come from people condemned to work in weird wedge-shaped rooms."

Contact Tom Hunt
Porirua reporter
Twitter: @tomdom76

The Dominion Post