Architectural journey spans six decades

Christchurch architect, Don Donnithorne and wife, Dawn, have lived in their self designed Upper Riccarton house since 1956.
Christchurch architect, Don Donnithorne and wife, Dawn, have lived in their self designed Upper Riccarton house since 1956.

Most people keep a photo record of their travels. It used to be slides or prints; now it is all digital.

Not Don Donnithorne. The Christchurch architect painted watercolours of the significant places he visited - especially the buildings.

It is these paintings that make his book, Don Donnithorne: An Architectural Journey, special.

Christchurch architect, Don Donnithorne and wife, Dawn, have lived in their self designed Upper Riccarton house since 1956.
Christchurch architect, Don Donnithorne and wife, Dawn, have lived in their self designed Upper Riccarton house since 1956.

You might imagine architectural paintings would be fastidious and highly detailed, but Donnithorne's are free- drawn, warm and informal, capturing the spirit and feeling of a building rather than portraying each brick or roof tile.

The book is not the usual glitzy architectural work. It is more of a personal account. If it veers off on a tangent at times, that can be forgiven - although tighter proof-reading would have been beneficial.

At 86, Donnithorne has a perspective on architecture that spans more than three-quarters of a century. He is one of a former triumvirate of distinguished Christchurch architects. The others were Sir Miles Warren and the late Peter Beaven.

Donnithorne grew up in Timaru, and memories of that "Edwardian city" remain strong. His parents, hotelkeepers, built a Queen Anne-style home designed by Herbert Hall on the hills overlooking Caroline Bay. He loved St Mary's and the Catholic basilica, and other historic buildings.

Religion and history have stayed with him ever since. Donnithorne served for many years in the parish of St Michael's in Christchurch, and as regional chairman of the Historic Places Trust, he was made an MBE.

During World War II, the young Donnithorne became fascinated by architecture and later studied in what was termed the "Christchurch Atelier". Architects William Trengrove, John Hendry, Paul Pascoe, Humphrey Hall, and George Griffiths were mentors. Studying ancient Greek architecture was a requirement, which he never regretted.

For a while Donnithorne worked with architect Melville Lawry, who was also organist at the Durham St Methodist church.

In 1948, Donnithorne designed a church that looked surprisingly modern for its time and has withstood all the earthquakes: the Evangelistic Temple, on the corner of Moorhouse Ave and Colombo St.

Structural engineering by Guy Powell and a very good foreman were crucial, Donnithorne says. The temple's curved concrete frame and bitumen-covered metal roof were based on Swiss designs. The brick cladding had encased petrol tanks in Lyttelton during the war, and was recycled for the temple.

New Zealand in the early 1950s was a different society, he recalls. "It was fortunate the Gladstone Hotel was handy at a time of six o'clock closing and where two eminent architects of later years were told 'Out of here you roosters' by the publican's wife as the police completed their inspection. They were under the bed in one of the rooms!"

Designing and building his own house - where he still lives with wife Dawn - was also a different process than it is today.

They obtained leasehold "glebe land" belonging to St Peter's Church at Church Corner in Upper Riccarton. State Advances provided a mortgage at 41/8 per cent. The government, under Labour Finance Minister Walter Nash, also provided a suspensory loan that did away with repayments after a few years.

Wartime restrictions still applied in 1956, and houses could be no bigger than 1150 square feet (110sqm). The Donnithorne house was a modest 850 square feet (80sqm, about the same as a modern over-60s' townhouse).

The architect obtained a railway truckload of rimu timber and cedar shingles. Despite the compact size, he still managed to express a Finnish- Scandinavian influence in the design. This is evident in the clean, uncluttered lines, vertical board and batten cladding - enjoying a resurgence in popularity in new houses today - and tongue-and- groove ceilings.

With five children, additions were soon needed, and the house was enlarged. The Donnithornes bought the next door section and built a circular two-story studio. There is also ample garaging for the architect's collection of classic Lancia cars.

Today the house has that special quality that sets apart a good design: it is of its time yet transcends it, remaining effortlessly practical and aesthetically appealing.

If there is an aspect that sets Donnithorne's designs apart, it is harmonious proportions and natural materials. They are relaxing and restful buildings.

Donnithorne's more recent designs include the Netball Centre in Hagley Park, the Wigram Air Force Museum, retirement homes, and private houses. He has also designed churches "for all denominations".

The book contains many paintings of buildings visited during the couple's overseas trips.

En route to Scandinavia in 1980, the Donnithornes briefly visited the Soviet Union. The Pribaltiskaya Hotel in Leningrad was a "gigantic architectural statement" with 3500 beds. It was well built by Swedish contractors. Not so the hectares of apartment buildings surrounding the hotel, which "suffered from a gross insensitivity of scale and lack of environmental understanding. . .

"They were so badly constructed . . . it was hard to see them lasting more than 10 years."

In neighbouring Finland, Donnithorne was delighted to see the work of Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen, whose house Hvittrask (White Lake, built in 1902) was a former studio and residence for a number of architects. Today, he writes, it is almost a national shrine.

Finland and New Zealand have strong parallels, Donnithorne believes, yet Finland respects architects more.

Other inspiring buildings depicted in his paintings are Gaudi's still incomplete Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Italian Renaissance masterpieces, a house by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland, the Rock of Cashel in Ireland, and houses in the United States by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Elements of the American's work, as well as Scandinavian and Arts and Crafts architecture can all be glimpsed in Donnithorne's own buildings).

And what of Christchurch's future? Donnithorne's office used to be in the Provincial Council building (the wooden part, which survived), but he was not there at the time of the February quake.

Last year, he designed a controversial sketch plan showing how the Anglican cathedral could combine elements of old and new.

He also believes that timber, a proven method of construction used in the historic St Michael's church, has a strong future.

However, prospects for the city sadden him.

"I am distressed at what's going on. There seems to be a lack of positive will to restore this city.

"The architects are not being asked . . . The Government is in conflict with the council. If they could work together . . . at the moment it's difficult to see."

The Press