Tributes flow for top Chch architect

ANNA TURNER, RACHEL YOUNG AND DAVID KILLICK
Last updated 05:00 06/06/2012

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One of Peter Beaven's greatest contemporaries, Sir Miles Warren, has paid tribute to the renowned Christchurch architect's "enticing and amazing" character.

Beaven, 86, died peacefully in Blenheim on Monday night after being diagnosed in September last year with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos.

In 2003, Beaven was awarded the New Zealand Institute of Architecture's Gold Medal, its highest honour, for work spanning nearly half a century, most of it in Canterbury.

Together with Warren, Beaven became renowned for developing a distinctive form of modernist architecture in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Warren and Beaven were two of the leading exponents of what became known as the "Christchurch School", designing many groundbreaking buildings that have been lost in the earthquakes.

Beaven fought successfully for the preservation of many buildings - notably the present Christchurch Arts Centre - and had a major role in the formation of the Christchurch Civic Trust in 1965.

Warren told The Press last night he would "sadly miss" his colleague of many years.

"Peter in full flight telling a story was a thing to behold. He was a brilliant raconteur; you could find flaws in some of his arguments, but not in the way he presented them. He really was a most enticing and amazing character which came through in his work and he will be sorely missed."

Warren said he had great respect for Beaven's work, despite their differing styles of architecture.

"Peter was unquenchable in advocating for the art of architecture. We weren't rivals; we had different approaches but both were perfectly valid. He was one of New Zealand's best architects. It is just so sad that many of his buildings have been lost."

Beaven was born in Christchurch in 1925 and attended Christ's College. From an early age he was influenced by the architecture of Christchurch, admiring the houses of Sumner, the buildings of his school, and the neo-Gothic work of Benjamin Mountfort.

He had recently moved to Blenheim after his offices and many of the buildings he designed were destroyed in the Canterbury earthquakes.

Beaven is survived by his wife, Lesley Beaven, his three children from a previous marriage to Mary Beaven - Sabrina Sullivan, Sophie Jolliffe and Tom Beaven - and eight grandchildren.

His daughter, Sophie, said her father lived for architecture.

"He had new clients. He had a new building to do for new clients and he was working on that," she said.

His nephew, Matthew Beaven, said his uncle was exposed to the asbestos that caused his cancer about 40 years ago. His uncle had always had time for his younger relatives, in particular the grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews.

Architecture had been his uncle's life and Peter Beaven had been working up until last weekend, he said.

Mitchell & Stout Architects director David Mitchell, who has known Peter Beaven since the 1960s, believed Beaven was one of the best architects in New Zealand's history.

Beaven was "fabulously entertaining" and known for his inventive and romantic architecture.

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"He was as brilliant and erratic as a torched box of fireworks."

Canterbury University art history professor Ian Lochhead described Beaven as "one of the giants of New Zealand architectural history" who had "helped to shape the direction of Christchurch and New Zealand architecture".

"Peter was a remarkable architect, one who lived and breathed architecture all his life and was still designing with undiminished creativity until the very end. I can't think of another New Zealand architect with a greater ability to think three-dimensionally, not such a universal skill among architects as might be imagined.

"Although he had a great capacity for formal invention, he was never interested in form for its own sake - he wanted to make buildings that were expressive and that told us something about who we are," he said.

Lochhead believed Beaven should have been more highly recognised for his achievements during his long career.

"Although he had a very high public profile and was honoured by the architectural profession as a recipient of the NZIA Gold Medal and awards for many buildings, he was never accorded the formal recognition that a person of such eminence in his field might have been expected to receive.

"That doesn't diminish Peter's achievements, but it is a cause for regret."

BEAVEN A PASSIONATE AND COLOURFUL CHARACTER

"Never better."

Until recently, that is what Peter Beaven would say chirpily when queried about his welfare - and he meant it.

Beaven, who at 86 was New Zealand's oldest practising architect, was never happier than when engaged in his latest project.

To him, retiring would have been inconceivable.

Feisty, cantankerous, opinionated and passionate about Christchurch, Beaven was one of the city's colourful characters.

With his mane of unruly white hair, beret, blue blazer and moleskins, riding his bike through the city or at the wheel of his tiny car, he was hard to miss.

He relished a good debate, and never held back.

He condemned the Christchurch Art Gallery as "a great alien".

He said the Chalice in Cathedral Square looked like "the underground vent to a toilet".

He fought plans to modernise the Canterbury Museum, saying they would "irrevocably damage one of our iconic historic buildings".

For years, Beaven competed with contemporary Sir Miles Warren, and he risked alienating some architects by condemning what he saw as unsympathetic contemporary architecture.

Beaven loved old Christchurch, especially its neo-Gothic buildings.

He called its "Gothic centre ... one of the best in the world".

He was working in his upstairs office in the Provincial Council Buildings when the February 2011 earthquake hit.

We all wondered if he had survived, but it turned out he had escaped by metres.

The wooden part of the building was largely unscathed.

However, many of Beaven's beloved historic buildings had been destroyed, and he moved to Blenheim.

Now some of his buildings, such as the Lyttelton road tunnel building and the Holiday Inn, are also coming down.

His neo-Gothic-inspired Chateau on the Park was undamaged.

Beaven's legacy will remain as much in the many private homes he designed as in his public buildings.

What was probably his last commission, a house in Ashburton, is nearing completion.

Above all, Beaven saw himself as a humanist architect. Ironically, his call for community-focused neighbourhoods in place of suburban sprawl could be what Christchurch now needs.

"People want real neighbourhoods, real community centres, natural public access to the centre, not just endless motorcar nonsense, and I'm utterly against it," he told me in 2005.

At a public lecture, Beaven once said: "When you ask me to design a building, you always know it's going to be an adventure."

- The Press

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