Town Hall up with best in the world

Last updated 11:39 08/12/2012
town hall
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JULY 1971: The new town hall complez close to completion.

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With the future of Christchurch's landmark town hall still in doubt, PHILIP MATTHEWS looks back at its history.

It could all have been so much stranger. A UFO hovering above Kilmore St? Curling modernist towers and waterfalls?

Christchurch Town Hall has always been big news. The building was on the front page of The Press six years before it even existed.

On February 8, 1966, the paper reported that 58 entries had been received for a Christchurch Town Hall design competition. The chairman of the Town Hall Committee, future mayor Hamish Hay, told a reporter that 58 was possibly a record.

Thirty-five entries came from North Island architects, 18 from the South Island and five from New Zealand architects living abroad.

Four months later, the paper had further news: a design from the young Christchurch firm of Warren and Mahoney was the winner, and an awkward photo of the two men ran on the front page.

Wellington architect Ron Muston was professional adviser to the assessors. He said that Warren and Mahoney's design would bear comparison with the best overseas civic buildings. He predicted it would be "an architectural work of the highest order".

Besides Muston and Hamish Hay, the assessors were Hamilton architect Aubrey de Lisle, Dunedin architect Ted McCoy and Christchurch architect and former city councillor George Griffiths. Amazingly, a panel to judge civic architecture comprised four architects and just one politician.

Between February and June 1966, the assessors reduced 58 entries to a longlist of 13 and a further shortlist of five, before picking a winner.

In a history of Warren and Mahoney published in 2005, Sir Miles Warren recalled that in contrast to "the lengthy project manager-dominated conditions of later design competitions", the town hall was a true design competition that gave architects free rein.

The Christchurch public got to see what that meant when all 58 displays went on show at the Durham Street Art Gallery. A Press reporter described some of the more fanciful entries: "A sleek flying saucer hovering on squat pillars, a curl of orange peel climbing 14 storeys over the Avon river, a beehive, an egg, and an upended wedge."

One Christchurch-designed entry incorporated an internal lake flowing over a waterfall. Another design was nicknamed "the railway smash" as large buildings appeared to topple inwards "as if nudged heartily from both ends".

Readers would have been reassured that, far from being radical, the Warren and Mahoney design was at the more conservative end of the spectrum.

A review appeared in The Press, attributed to the pseudonym "Flagpole". The writer's real identity has vanished from history (neither a former editor nor a veteran architect could identify him or her). Perhaps that's just as well as "Flagpole" found the Warren and Mahoney plan less adventurous than other designs, with a skyline that was "much in conformity with the familiar one of urban Christchurch".

"However," the anonymous writer continued, "it is good- mannered, decently reticent, clean cut and from good stock - very much as Christchurch itself would like to be."

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Controversially, "Flagpole" preferred the design by Christchurch architect Peter Beaven. It had "intimate court enclosures", and was "a most successful formal complex having a recognisable Christchurch flavour". And where Warren and Mahoney reiterated the urban skyline, Beaven's roof design showed he had "his eyes on the mountains".

An urban legend has grown that says Warren narrowly beat Beaven for the town hall commission and lifelong rivalry followed. In fact, Beaven's design made the top 13 but not the top five.

But Beaven's town hall is still seen as one of the city's greatest unbuilt buildings. Drawings were included in a 1991 exhibition, Unbuilt Christchurch, and the catalogue noted that the assessors called Beaven's design "one of the most adventurous and original" in the competition. The catalogue spoke of "sweeping, sculptural roof forms, asymmetrical massing and organic relationship to the site" and called it "a romantic and highly personal response".

Readers would have had to head down to Durham St to judge for themselves. But The Press did run pictures of the four shortlisted entries that lost to Warren and Mahoney's design, including one by Christchurch architects Paul Pascoe and Warren Linton. The other three were by Porter and Martin, of Wellington, Ellison, Acheson, Stewart and Associates, of Tauranga and Thorpe, Cutter, Pickmere, Douglas and Partners of Auckland.

But despite some championing of Beaven's maverick design, Press readers were reassured that the best entry won. Institute of Architects president E D Dawson told the paper that the reputation of Warren and Mahoney was such that "you can safely be assured that when this building is finished you will have a building that is in world class". One way to ensure that the building would be world class was to send the architect off to see the world. The next time the projected town hall appeared in The Press, Warren had just returned from a fact-finding tour of great venues: the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Rotterdam Concert Hall, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic Hall and the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts in New York. He stopped off in Perth, where he met Harold Marshall, a New Zealand acoustics expert who became a key part of the project.

Warren wrote in 2005 that Marshall was developing an acoustic theory of lateral reflections for auditoria. The town hall became "his most successful guinea pig".

Hamish Hay told his fellow councillors that the expense of Warren's trip was justified by the information gathered and the improvements to and savings on acoustics.

That was in November 1966. At the end of September 1972, the town hall opened. Fanfare hardly begins to describe it. On Monday, October 2, the front page of The Press announced that "Christchurch has seldom been lauded as it was on Saturday, when the hopes of thousands of its citizens and the years of work by as many again were rewarded by the opening of the Town Hall, which inspired the use of 'magnificent' as the most frequent description".

There was pride that the town hall was Christchurch-designed and Christchurch built. It was noted that people of Christchurch contributed significantly through fundraising.

Prime Minister Jack Marshall told the crowd that Christchurch had waited a long time, but now the tables were turned on Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.

Indeed, Auckland and Wellington would follow with their own versions - the Aotea Centre and the Michael Fowler Centre respectively.

Sydenham MP and leader of the opposition Norman Kirk, then two months away from becoming prime minister, told the crowd that a city did not just flourish on houses and factories, and what a community did together enriched the life and wealth of that community.

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin sent a message: "Already when I saw the plans two years ago, both my wife and I were thrilled to think one of the most charming cities in the world was going to have a centre worthy of its high cultural standards."

There was even a sense that the town hall opening in 1972 was a turning point in the city's history. Paul Walker grew up in Christchurch and was 14 at the time. Now he is deputy dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Melbourne.

He remembers the town hall as one of the strongest civic projects ever undertaken in New Zealand, in its scale and sense of urban repair.

"I recall that the people of Christchurch were proud and delighted to have such a facility, and its apparent modernity was part of its attraction," Walker says. "It was part of a mindset that the city had shaken off its conservative reputation. The 1974 Commonwealth Games and the facilities built for that at QEII Park were also part of this sense of change.

"The lines of people who waited to visit the building when it was first opened to the public were enormous. There was a lot of pride that this building had been achieved when the Sydney Opera House was still incomplete, having been under way since 1957, mired in controversy and with huge cost over-runs.

"Moreover, the town hall is a very good building in how it is sited, how the various parts are grouped, the way it made a derelict mess of a city block into a great place. And the internal spaces were a revelation to a public used to the Civic Theatre," Walker says.

But was it universally loved or were some in Christchurch becoming tired of the city's concrete modernist direction?

"I don't think there was much adverse criticism of the town hall at the time of its opening," Walker says. "A more adverse public attitude to overtly modern architecture came a bit later in Christchurch, with poorly conceived projects like the Postal Centre and Central Police Station in Hereford St. The poor quality of the architecture of these was apparent from the start.

"I doubt the public were conscious of a Warren and Mahoney manner before the town hall design won the competition and was built. Before that, they were one of a number of Christchurch firms and architects who set out in the 1950s, though I think already it was apparent to the architectural profession that they were going to be the most effective of that generation." The town hall story didn't start in 1966. When the building opened, the Town Hall Committee published a 66-page book, A Dream Come True, which started with a comment about Christchurch that is so familiar it might cause some hearts to sink.

"For all our virtues, we citizens of Greater Christchurch have our foibles, not the least noticeable of which is a penchant (those who do not care for us might even define it as a mania) for arguing the pros and cons of civic developments to a point where progress is slowed or even halted."

The book's author, Bill Brittenden, supplied a quick list: the siting of roads, canals, tunnels, ports, sports facilities, an art gallery, a floral clock, and, of course, a town hall.

Brittenden thought it was amazing that the city could have gone for 122 years without "an adequate and publicly-owned town hall". There were two town halls in the 19th century, but for close to 100 years, various temporary solutions were found, including "inelegant, ill-heated barns".

The years of "making do", whether in the Civic on Manchester St or the King Edward Barracks, can seem like a precursor to our temporary, post- quake city. It is as though the city's natural state is to waver between hoping its structures are permanent and knowing that they are impermanent.

That said, the Warren and Mahoney town hall so impressed Brittenden that a "selfish but entirely understandable" response was to be pleased that a lesser version had not been built 20, 40 or 80 years earlier.

Is there a lesson for us in that, too? Maybe that delays can be a good thing.

Ideas came and went. Brittenden's book records history's what-ifs. Market Place, later known as Victoria Square, was considered as a site as far back as 1879. The city council wanted a town hall done for [PndStlg]20,000.

Architect J C Maddison won that design competition with "a building in the Italian style", budgeted for [PndStlg]30,000, but ratepayers baulked at the cost.

Talk restarted in the 1920s, with the Limes Hospital site on Kilmore St proposed for both a town hall and an art gallery. But the town hall didn't happen that time and the art gallery ended up in the Botanic Gardens.

Real action started in the late 1950s, when a committee was formed and fundraising launched.

A city-wide "operation door- knock" happened on November 1, 1958, and collected $24,418. By 1972, about $500,000 had been donated by the Christchurch public towards a total cost of $4 million, and this direct public ownership is just one reason why town hall supporters are reluctant to let the building go in 2012.

The next step was to find a site. It's remarkable to read that Kilmore St was never a given and that there were other possibilities.

The city council liked a riverfront spot on Cambridge Tce between Hereford and Worcester streets.

The old library building was on the corner, but the Canterbury Club was in the way and it refused to sell. The council was reluctant to take the land under the Public Works Act.

The Manchester-Gloucester- Worcester-Latimer Square block was another alternative, which would have renewed the eastern half of the city.

In the end, the Town Hall Committee flew an expert over from Australia. Town planner Gordon Stephenson considered 13 sites but kept coming back to Victoria Square. The old library site was his second choice.

The Anglican Church had plans for a new Church House on Kilmore St, but Bishop Alwyn Warren chose not to stand in the way of a new civic building. The rest is modern architectural history.

While he was in town, Stephenson had one more suggestion. If the town hall was to go on Kilmore St, Victoria Square should become a civic park by closing Victoria St between Durham and Colombo streets. Wisely, that advice was followed.

- The Press

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