Earthquake destroys architects' legacy

21:36, Apr 08 2012
Warren and Mahoney architecture
The Harewood Memorial Gardens and Crematorium.
Warren and Mahoney architecture
The Forsyth Barr building.
Warren and Mahoney architecture
The Dorset St flats.
Warren and Mahoney architecture
The Crowne Plaza.
Warren and Mahoney architecture
The Christchurch Town Hall

Warren and Mahoney brought a brave new look to Christchurch, writes Kim Triegaardt.

The February earthquake cut a swath of destruction across Christchurch, its deadly scythe destroying a lifetime's work by a duo regarded as among New Zealand's greatest architects, Sir Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney.

In post-World War II Christchurch, if Warren and Mahoney weren't building up a storm, they were influencing other architects until it became widely accepted that - after the 19th-century Gothic revival and William Morris's romantic Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900s - Warren and Mahoney's form of brutalism was the third architectural movement to sweep the city.

They were the vortex around which the modernist movement in the 50s, 60s and 70s - known as the Christchurch Style - swirled, drawing attention from all quarters.

"Chimneys were tall and assertive. Windows and doors seemed to have been punched through solid masses. The result looked sculptural, abstract and emphatically anchored in the landscape," says Matt Arnold, of online architecture journal Christchurch Modern, quoting design writer Douglas Lloyd Jenkins.

So what does it mean that most of those iconic representations of that period - such as the Convention Centre, the Crowne Plaza, and Dorset Towers are gone, or going?

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Sir Miles Warren doesn't want to answer questions like that.

The normally affable octogenarian is a little jaded after a year of journalists demanding the same answers to the same questions.

How does he feel watching the demolition ball swing through buildings that defined Christchurch?

"It's a bit like bleating over the dead," he says coldly on the phone. "I don't want to talk about it any more."

While many of his buildings were admired in architectural circles, the Brutalism aesthetic he brought back from London - that a building should demonstrate how it was made - raised more than a few eyebrows. There were murmurings that his first project, the Dorset St flats, built in 1955, were the ugliest buildings in the city. "There was an initial shock to the amount of exposed concrete," he says of the style of buildings that soon followed.

Warren once described the Dorset St flats as "the building that launched the ship".

He had recently returned from Britain where he had worked as an architect for the the London County Council, immersed in a group of architects relishing post-war Britain. It was an exciting time and they embraced a new architectural ethos they called Brutalism. Back home in New Zealand, Warren continued the modern movement but used concrete blocks instead of bricks and allowed the form of the building to emerge from an analysis of what was in it and how the units were arranged. Warren wanted buildings that had a sense of substance and got rid of "ticky-tacky" walls as he described them, replacing them with solid walls.

He teamed up with fellow architect Maurice Mahoney three years later to work on the Dental Training School and the partnership continued over decades. Among the host of buildings that bore the Warren and Mahoney stamp from the that period were the Christchurch Town Hall, the Crowne Plaza, the Central Library, the AMI building on Latimer Square, Dorset Towers, the Transport Ministry building on Montreal St, the Harewood Memorial Gardens and Crematorium and numerous residential buildings.

Mahoney was celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary in the Crowne Plaza the night of the September 4 earthquake. "It behaved like a dream - exactly as it should have," he told reporters. The hotel was designed as two buildings on separate piles linked with seismic plates that allowed the structure to move. The plates "popped" as they were meant to. It was the piles that failed in February, resulting in the hotel being condemned.

The soggy soil that lies under the banks of the Avon River has also put at risk the town hall, a building often claimed among architects to be among New Zealand's finest.

"What makes this building so special," says architectural historian Dr Jessica Halliday, "is there is such a sense of occasion in the town hall. There are so few architectural experiences as magnificent as it. You walk through a low, unassuming entrance and into the foyer, where there is a sense of space spiralling up above you. It's important socially, too, because the people of Christchurch fought really hard to get a town hall and the whole city got in behind it. It's an inheritance for the city."

An inheritance that Warren seems determined to keep fighting for. In a recent publication, Ten Thoughts x Ten Leaders, he hints indignantly that no-one has invited him to be part of the discussion around the town hall.

"The issues of the moment may be structural, but the architectural mind is invaluable in directing the structural solution," he writes.

There is, after all, a lot of nostalgia tied up in the town hall for him. Warren and Mahoney won the right to design the building in a competition. Their design met the complex brief and the building went on to be completed on time and within budget.

No-one in Christchurch appears to be putting up the same fight to save the town hall as they have the Christ Church Cathedral. Could it be that Brutalism carried with it echoes of socialism that people don't warm to today?

Warren himself described in his essay Style in New Zealand Architecture, that "we believed in architecture for the masses, architecture solving all the problems of society".

It was a brave world, but it wasn't a pretty one.

Halliday says that's a matter of opinion, and the fashion of the period is coming back.

"It's desired again, people have a taste for it. The fashion of the period has come back in, as younger generations love what their grandparents have produced."

Warren and Mahoney's reputation earned them commissions around New Zealand and internationally for big civic projects and several commercial developments. While the firm's founders retired in the 90s, the new generations of architects in the company have brought with them strands of modernism that run through their projects.

Through his buildings, Warren once formed a generation of opinion and ideas - and he seems determined to do it again.

He says, "There will be something later" but is not ready to talk about it.

"It's dragging on longer than I had hoped," he growls.

The Press