What's the ugliest building in Chch?

DAVID KILLICK
Last updated 09:02 06/02/2013
govt life
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/FAIRFAX NZ
THE END: The former Government Life building won plaudits when it was built for its modern design, yet as time passed, people hated it.

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OPINION: What is your vote for the most beautiful building in Christchurch, pre or post-quake, actual or proposed? How about the ugliest?

The stone buildings of the Arts Centre and the stone and timber Provincial Council Buildings possess undeniable romantic splendour. Both the neo-Gothic Anglican Christ Church Cathedral and the arguably finer Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament would probably feature on most people's lists.

The Town Hall would be one of my favourites - perhaps not exactly beautiful but remarkable for its ingenious use of space, fine detailing and superb acoustics. The Art Gallery may have been criticised by the late Peter Beaven as "a great alien", but its glass facade certainly looks striking.

Ugly buildings? The tower blocks of the 1960s and 70s that encroached on Cathedral Square always looked pretty grim. The former Government Life building won plaudits when it was built for its modern design, yet as time passed, people hated it.

Other more recent buildings look just as grim and ghastly - the Rebel Sports concrete box topped with what looks like razor wire, and scores of giant concrete shoebox retail barns, all depressingly utilitarian and utterly devoid of personality.

Old warehouses and inner-city shops presented in many instances a picture not so much of charm and character but of neglect and sheer unmitigated grot. Old facades may have looked attractive once, but their owners failed to look after them, the council did nothing, and so the buildings languished and decayed.

Alas, newer buildings can be worse. It has always amazed me that New Zealand should be blessed with magnificent scenery, yet we somehow allow ugly buildings to monster the landscape.

Ferrymead is a case in point. Here is an ecologically significant estuary with views of the Southern Alps, fringed by the rugged volcanic Port Hills.

So what do we get? Concrete warehouses, a petrol station on the waterfront, an orange concrete box superstore and an out-of-scale high-rise (now, to the relief of many, demolished).

How such monstrosities can be permitted calls into question the effectiveness of city planning rules.

Now, as plans emerge for hundreds of new buildings, what can we expect? Some designs have been lambasted as bland and boring, such as proposals for the Cashel St City Mall.

Unbroken walls shield the buildings' occupants from the street. There is no relief in the form of stepped-back balconies, courtyards or areas to interact. There is no ornamentation. Glass and concrete dominate.

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The proposed BNZ building looks just like the old one - another high-rise tower block in Cathedral Square.

"I wish for more square buildings, cheaply built, that are human filing cabinets," wrote a correspondent sardonically. "Wow! My wish is coming true!"

(Opinions, of course, vary. Christchurch people have always been passionate about architecture.)

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, who decides? And why does it matter?

Harmony and proportion were important to the ancient Greeks. Aesthetics meant buildings had to be pleasing to the eye. Designs were based on mathematical purity and the "golden mean" - a ratio that is also found in the natural world.

Renaissance architects such as Brunelleschi, who designed the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, were inspired by the same pursuit of perfection.

Christchurch architect Don Donnithorne, now 85, studied Greek architecture. He says it stood him in good stead.

It remains both humbling and inspiring to realise that so many of the world's most beautiful buildings were conceived and completed in a pre-computer era. Can we do as well today?

Looking at pictures of Christchurch in the 1930s and earlier, the city looks far more harmonious, with buildings a similar height. There is a unified streetscape with pleasing vistas.

Buildings can also be exciting and dramatic. Anything but boring. If you want to see dynamic modern architecture, visit Berlin. Or see what is taking shape this week in Singapore or Shanghai.

Imagine a building by Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid in Christchurch.

Architectural competitions would be a good idea. Even more radical would be letting the public have a say. We need fewer box-tickers and more artists.

Attractive buildings offer many benefits - joy and pleasure by delighting the eye and raising your spirits. Well- designed neighbourhoods have been proved to cut crime rates. People simply like being there.

It is no more costly to design and build beautiful buildings than ugly buildings.

The challenge to designers, their clients and those in authority is to think: Does this building enhance the built environment? How can the design be improved?

Buildings must also be well engineered and should be energy-efficient. I shall explore those issues later on.

What are your views on architecture? Email letters@press.co.nz, or visit this article in the opinion section of press.co.nz and have your say.

- The Press

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