'What do Chch people know about architecture?'
We are in the offices of Funk, Shunnul and Skwayer, architects. On the fifth floor Duncan Funk, senior partner, has unrolled a large sheet of paper and is poring over it with blistered fingers. He is smiling.
A knock at the door and Tiltslab, a junior partner, enters with Diffidence, another junior partner.
"Mr Funk," says Tiltslab, "why are you poring over a blank sheet of paper?"
"Ha," says Funk, looking up at Tiltslab and rubbing his hands together. "This sheet of paper is our passport to wealth, fame and recognition by architectural magazines as thick as paving slabs."
"Gosh," says Tiltslab, "how exciting, but would you mind not rubbing my hands together."
"Sorry," says Funk, "but I've been rubbing my own so hard they've got blisters. Because this sheet of paper, young men, is a map of Christchurch city centre as it stands right now."
"But there's nothing there."
"Exactly, my dear Tiltslab. Christchurch is a blank slate, a tabula rasa on which we can write the names of Funk, Shunnul and Skwayer in letters 10 storeys high."
At the thought of the architectural possibilities, Funk beams and his blistered hands shoot from the sleeves of his jacket and dance in front of him as if conducting the Hallelujah Chorus.
"Hallelujah, hallelujah," sings Tiltslab, who hopes to get on in the profession.
"Look," says Funk, "I've already done some preliminary designs."
He extracts a handful of architectural models and arranges them on the paper.
"I thought we might put the conference centre here and the covered stadium here alongside the . . . "
"Aren't those designs all a bit, well, you know?" says Diffident, peeping out from behind a trophy that the practice won last year for Mirror Glass Acreage.
"A bit what?" asks Funk.
"Well, you know, similar. All concrete and flat roofs and masses of glass."
"And your point?" Funk picks smugly at a blister.
"They're all just sort of boxes."
"Of course they're boxes. That's what buildings are, boxes. Boxes to keep the weather out. Boxes for people to do things in. A medieval feasting hall? A box. Buckingham Palace? A box. Sydney Opera House? A box with a silly roof."
"But the people of Christchurch have said they don't want boxes," says Tiltslab.
"The people of Christchurch!" exclaims Funk, "What do the people know about architecture? God, if the people had been allowed to dictate the architectural code, we'd never have got out of the 10th century. No, the people will get what they're given and like it."
"What if they don't like it?"
"They will," says Funk. "I mean look at the Christchurch Town Hall."
"If it's all the same with you, sir," whispers Diffidence, "I'd rather not."
"Of course you'd rather not. It's plug ugly. It was plug ugly the day it was put up and it's still plug ugly. It offends every aesthetic canon. No symmetry, no elegance, no coherence. It's just a bunch of boxes that don't fit together. Yet the people have got up a petition to save it. Why? Because they've lived with it for 40 years and got used to it. It's become part of their lives and they've forgotten that it's plug ugly.
"Contrary to popular opinion, familiarity doesn't breed contempt. It breeds affection."
"But with all due respect, Mr Funk," says Diffidence, "you can't grow fond of a tall, rectilinear box covered in glass."
"I see," said Funk, "so everyone hates Manhattan, do they? And have you ever seen the Uffizi in Florence, young man? Perhaps the most famous museum in the world attracting camera-toting lardy-bum tourists by the hundreds of thousands and yet it's the apotheosis of box. It's square and uniform and repetitive. I've seen more architecturally interesting prisons. And have you any idea why that is? Do you know what the word Uffizi actually means?"
Tiltslab and Diffidence shrug.
"Uffizi means offices. The thing's a 16th-century office block. Oh sure, it's built out of nicely dressed stone, but that's only because they didn't have concrete back then. And the only reason it's festooned with opulent internal decorations is that the Medicis were a bunch of dictatorial show-offs with more money than they knew what to do with. And that sort of money just ain't around any more. Time for the company song, I think."
And waving his blistered hands, Duncan Funk led his underlings in a rousing chorus of:
Funk, Shunnul and Skwayer
We're building the same everywhere
We'll put up a city
We don't aim for pretty
We're Funk, Shunnul and Skwayer.