The Michael Fowler Centre looks like a 70’s tap handle from the air. The other knob, not surprisingly designed and built around the same time, is the Beehive – home of the New Zealand Parliament. Both buildings demonstrate classic symptoms of Modernist architecture:
o simple shapes are repeated over and over – boxes, squares, rectangles
o uniformity of design – mostly the same all over
o complete lack of ornamentation – no frills, no humour (architecture is not a laughing matter)
o harsh, industrial looking materials, starring, in particular reinforced concrete
o flat roof and other deliberate flaunting of Wellington’s climatic conditions
o dominance over the surrounding environment – out-of-context architecture
o demolition order imminent – or, at the very least, showing signs of not aging gracefully. Some buildings even manage to do the job themselves – and we politely refer to it as ‘leaky building syndrome’ or ’sick building syndrome’. What we’re really trying
to say is, ‘This building is so depressed it is trying to kill itself and its inhabitants.’
In contrast, the Waterfront and its associated buildings reflect a vibrantly postmodern ethos.
o There’s a rich assortment of architectural styles from past times
o There’s a mixture of styles from different places
o There are numerous ornamental, decorative or pictorial features – reliefs, pediments, columns that don’t hold up anything…
o Lots of play between different surfaces, materials and colours
o A high degree of ‘fake’ – tap a column and it’s likely to be hollow – flagstones are fake etc
o A high degree of referencing – referring to styles of different times and places, buildings reflecting the shapes and materials of the surrounding area.
Modernist architecture is the bastard brat of a sordid affair between European and American architects, way back in the 20th century. People like Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Henri Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright. You can image how beautiful their spawn has been – well – just look at Basil Spencer’s Beehive, and Mile Warren’s Michael Fowler Centre – both buildings have been sufficiently hideous and modernist enough to have garnered each designer a knighthood. To be fair, they did other buildings which helped the knighties along.
I shouldn’t criticise – after all, my architecture has been limited to – well – criticising these buildings and an occasional Lego moment. I’m just the average punter taking a walk at lunch…
So, what’s the framework for my criticism?
First, they’re novel. Novel as in novelty. They’re ‘up to date’. They’re dynamism personified. They use engineers as artists. Ooo yeah, baby, maths, science, functions. Streamlined functional machines like land based aircraft, the Beehive more accurately looks like the nose cone of an ICBM. Tank Girl – or hey – Madonna – could’ve used two beehives as her postmodern bra. The Michael Fowler Center incorporates ‘go-faster’ stripes in the stainless steel, the Beehive uses copper cooling fins…
Second, they’re progressive. They make progress. Thank god we got rid of those nasty grass huts. We’re actually lucky – the old town hall was supposed to get the wrecker’s other ball. It’s a beautiful building, aging gracefully. Interestingly, the Beehive sticks out the end of the more classical styled, yet ironically postmodern Parliament buildings, rather as some of those ghastly photos of unfortunate natives of tropical climes with Elephantiasis of the scrotum. Not for these buildings, of course, they’re all about hygiene, bright new societies. A bit like those medieval cathedrals rising above the sea of poverty surrounding them. Modernity is expressed in avoiding the vernacular like the plague that it is.
Thirdly, they’re heroic, almost to the point of obscenity. These are the buildings of Valhalla – it should come as no surprise that Mayor of Wellington and the Prime Minister of New Zealand share something in common. Yep, they’d both look grand dressed as Rhine Maidens … swinging huge T-square shaped blades … with such privileged access to the keys to the advancement of civilisation, the veritable, but not virtual, blueprint for our future.
Fourth, and finally, they’re pure. No, not Helen and Kerry. Wait, maybe they are. I mean the buildings. They possess an Aryan scale of purity – crisp, Teutonic lines, blazing from foundations to the heavens themselves. The Michael Fowler Centre took over two years to get the reclaimed land under control so the foundations could be completed. At least there’s no frivolous ornamentation, so no-one could accuse them of being wasteful. Both buildings are fully integrated in their function, simplicity, rationality, newness, and unity.
Utopia. This is how it will look.
Me? I can’t wait for the ICBM of the Beehive to be dragged by the scruff of its neck around the corner and for Parliament to be completed as it should have been. And as for the Michael Fowler Center – the ‘Fowl House’ – my last hope is that the gulls will continue to use it for the purpose it appears to have been designed – somewhere to have a bit of a bath, a sip or two, and a nice, satisfying crap.