We tend, in New Zealand, to imagine that architecture happens elsewhere. And with our rather smug anti-elitism we congratulate ourselves for this. For it is a sign of our sensibleness, our moderation, our lack of pretension. A shadow cast, perhaps, by the belief that ours is an egalitarian society.
And as a new world nation with lingering ideals of pioneering self-reliance we fancy the idea of building qua building. That is to say building as built, not thought. Built by proper men, the mythical ‘good bloke’, a type who now really only exists in beer advertisements, who can do anything, but of course would do nothing smartarse, which is to say: nothing smart.
Every year a national builders’ association run a competition called ‘House of the Year’ which claims to identify such an achievement. In the resultant magazine and TV shows the winning buildings are presented to us as having owners and builders, but no designers. This leads to a rather confused outcome: can any old thing if exquisitely crafted qualify as the best new building of the land? Is design really irrelevant or even neutral? Everything the Nazis built was finely made- well you can do that with slave labour- but all of it was heavily freighted with that repellent, delusional, and murdering ideology, and therefore truly ghastly.
Every culture betrays itself by what it builds. And yes the degree of care or craftsmanship in construction is one of the telling signs of what is being said, but not the dominant one. By shunning the idea of design, by imagining it away as a flashy unaffordable luxury, a thing for other less practical and more wasteful places, what we get is a sort of design of default.
The spectacular banality of Auckland’s new apartments and commercial buildings and limitless deracinated outer suburbs are formed thus. For the default organising principles are opportunism and bare-minimalism. These are places shaped by those whose only responsibility or ambition is to think in math. This is a world made by tax accountants and quantity surveyors; by crappy regulation and shonky developers; and perhaps most miserably of all by traffic engineers, those happy car counters and place flatteners, whose heyday, even in the kingdom of the car, the United States, has passed, but who still hold sway in this last outpost of twentieth century thinking.
In a neat and neurotic corollary to our self-avowed anti-sophistication, we nonetheless keenly feel the lack of an ‘iconic’ structure to call our own. A term so meaningless and misused that as it trips off the tongues of politicians and hucksters it guarantees all real issues are hopelessly lost to debate. This is the desire for a touristic architecture: The Bilbao Guggenheim, The Eiffel Tower. This perceived lack doesn’t sit well with the idea of the little country punching above its weight, and shows that we really do want to be noticed.
A leading candidate for the new position of ‘super mayor’ for Auckland, and one who has no track record of promoting design excellence, advertises his campaign with images of the Sydney Opera House. Really? What is he promising? Well he is making one thing clear: that he has no idea whatsoever how rare achievements such as this come about. Is this populist really proposing to preside over a project that ran seven times over budget, took sixteen years to build, under constant attack from the miserablists who can always be found to oppose any such idea? Let alone that the extraordinary design was famously plucked from the already rejected entries by the even more extraordinary, foreign, design professional competition judge.
This is the same mayor who allowed himself to be one of three politician judges of a design competition for a much more modest [but nonetheless to be ‘iconic’] project to rehabilitate a wharf. This jury of self appointed experts, having set a confused brief, tiny budget, and unrealistic programme, then wisely announced all the entries too unspectacular and chose to do nothing. Whether or not this is the right call in the long run it is clear that there is no way that this process by these people could lead to the discovery, let alone the construction, of this century’s Sydney Opera House.
PATRICK REYNOLDS, 2010