I was listening the other day to a podcast of architect Guy Marriage in conversation with Lucy Orbell on Radio New Zealand's 'Arts on Sunday' programme. (Available here for a short time.) They were speaking about the architecture of the Adam Gallery, an institution which last year celebrated its tenth birthday. As they walked through the gallery, Marriage spoke about why he thinks the Adam -- designed eleven years ago by Athfield Architects -- is such a successful building.
It was an extraordinarily challenging site; a thin wedge of space between existing buildings, which incorporated an existing three storey staircase. The architects covered the staircase with black rubber, giving the Adam that tyre-shop smell I always love, and created a building with a variety of flexible gallery spaces. Very little of the building is seen from the outside, apart from the monumental blank north wall, pictured above, covered in zinc. When you enter the building, you have no idea what to expect. As Marriage walked through the gallery, describing what he saw, I recalled that sense of jaw-dropping surprise I had the first time I visited the building, at its opening party, coming through the squeeze of the front foyer gallery and turning the corner to peer over a three storey void. The grandeur of that enormous wall dropping away below the visitor is one of the great architectural experiences of New Zealand.
Here's how Guy Marriage concluded his walk-through:
"I guess people think that architects just design buildings. But my philosophy is that architects design spaces. And once we've designed the spaces then we figure out how to build the buildings that enclose the spaces. So it's very important to think about the space first. It's something as New Zealanders that we often forget. We don't have many grand spaces in New Zealand: we tend to have lots of little slices. So I really love it when we have a grand space like this that someone's taken the trouble to think about."
Julia Morison, wall drawing for 'Wall Works', Adam Art Gallery (showing lower level), 2009.
While I don't think I've ever seen an Athfield building that I didn't warm to from the outside, it seems to me that it's Athfield's use of internal space which is one of his great skills. There's a humanness to his designs, as well as frequently a sense of daring and functional grandeur. He creates spaces that people are comfortable to be in, to congregate with others and move through. I always think of the Wellington Public Library, as well as the City to Sea bridge, as a couple of his most successful spatial designs. Not only do they look beautiful, and reference the history of the place in which they stand, but they're used, happily and creatively, by many hundreds of people every day. The scale and grandeur of their designs are balanced with a concern for the way people use them and exist within them.
Guy Marriage's remarks on the paucity of grand internal spaces in New Zealand architecture got me thinking. He's absolutely right, I suspect, but there are a few. In addition to the Adam Art Gallery and Wellington Public Library, I thought the following might constitute the beginning of a list of great New Zealand architectural spaces, albeit a list rather biased towards art-related buildings and Christchurch. Each of the spaces below reveals that sense of functional grandeur which the Adam so epitomises; astounding on first encounter, yet ultimately accommodating of the human presence. I'd be interested in further suggestions.
1. The central dome gallery of the Sarjeant Art Gallery, Wanganui. 1932. Architect Donald Hosie of Edmund Anscombe and Associates.
2. The A1 Arts Lecture Theatre building at the University of Canterbury. (I don't know who the architect was.)
3. The Great Hall at Christchurch Arts Centre, 1882, architect Benjamin Mountfort.
4. Level 5 at Waikato Museum in Hamilton, 1987, architect Ivan Mercep.
5. The Britomart Project, 2008, architect Mario Madayag with Jasmax.
6. The Christchurch Town Hall auditorium, 1972, architects Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney.