Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Great spaces

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.


Tom said...

I'd add the Booking Hall at Wellington Railway Station and the atrium in the Majestic Centre (though look out for falling Dawsons in the latter).

Artandmylife said...

I am rather fond of the Sarjeant Gallery dome

Robyn said...

I was going to say the Waikato Museum, then I scrolled down and happily saw that you'd added it.

I really like how the Waikato Museum feels like it's been built in sections, perhaps over many decades, yet it was (mostly) built all in one go.

There's a bit of awkwardness that I think is due to the last-minute realignment of the waka, but that has added some curious spaces that make the lower areas interesting to explore.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Parnell is one that should definitely be on the list. Sublime soaring height and those Shane Cotton windows.

mobsta said...

I'm almost ashamed to say it, because I'm not that fond (understatement) of the building, but the entry void within Te Papa always impresses me.

I went through this space when it was under construction and it was dark and filleed with scaffolding and dripping and dirty and I had visions of a Piranesi prison. It was profoundly affecting.

I cannot go into this space now without seeing those visions.

I feel that it is still a great space thanks to my initial feelings about it.

rob said...

The booking hall at the Chch railway station was once (alas no more) amazing- the tiles, which echoed with tapping feet; the map of NZ on the tiles (I think) and the sheer height, vastness, and a strange sort of formality- that ushered one out onto the bustling, work-a-day platform.
I guess this is a child's memory (even the Lyttelton Railway Station seemed big to me once) because it is long-ago and memory and the real sizes don't match...
The to-be "southern command bunker" up behind Princess Margaret hospital is quite remarkable, in its own way. Not exactly a public space, though.

Paul said...

Hi there. Relevant to this thread is 'The Extroverts' episode of 80s architecture series The Elegant Shed -- just posted on NZ On Screen.

Here's the ep synopsis:
"With dapper architect David Mitchell as tour guide, The Elegant Shed was an influential six-part series looking for the local in NZ architecture. Here Mitchell looks at ‘The Extroverts’: a group of architects who transformed Wellington in the 70s and 80s. Ian Athfield and Roger Walker are interviewed about their projects (Ath’s sprawling hillside house, Walker’s Park Mews flats). He also examines the influence of Austrian emigre Ernst Plischke (Massey House), glass verandas (Oaks Arcade), and exalts in John Scott’s iconic bi-cultural building, Futuna Chapel."