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The Civic Building: Modernist Folly, Architectural Treasure

Jun 10, 2014 Urban design

Why we should all be up in arms at the threatened demolition of the Auckland Council Civic Building.

Photos by Patrick Reynolds. Click on slideshow for image captions.

There’s a surprise at the top of the hated Civic Building. From afar, you could guess there was some sort of observation deck, but the central roof-top courtyard open to the sky and to terrific east and west viewing across the cityscape to the harbour is a delight. Shut to the public since the 70s, the restricted area is looking a little shabby, but one can easily imagine how the space could be brought back to life and, combined with a makeover of the staff cafeteria a level below, could be the tearoom talk of the town. Here might be a rare commodity in Auckland — public space on high — given that most other high places are either off limits, commercialised or privatised.

No 1 Greys Ave, formerly known as the Auckland City Council Administration Building, has plenty of other unique features: the rolled Corbusian corners of the metal-clad plant room, the curvy Le Corbusier-inspired entrance canopy, the mezzanine lobby and the precast terrazzo treads and iron balustrades of the open staircase. But I’m here to find the whisky bottles. And there they are — flecks of crushed green glass glinting among the grey aggregate of the roof deck. The council architect, Austro-Hungarian Tibor Donner, was so committed to his craft, he instructed staff to collect green whisky bottles, which he then ground manually at home in a corn grinder to set as a decorative element in the precast concrete floor panels.

Not that many give a damn. This is one of the most disliked buildings in Auckland and news that its refurbishment is likely to cost $70 million has been greeted with calls to bowl the eyesore and be rid of it.

Architects, on the other hand, generally love it. “I can’t comprehend why people find the building ugly because I look at it and I really admire it,” Julia Gatley, an Auckland School of Architecture associate dean, told me in 2008, when the building had been voted one of the worst in Auckland.

“I admire its proportions, the height, how slender it is, the modulation of the surfaces through the glazing bars, the expression of the stairwell at the northern end of the building…” protested Gatley, who had just written Long Live the Modern: New Zealand’s New Architecture, 1904-1984.

Is this because architects can read architecture? Or is it that architects, lost in their weird aesthetic reveries, have their heads up their arses?

To examine why so many find it so hateful is to confront the spectre of the modern movement that the Civic Building represents. When it was designed in the mid-1950s, it was unlike anything seen here before. At 19 storeys, it was the tallest building in the country and it employed a totally alien steel frame — building technology so new that Donner and structural engineer Vern Coleman went on a research tour of North America and Europe in 1956.

Donner was clued up, via various overseas architectural journals, with the latest developments in modernism worldwide and had kept extensive scrapbooks of modernist designs he liked. Victoria University architecture faculty dean Robin Skinner — noting similarities to various modernist buildings in Detroit, Louisiana and London — says it’s easy to get the impression “that the external treatment of the building is a pastiche of the features that had caught the architect’s eye”. This is how the modern movement spread, literally as a media construct — published and promoted in architecture journals pored over by architects worldwide, and appropriated.

While the rest of the world was by now well versed in the new technologies, New Zealand in the early 60s had to reinvent the wheel. Steel had to be imported, migrant Pacific Islanders were trained as welders, and decorative glass aggregate was produced in the architect’s own shed.

“The desire for modernism did not spring from a desire for a better world; rather, it represents a desire to belong to a better world,” says Skinner. A better world. This continues to be architecture’s political catchcry, a promise that it inevitably often fails to deliver on.

Why, for example, does this building evoke such distaste when other buildings by Donner, such as the Parnell Baths, resplendent on modernist pilotis, do not? Its position — isolated and glowering in the far corner of Aotea Square — does make it hard to miss. It’s possible, too, that the subject of dislike is what the building represents — the council — rather than the building itself. I suspect it also has something to do with the east and west façades — the repeating pattern of five bays each with five curtain wall window units. It’s a pattern that’s disrupted on the east by projecting balconies disguising the toilet windows and on the west by turquoise panels either side of the lift lobby windows.

Some will appreciate this composition. The eye that doesn’t have much time for architecture but knows what it likes probably sees a repeating, regimented grid. One person’s rhythmic, even classic beauty is another’s totalitarian order. This has always been modernism’s Achilles heel — its celebration of new technologies, rejection of the historical and its rational, structural and functional design for a better world can also be perceived as a jackbooted, perhaps Stalinist, march.

Should the Civic Building be saved? Undoubtedly yes. On its history alone — 50 years as the austere, monumental administrative centrepiece amidst Auckland’s chaotic sprawl — there’s a case for conservation. It’s clear, too, the building captures a significant moment in New Zealand’s modernist period. Two independent assessments (see links below) both conclude the building has exceptional cultural heritage significance for historical, technological, physical, aesthetic and contextual values that warrant a Category A heritage classification.

But there is a significant problem —asbestos sprayed everywhere as fireproofing. Although 350 tonnes were removed in 1989, there is quite a lot more that has to come out for health reasons. It also requires earthquake strengthening, and the curtain wall is in serious disrepair. Can it be fixed, while still retaining heritage features? Yes, but at considerable cost.

If the Auckland Council believes its heritage rhetoric, now — as stated in one of its consultants’ reports — is the time for it “to act, as a responsible owner of historic heritage assets and lead by example” and show “the adaptive reuse of these assets as a model to others”.

It’s also a chance to show imagination — as seen in the restoration of Shed 10 on Queens Wharf. This is a building with good bones offering many possibilities — chic apartments; a retro hotel?

It’s easy to imagine a graceful ground-floor cafe open to the park surrounds, an über-cool restaurant at the top and a public viewing deck where Aucklanders can enjoy the story of a dedicated architect and his beautiful, modernist folly.

Civic building reports commissioned by Auckland Council

In this report GHD suggest that the constraints identified imply that no amount of refurbishment work is going to make the Civic Administration Building a premier quality office building; we do not agree and believe the particular and distinctive values (including, but not limited to heritage values) recognised in this building, its design and heritage lend it unique qualities which would draw interest from the commercial market and which should be tested.

While we concede that much of the original interior and some important exterior elements have been removed or altered, we believe that significant parts of the overall building and its structural and design intent remain and with these the integrity and authenticity of its heritage values remain. We believe the overarching aim should be to secure the long-term future of this heritage asset, if not for its designed purpose, then through an alternative, but sensitive adaptive reuse. We believe essential values of the original design concept can be demonstrated in those original qualities of design, system, and fabric that lend weight to its adaptability.

It also argues:

We believe the project provides the Auckland Council with an important opportunity to act, and to be seen to act, as a responsible owner of historic heritage assets and lead by example to the general public on how to responsibly act of matters of heritage, seismicity, and the adaptive reuse of these assets as a model to others.

We agree with the overall findings of the SRA heritage assessment of the Civic Administration Building. We agree with the recognition of its heritage values warranting the Category A classification for this building. We believe the extent of place of scheduling is in the main appropriate, but we believe there may be more appropriate mechanisms to place the Civic Administration Building and its values in its broader relevant context which should be considered.


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