My favourite modernist building … Freyberg Pool

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

My love affair with modern architecture began when I was still quite young, when I was five I went with my father to visit the hospital in which he worked at. The new building looked so bright, fresh with wide open spaces and beautiful ramps. I felt it was a great place not only to work in but indeed to just be there was fantastic, even though it was actually a psychiatric hospital. My father explained that the building, though not necessarily new, it was ‘Modern’ just like Brasilia, the capital of our country.

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Since then, ‘modern’ for me became synonymous to something that was particularly good and years later when I made my mind up to became an architect, I was convinced that modern was the way towards which I would design and direct my studies.

So, when inquired about my favorite building I was left bewildered with a wide range of possible choices, most of which were built following the ideals of the Modern Architecture Movement. But I finally came to a conclusion that as I have chosen New Zealand as my new home I had to pick a Kiwi example. With that decision in mind I must say that my favorite building would have to be the Freyberg Pool at the Oriental Parade which stands in the Wellington waterfront.

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Indeed, I believe the Freyberg Pool to be one of the best examples of Modern Architecture not only in New Zealand but really worldwide. The building is, in itself, almost an object of art, with its delicate and free use of concrete creating a sculptural form made by its daring structures with long spans. It was a great achievement for New Zealand architecture in the early 1960s when it was built.

The concrete fashions the volume and allows for the incredibly beautiful stretch of the roof which in the interior follows the whole length of the pool, this feature can be appreciated by a half wrap around mezzanine where the gym is located now. The volume acts as a frame for the two lateral openings; the fantastic windows with stained glass allows for an immediate visual connection between interior and exterior apart from giving the pool and the gym an uplifting and striking atmosphere.

The architect, Jason Smith, a South African émigré, was said to be inspired by the architectonic gestures of my fellow country man; Oscar Niemeyer, and just after its conclusion the building received a Merit Award from the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. When I first saw the building sitting as it is on the water front this connection immediately came to me. For a second I wondered if Niemeyer himself might have made a little unknown visit to New Zealand and designed it and for some absurd gap in my education I was unaware of such a piece of Modern Architecture delicacy.

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What most do not realize is that the work of the South African architect brought not only the influence of Brazilian modernism, but also a lot of the modern teachings of the great master; Le Corbusier. As in the case of Brazil, South Africa was one of the countries that was blessed with receiving the old master numerous times. The country also embraced modernism so tightly that it ended up mixing it with particular characteristics related to the culture of the country itself.

It may be said that Freyberg Pool has the best of what Modern Architecture has to offer; the free wide ample spaces, the precise and brilliant functionality, the advanced and efficient use of structures mixed in with the poetic gesture of a talented architect that was well aware of how to incorporate a universal ideal with the beauty of the local culture and context.

One of the great pleasures of being a Wellingtonian is to leave work after a long day, head to Oriental Parade, change into my swimming suit and jump into the pool. Just take in the best of what that space has to offer.

Daniele Abreu e Lima

The “My favourite modernist building …” series is in support of Gordon Wilson Flats which is facing threat of demolition.


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