My favourite modernist building … Computer Centre (Stage One), University of Canterbury

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

Completed Computer Centre view from University Drive - 1968

Stage One of the University’s Computer Centre (now known as Angus Tait, Hall & McKenzie, 1965-66) is a building that I have long enjoyed for its subtlety, particularly against the backdrop of its more preeminent mid-century campus counterparts. Anyone who has visited or studied at the University in the last 50 years will have seen this architectural enigma just a stone’s throw away from the Avon River and admired the way that its upper floor appears to float above the contours of the landscaping, looking splendid in every kind of weather.

Aerial view - March 1975

As the first administration building to be completed on the new Ilam campus in 1966, the Centre represents the University’s embrace of contemporary architectural forms during its relocation from the Gothic Revival complex in central Christchurch. On the ground floor it housed a PABX telephone exchange (providing 1300 extensions) and upstairs were the computer centre (for just the one computer) and telephone operators; the latter also responded to visitors asking for directions via microphones placed at the campus’ main entrances.

Computer Centre - 1966

The butterfly-roof, overhanging upper level and exposed concrete surfaces give the building a distinctive edginess, yet there is also a sense of restraint in its Brutalism, thanks to a deceptively modest scale and careful balance of geometric elements. For me, the gentle rhythm of concrete T-shaped columns and sun-breakers are a highlight, as is the satisfying mixture of different textures – rubble-stone facings, pebble panels and a white-painted roughcast panel with slits of coloured glass, which allows light into the stairwell (à la Notre Dame du Haut).

Completed Computer Centre view towards Port Hills - 1967

The Centre is one of several gems at Ilam designed by Hall and Mackenzie that have aged beautifully and continue to suit their current functions, despite alterations and refurbishments (some, of late, are quite unsympathetic). It is a building that invites you to really look and remember that its purpose as much as its aesthetic speaks of a confident step towards cutting-edge modernity in the university architecture of New Zealand.

Laura Dunham

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


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