My favourite modernist building … Wanganui War Memorial Hall

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

DSCN6440_by_Julia_Gatley (3)

It seems very restrictive to be limited to one favourite modernist building, but if forced to choose I nominate the Wanganui War Memorial Hall, designed by Gordon Smith in the firm of Newman, Smith & Greenough, and completed in 1960. This is a sophisticated and polished public building, designed and built at a time when architects in New Zealand did their best work for domestic projects, with an occasional good church. It is a surprise, then, that such an accomplished design emerged full-blown in a context in which few public commissions of this scale fell to the lot of young architects in private practice.

The architecture of the Wanganui War Memorial Hall no doubt reflects the classical turn that modern architecture in the UK took in the 1950s, under the historicising influence of Colin Rowe. Rowe’s work had shown that the compositional rigour of Le Corbusier’s work aligned it with the classical tradition. Not that this was something Corb ever tried to veil, but before Rowe architects noticed the cars and ships in Towards a New Architecture more than they ever noticed the photographs of the Acropolis or the Campidoglio.

The War Memorial Hall’s three main public spaces are disposed on a piano nobile, with an honorific dome over the small auditorium that constitutes one of these spaces. On the main public front of the building, this upper floor is supported on free standing columns.  There are certainly reminiscences here of Le Corbusier’s grand houses of the late 1920s, the Villa Savoye especially, which like Wanganui has a colonnade of five piloti, a departure from classical orthodoxy in which columns always come in even numbers. Wanganui’s dome marks the building as belonging to the public realm, while its asymmetrical form and off-centred position, and the clever screen to the supper room, are all stylishly modern. The building sits confidently on one side of a square just off Whanganui’s main commercial street, with the Wanganui Museum opposite. On the fourth side of this surprisingly unfussy plaza is a broad public stair leading to the Sarjeant Gallery, an older architectural treasure unfortunately shuttered for fear of earthquakes when I was last in the city.

The frontal composition of Gordon Smith’s design is a perfect fit for the setting, and pulls the elements of urban form and landscape together to create a buzz that few other urban groups in New Zealand have, and all the while with none of the ‘activated edges’ or dreary farmers’ markets of current urban orthodoxy. Sigh….

Paul Walker

(photograph courtesy of Julia Gatley)

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


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