Hot Rod Heritage: Are we too precious about architecture?

Such a question will no doubt be met with cries of “What is this woman on about?” And justifiably so. New Zealand’s current stock of architectural heritage is thinly spread, under-researched, under-resourced, largely uncared for and still struggling under the weight of a nineteenth-century bias. It survives, it could be argued, from recession to recession; a tempered, stagnant, or backward economy countering the illogics of progress, where signals of the past are often substituted for fostering an economic culture.

Preciousness, taonga, city council heritage officers, the NZHPT and the MCH are surely the answer to fighting the battle, if not the war, waged constantly on architectural heritage.

Well maybe not, and I’m suggesting such a view after witnessing a celebration of heritage over this last Easter weekend at the Classic Cover 2009 NZHRA National Hot Rod Show no less. Who would have guessed? Not me for sure … but deep within the recesses of one of Wellington’s Worst Buildings (the TSB Arena, Queen’s Wharf – designed by Immediate Past President of the NZIA, Gordon Moller) I found an alternative model to current architectural heritage practice. The Hot Rod phenomenon manages to successfully, and often very elegantly, combine the contradictory ambitions of celebrating heritage vehicles (drooled over by car enthusiasts), promoting automotive high performance, and engaging contemporary aesthetic aspirations. This sub-culture is one to be enjoyed, admired and promoted as a potential model for architecture, and perhaps more tellingly as a sustainable, and relevant one for architectural heritage.

Now, of course, Hot Rods have the huge advantage of mass production. Such a concept, advanced by the best of Modernists in architecture, ameliorates the anxieties that the convention of architecture as custom-made, one-off and unique causes in a heritage context. A narrow application of Hot Rodding architecture then might end up with souped up Keith Hay homes and state houses rather than really engaging with the uncontested classics of architectural heritage. In fact Mitre 10 Dreamhome could be architectural Hot Rodding in action.

But I think there’s potential for more. The possibilities of a channeled, chopped, dropped, sectioned, tubbed, pinched and pancaked architectural icon, perhaps a la Matta-Clarke or even Russell Lowe, garnered with the respect Hot Rodders give to their cars, can only be productive.

Currently the architectural canon prioritises the Trailer Queen approach (e.g. FLW’s Little House’s living room, ensconced in the Metropolitian Museum, New York), and the Sleeper approach (Philip Johnson’s Glass House promising the illusion, rather than the reality of avant garde action) while tolerating the Resto Rod (mundane Ponsonby villas retro-fitted with insulation). But in reality such preciousness only increases the likelihood of more architectural Street Rods (e.g. the street legal but highly modified Toomath Senior House, Lower Hutt).

I don’t know enough about what the rules (formal or informal) are for souping up classic cars, or the nuances of Hot Rod culture. The weekend’s Hot Rod Show demonstrated sophisticated examples engaging with the original design of the cars, embellished lovingly and knowingly. These were cars modified by people knowledgeable and respectful of classic car heritage and technology. Such modification appeared to be a point of awe, joy, and admiration, rather than the hesitancy, tentativeness, and trepidation more usually offered for design engagement with heritage architecture.

My gushing admiration and wonder though does need to acknowledge that things aren’t quite so straightforward in Hot Rod heaven. That internet fountain of knowledge, Wikipedia, records a “growing controversy within the automotive hobby over an increasing trend towards the acquisition and irreversible modification of surviving historic – some even very rare – vehicles.” Let’s hope the conversativism of the architectural heritage lobby doesn’t infect the joy, pleasure, and innovation of our happy rodding friends.


9 responses to “Hot Rod Heritage: Are we too precious about architecture?”

  1. richard Avatar

    As much as a pinched and pancaked Villa Savoye sounds intriguing, I think you might be being a wee bit too silly with this one.

  2. plenty to tease out with this idea.

    another aspect is that you spend far more on hotting up your vehicle that you would ever recover from selling it, something that very, very few are willing to do with their homes unfortunately (or something that few would be allowed to do by their banks).

    apart from the scale of the investment, what else stops people blinging their architecture well beyond the useful, and instead creating what is essentially a hyperreal (or even better than the real thing, perhaps) aesthetic like the hot rodders do?

    i think a lot of it is due to having very few bogan architects. we’ve got a profession whose culture is more inclined to restoration, or wanting to create a ferrari or maserati, rather than hotting up sub-culture classics.

  3. There’s certainly something appealing in the prospect of chopping and lowering the roof on any number of Karori, Khandallah, and Kilbirnie modernist villas, to present an exaggerated ‘modern’ look, in line with your wicked 32 Ford model A Tudor above, to the point that I now far prefer the look of the chopped Model A to the original. Indeed, as nearly all the Model As on the road are now of the chopped variety, they now outnumber the original versions – which by consequence look very tired and dated.
    But how would you feel about this with the architecture? Would a Toomath house be better if it was a little more enhanced in certain directions? Or would the Arch Centre be leaping up and down in protest at vandals attempting to ruin the vision? Didn’t someone drop an extra floor onto the Toomath Senior house, thereby ruining its look? Or does it instead add to its appeal?

  4. I like your point t about architectural culture. A few bogan architects maybe exactly what is needed. It seems a shame that old-school (and perhaps out-of-date) professionalism is preventing innovation in architecture.

  5. Seems to me that the hot-rodders are akin to the facade-retention type of heritage resoration – change all the working components on the inside, while maintaining a veneer of the old architectural/automobile form…

    The kircaldie & stains building on Lambton Quay is the perfect example of this…

    Not to mention the completely excessive nature of hod-rodding – taking a vehicle that is no longer appropriate for modern needs, and turning it into a vehicle which is also not appropriate for modern needs. Hardly a model to emulate is it?

  6. “no longer appropriate for modern needs … into a vehicle which is also not appropriate for modern needs. Hardly a model to emulate is it?”

    Perhaps the transition is more accurately about transforming a once everyday vehicle into a leisure craft? Certain aspects of excess and high $ expenditure seem critical – but isn’t that the same with conventional architectural heritage – just really something the rich can afford to have as a hobby?

  7. Maybe, but that is the prerogative and the inflicted aims of the NZHPT, whose restorations aim at the more pure end – unlike the hotrodders.

    Thus, it seems that what you might be arguing for is this:
    An example of mash-up of a historical building, giving it the souped-up type of functional ‘performance’ that was not even contemplated in its own era… not to mention the visual razzmatazz that is appropriate for contemporary levels of fetishization of the superficial…

  8. And what’s with all the posts about cars? I seem to recall one about minis, and another about BMWs a while back…

  9. That’ll be a tradition in the Arch Centre to think about design broadly – I think Design Review ( has set a precedent re: that.

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