Is architecture at odds with politics?

In a rare moment in April, I bought a copy of The Economist, but it was not the obvious architecturally related homeownership article which caught my eye – but rather it was pages 63 and 64, and an article titled: “There was a lawyer, an engineer and a politician …”Well spotted – no architect in sight.The article’s sub-title was a little more revealing: “Selection bias in politics.”

In its analysis of which occupational groups provide our politicians it was noted that: “Over half of America’s senators practised law.” In contrast, in the nine senior ranks of China’s Communist Party, are “eight engineers, and one lawyer.” The article noted that “Different countries – because of their history, or cultural preferences, or stage of development – seem to like particular qualities, and these qualities are provided disproportionately by only a few professions.” Lawyers, business people, diplomats, the military, journalists, economists, doctors, academics, and engineers were the cited professions which dominated politics. Where, one might ask, are the architects? or more tellingly why are architects so under-represented in political engagement?

Of course it’s not a simple black and white story. William Mason (1810-1897), Sir George Alexander Troup (1863-1941), Sir Edward Michael Coulson Fowler (1929-), and David George Porter (1921-1998) are some of the few architects in New Zealand to grace the halls of government – and interestingly it’s been mostly local government and mostly Wellington City Council which has been home to architectural political ambitions.

Mason arrived from England to Auckland in 1840. The following year he formed a partnership in land selling and building design with Thomas Paton. He designed St Paul’s, Emily Pl. (1841-1885), and Government House (Auckland, 1856). Before moving to Dunedin in 1862 he was elected to Parliament (as Member of the House of Representative for the Pensioner Settlements). In Dunedin he had partnerships with David Ross, and then William Clayton, and was elected the first mayor of Dunedin in 1865, serving until 1868. In 1871 he founded Mason and Wales with N.Y.A. Wales, the oldest running architectural practice in NZ.

Troup headed the Railways Architectural Branch, and was responsible for much of NZ’s railway architecture.  This included the Edwardian Baroque Dunedin Railway Station (1904-1907), and the housing factory at Frankton Junction, following a trip he made to America to see housing factories “which specialised in cut-to-fit continuous house-building operations” (Shaw Architecture New Zealand p. 49).

In 1925 he was elected to the Wellington City Council. In his first couple of years in local government he chaired the Works committee, responsible for both the Rongotai airport and a second tunnel through Mt Vic. In 1927 he was elected Mayor, raising money for the construction of the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum, the Carillion and a new Wellington Railway Station. Gingerbread George’s years in power ended in 1931, after one term as mayor.

Porter was a key member in the establishing of the Architectural Centre in the 1940s.  He was an Honorary Secretary (1947-1951) and a President (1951-53, 1958-60) of the Architectural Centre.  He taught townplanning, architecture and related subjects at the Arch Centre school.  He was the Porter in Porter and Martin (1954-1981).  His involvement in local body politics was for 15 years standing on the Wellington City Council (1959-c1973).  This work included the provision of public housing (2,200 houses) and advocating for urban renewal and town planning.

Fowler was a principle of Calder and Fowler, the architectural incubator of Roger Walker from which the reknowned, and now demolished, Wellington Club was brewed. Fowler became Mayor in 1974 until 1983,  and reputedly asked Warren & Mahoney to whip up a town hall for Wellington just like the one they did in Christchurch. Whether the rumour is true or not, it’s certainly what he got, and the Fowl house, as the MFC has been named in numerous Arch Centre newsletters, is the building most associated with Sir Michael Fowler.

It could be argued that Maori architects have been more successful in politics – though some dispute as to whether Maori such as Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana (1870-1939) and Apirana Ngata (1874-1950) were architects – but let’s ignore them.  They certainly have had influential roles in architecture in this country. Ratana has been credited with designing the Ratana Temepara (with Clifford Hood) though a court case following the designwork ensued and since most architectural history suggest a joint role in designing.  Shaw for example noting that Hood “drew the plans according to the instructions of T.W. Ratana” (Shaw Architecture New Zealand p. 127).

Ngata, the most educated politican of his time, was the driver of a renewal in Maori architecture.  His building and restoration projects included Rangiatea (1843), St Mary’s Tikitiki (1924) and Te Hau ki Turanga (c1840s).

… and so to the bigger question.  Why haven’t there been more architects involved in politics?  and do we really want a political system overrun with lawyers? and surely any architect would be better than Rodney Hide?


33 responses to “Is architecture at odds with politics?”

  1. Perhaps architects are simply too aloof in their utopianism?

    Must be time for the Arch Centre to again put forward a candidate for local body politics – must be some keen committee members wiling to take a stand…?

  2. or maybe some recently retired committee members who have more time on their hands ….

  3. didn’t the jibe by Muldoon against the Labour party used to be that they were composed of School teachers and Kindergarten helpers? While National were the party of the business people.

    Nowadays i think that National and Labour have equal amounts of lawyers – ie lots and architects – ie none.

  4. richard Avatar

    I guess one of us should actually look at what the past occupations of the current MPs are – I’m pretty sure they’re listed somewhere …

  5. batgirl Avatar

    idle fact : John Sidney Swan Wellington architect ran in local body elections in the 1910’s, he also had a ‘controlling stake’ in the Kelburn-Karori tramways…. I don’t think he did very well.
    I thought National MP were either ex-money dealers or kindergarten PTA reps.

  6. c-m – they all went to Australia didn’t they?

  7. so batgirl – did John Swan get elected? perhaps architects get more points for trying than achieving in politics?

  8. no m-d I’m sure there’s at least one very recent arch centre committee member still in NZ – apparently even in Wellington – what could be a more ideal location for local body – or even central government – politics!!

  9. I think that ex-member’s past is way too shady for public office something to do with jobs for sexual favours immigration scandal involving Indian hired soldiers receiving bribes for jamming tennis balls in the mouths of art forgers whilst in a speeding motorcade… or something of that nature…

  10. Here’s a sampling of international architect-politicians (none of whom i have heard of before):

  11. richard Avatar

    hmm – evasive tactics m-d – that might qualify you as a politician?
    But maybe a more productive line of discussion might be what would architects provide for the public as politicians. I would hope that some of the issues raissed by Rodney Hide questioning the value of culture at a local government level might be able to be challenged, as well as contributing more forcefully on issues of climate change and urban design – or is that too much jumping on a bandwagon these days?

  12. I am quite convinced that politics and the bandwagon are inseparable…

  13. thomas Avatar

    To be frank, I think that any conflation of architects and socialist activism is a rather outdated form of romanticized nostalgism. If architects have moved on from the money-grabbing driven instincts of the 80s, then the replacement has been all about formal display rather than social function. Massive generalization – I know – but social concern seems to have long gone out the window. Who do we blame? Architects will blame their clients (endlessly), but I think that there is a huge philosophical hole that has been created by the shattering of meta-narratives that postmodernism brought about – what ethics are taught in the Schools of Architecture (and don’t give me that ‘S’ word crap – which is little more than an excuse to have formally exciting buildings – with plants on them and double-glazing). Think about the differences between the activism of the Arch Centre now compared to its past as a case in point

  14. Not just general apathy then?

    Perhaps the recession will provide more time for architects to reengage in ‘social activism’ or rather, politics’?

    And I’m the one who’ll be ‘frank’!!

  15. richard Avatar

    politics isn’t always about socialist activism – isn’t power part of it?

  16. I’m assuming that the kind of power that an Arch Centre representative would be able to wield in the greater scheme of things would amount to little more than ‘activism’ – that is if that rep. maintained the traditional AC line… Council’s (and subsequent ratepayer expectation) have gone too far down the ‘business’ road for any other outcome.

  17. So if we can’t change anything from the outside – nor the inside, what’s left? Education?

  18. Yes Man Avatar
    Yes Man

    Thomas – you say that “any conflation of architects and socialist activism is a rather outdated form of romanticized nostalgism.” and yet it seems to be exactly what you are saying here…..

    and re Education of the unruly Public – i think we can safely say that the vast majority of teh public really don’t give a toss, and don’t want to be “educated” on that – but what they do want, is to be “entertained”.

    Hence the popularity of “Carters My Home My Castle” etc…

  19. Education through entertainment? It might not be very efficient, but I think those shows are actually selling ‘green’ DIY solutions to the mass-market better than any other vehicle…

  20. thomas Avatar

    YM – I don’t get what you mean. Perhaps I need to clarify thus: “any conflation of architects and socialist activism is a rather outdated form of romanticized nostalgism IN LIGHT OF CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURAL PRODUCTION”

    Frank – You seem wedded to the idea that AC operate at precisely the level indicated in the above statement. is that an accurate assessment of AC activities, and if so, how relevant is it to its membership base? Is there a disjunct between the executive and the membership – and does this explain the lack of engagement (I remember well the Mayoral Debate fiasco)? Do members subscribe for anything other than the email updates and a sense of traditional duty? Has the Centre had its day?

    I predict that there will only be a couple of replies to these questions, and that the most telling reply will be the otherwise resounding silence…

  21. Any disjunct between membership and executive is not just confined to the Architectural Centre, of course. In practically any (maybe even: All) organisations, there will be a disjunct. At the most prominent level in NZ, look at the political parties. There is a lot less membership of the Labour Party and the National Party than there was 20 or 50 years ago, but that should not be taken as a complete lack of interest in the party or their policies.

    Rather, you could argue the opposite. That the public / the members are quiet because they are happy with the way things are going. Its only noisy when the executive really gets it wrong.

  22. Jenny #1 Avatar
    Jenny #1

    Rubbish. The members are not quiet because they think you’re doing a great job, they’re quiet cause you have absolutely no significance in their lives, and in all probablity the Public don’t even know the Centre exists. The Arch Centre is near dead and has been so for years.

  23. thomas, Jenny #1 – Ouch!

    Do you have any suggestions for making the Centre more significant, or do you really believe there is no such role for an Architectural Centre anymore?

  24. Judging by the Poll meter up above, the members (or whoever has been clicking on the poll) would like the Arch Centre to (ranking from most popular to least):
    * Newsletter with serious discussion about buildings (62%)
    * Commentary on Architectural matters (53%)
    * Run architectural Competitions (44%)
    * Site visits to interesting buildings (44%)
    * Protest loudly about bad architecture (35%)
    * More talks and slide shows from great architects (26%)
    * Website with room for comments (18%)
    * Newsletter with quizzes and pictures and humour (15%)
    * Tackle global warming (12%)
    * Care for heritage buildings (9%)

    That certainly seems to indicate there is still a role for the Arch Centre….

  25. Good point – and 34 voters is not that insignificant. But, I was wondering whether there is anything more that AC needs/should do – beyond the prescribed set of responses – to remain ‘significant’ to our members’ lives (as Jenny eloquently puts it).

  26. e.g. local body representation!

  27. I’ll ask at the next committee meeting if anyone wants to run for Mayor.

    But I have this curious feeling that we may not get many takers. However, that’s no reason why we shouldn’t back a candidate of our choice to be the official Arch Centre nomination? Or is it? Should we stay firmly unaligned as we do now?

  28. Guy for Mayor

    Guy for Mayor

    Guy for Mayor

  29. (I’ll even stand for Centre president if you get in)…

  30. From my memory of the last local body election there wasn’t a great deal of choice re: backing mayors. I think there might have been more hope the time before.

    Last time there was that forum at the Museum of City and Sea – didn’t one of the candidates have a peculiar idea for a Chinese building? – nothing wrong with a Chinese building – but I remember the description of this as being quite soul destroying. I think I was almost at the point of not voting after that one.

  31. Guy’s not that keen on standing for Mayor – requires an ego massively bigger than mine, or a mind massively more madder.

    Yes, c-m, the independent candidate Nick Wang wanted to build a museum in the shape of a kiwi, with a section for gays, and a pat your own sheep area, or something like that. Or gay kiwi sheep. Or a paua shell. Or all of it.

  32. Philip Avatar

    Guy for mayor!

    Interestingly, if Mr Mousavi manages to get a re-count and is elected, then surely that would make him the most political/powerful architect around?

  33. Indeed – thanks for that Philip – until you said, I had no idea that Mousavi was an architect. Indeed, Wikipedia notes:

    “Mir-Hossein Mousavi was born on 29 September 1941 in Khameneh, East Azarbaijan, Iran….. Following his graduation from high school, Mousavi moved to Tehran in 1958. In the National University of Tehran (now Shahid Beheshti University), he majored in architecture and graduated with a BA in 1969. In mid-1979 he was appointed by Khomeini to the Islamic Revolutionary Council. Later, in 1983, Mousavi specialized in traditional Islamic architecture.”

    Now you come to mention it, he does look like an architect, even bearing a strong resemblance to local Tetrad architect Graeme Pownall. As we write, Tehran is once again being gripped by people’s protesting: we may be seeing history in the making once again.

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