My favourite modernist building … Puaka-James Hight and Matariki

In a culture that favours surface over substance, and visual sensation over bodily sensation, it is not surprising some New Zealand architects have recently been manipulating a gutsier language of exposed timber structures and surfaces. Their preference for rough-hewn details and materials that have sensual qualities, and attract shadows instead of reflecting light, suggest that a revival in Gothic aesthetics may be underway – that it ‘Gothic’ in the rural Taranaki/Vincent Ward sense that archetypal narratives suggest our nation has been founded on.  Therefore, it is also not surprising that there has been a resurgence of interest in the tactile qualities found in brutalist architecture.

Christchurch is reputedly home to the best of New Zealand’s brutalist buildings. Having sprung in equal measure from Hurst Seager’s Arts and Crafts and Mountfort’s Gothic Revival buildings, the exposed concrete, concrete block and heavy timbers of Peter Beaven, Warren and Mahoney, and Hall and McKenzie’s work from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s also bears the influence of the muscular modernists of Great Britain, Scandinavia and Japan. Whether they were designing modest houses or much larger institutional and commercial buildings, these Christchurch architects’ work was both rational and expressive, exaggerated yet carefully crafted, displaying the modernist obsession with clarity, honesty, and purpose, and a sense of scale suited to the human body.

Many of Christchurch’s brutalist buildings exist no more. As a consequence of the 2010/2011 Canterbury earthquakes, and the arguably irrational decision-making process that followed, they have been demolished – and, over five years later, are still being demolished.

As I write this, Warren and Mahoney’s Student Association building (1964-67), on the edge of the University’s Ilam campus, is falling to the blows of the wrecking ball, a sad end to a particularly fine piece of architecture.

Nevertheless, the University has saved, strengthened and restored two of the finest brutalist buildings of the 1970s that form the physical and metaphorical heart of the campus – the MoW’s James Hight Library & Arts Tower (now called Puaka-James Hight) (left) (1969-73) and Hall and McKenzie’s Registry Building (now called Matariki) (right) (1972-74).

These buildings face each other across a plaza and although designed by the same architects less than a decade apart, they have quite distinct personalities. The library is composed and elegant – erudite, you could say – a stack of finely proportioned concrete elements that increase in heft toward the ground. The building contains many modernist tropes – floating stairs that cross a moat, double height spaces enlivened by the water’s reflection, a mezzanine overlooking the main reading space, and brass and hardwood details shaped for touch. From the outside the building is a finer version of Kenzo Tange’s work but inside bears the sober sensuality of Arne Jacobsen.

Puaka James Hight is a brutalist and modernist classic and the University should be praised for keeping it.

Matariki is quite different altogether. A collage of concrete, heavy-cast tyrolean plaster, steel and timber, the building ignores balance and symmetry and accepted architectural manners and seems to hark back to medieval forms – a castle perhaps, a fortress. Built in the late 1970s, the influence of ex-Cantabrian Ian Athfield is also apparent, and Ath’s peer Roger Walker. Their buildings of the time similarly synthesised older typologies with vernacular forms, humour and surprise ahead of sobriety, and would have been regarded with interest by an established firm seeking to update its palette.

Popular myth has it, however, that as Matariki was commissioned in the wake of the late-sixties student riots and anti-Vietnam war protest movements, the university did indeed want a fortress, a bastion that would easily repel any unwanted student advance and even contained vantages from which, conceivably, could be emptied vats of boiling oil, should the need arise.

Matariki is not a beautiful building. But it is interesting and somehow still fresh. If James Hight is the halfback then Matariki is the lock. Together they express the sensitivities and strengths of the University of Canterbury’s modernist buildings.

Tim Nees, Architect in Residence, College of Engineering, University of Canterbury; Chair NZIA Canterbury Branch Committee; Director New Work Studio / Tim Nees Architects

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