Look up from street level in central Dunedin and you can fall
into a fantasy world.
Lions' heads grasp iron chains holding up a verandah, large
morbid faces stare out of stone facades and gargoyles sit
watch over the city.
An eye for aesthetic beauty and mystery was integral to the
creation of the city's older buildings. Imagination and
creativity were central to design, and these qualities were
But what do the modern buildings around Dunedin express?
Much of the architecture from the 20th century is
comparatively dull and austere, demonstrating all the
imagination and aesthetic appeal of a cinder block.
These historic buildings were built in the early days of the
city when the wealth of the gold rush encouraged settlement,
and Dunedin was New Zealand's commercial centre.
Does that wealth explain this value of creativity and
imagination? Can we simply not afford such extravagant
buildings any more?
We are materially much wealthier than we were in the 19th
Surely, if there was a will to create buildings which
inspired and amazed, which were not just a cold reflection of
a modern mundane rationality, it could be achieved.
The architecture of a city is a reflection of the values and
culture of its society as much as the economic position of
Over the past century the approach to architecture in Dunedin
has changed, as there has been a change in culture and a
change in values.
In the mid 20th century, 19th century buildings were viewed
as outdated. Many were neglected and demolished in the name
There was a change in taste during this period, and a
reaction against the Victorian decorative style.
This change appears to have eliminated so much of what was
positive in Dunedin's architectural heritage. The historic
buildings were replaced with cold, bland structures which
appear to focus on superficial ideals of modernity and a
It seems a cold kind of economic rationality reasoned away
the need for imagination and beauty in architecture.
As a society we have become increasingly influenced by free
market ideals. Monetary concerns and market forces have been
elevated in importance. They have come to have a great
influence on our values and how society is run.
It is hard to put a value on the benefit derived from
spending on imaginative architecture within such as system,
and it is therefore hard to weigh this benefit against the
It seems that this has led to an austere approach to
architecture which has come at the cost of cultural heritage.
In the past couple of decades we have come to value our
heritage of colonial buildings, and the decisions of the past
that saw many of these buildings demolished appear to be
But still, in the construction of new buildings, economic
factors are central.
It appears making a contribution to culture is seldom
considered, and there is still debate about whether the cost
of renovating and maintaining the historic buildings that
remain is worth it.
The recent proposal for a 28-storey luxury hotel on Dunedin's
waterfront exemplifies the change from valuing imagination
and fantasy to a cold economic rationality.
This glass box displays nothing of our local culture and adds
nothing to the aesthetics of the town.
The proposed hotel's location, height and style means it
would dominate the city.
We are faced with a choice now: whether we want the
expression of our society through this style of architecture
and the buzzword arguments of "progress" which seek to
justify its construction; or whether we want something with a
touch of the unexpected, a touch of fantasy, and a little bit
Then again, perhaps a glass box is an apt representation of
the current era or economic rationalism, of individualism,
But this is not something I want the city I live in to be