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An industrial building with a practical purpose can still have a sense of fun. Kim Dungey reports.
This Dunedin building with curved brickwork and roof-top turrets could have come straight from a vintage spy novel.
It kind of looks like something out of a ’60s James Bond movie — like an extravagant missile silo . . . " says photographer Nick Beadle, who clambered all over the early 1970s building to capture the images on these pages."From the ground you get an impression of what hides behind the gates but from the top of the surrounding buildings, you really see how impressive the structure is."
Designed by Allingham, Harrison & Partners, the Aurora Energy substation last night received an "enduring architecture" award from the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA).
"Utilitarian buildings, by their very nature, often go completely unnoticed on their sites, or don’t warrant a second look," the judges said. "Here, the upper, fluted precast facade, placed over a beautifully-detailed, curved brick vehicle and pedestrian entry with mesh security screens, sits up proudly and says, ‘look at me’."
Aurora Energy says the Vogel St substation, one of 40 across its network, was built for the Dunedin City Council's electricity department to meet an increase in electricity usage.
Designed in 1971 and commissioned two years later, it was the first substation to be fed from what was then the new Transpower grid exit point in South Dunedin. This is where electricity leaves the national grid and is fed into the local electricity distribution network.
Substations take high voltage power and lower it to safer levels for local network distribution and end users; this one is still in use, supplying over 2400 homes and businesses in the surrounding area.
Chief executive Richard Fletcher says it was also Aurora Energy’s back-up control room for many years, its high earthquake stability testament to its good design.
The unmanned building originally had three transformers, but one of them was relocated to a new substation in North East Valley in the early 1990s.
Retired architect John Harrison, who was in charge of documentation for the project, believes the curved brick walls on the roof were to contain any blast or explosion from the transformers.
Aurora says the walls’ main purpose is to reduce noise from fans on the rooftop radiators when the transformers are highly loaded.
The building was designed by the late Robert (Bob) Asplin. Together with Norman Ledgerwood and Mr Harrison, he was a partner in Allingham, Harrison & Partners.
"It was a very tight site to put a substation in," Mr Harrison recalls, adding that they could have used precast concrete but decided brick was a more appropriate material. "We repeated the brick at the entrance on the ground floor and it meant we could make curves."
The firm, which later closed, also designed two other Dunedin substations, buildings for the University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic, and the former Otago Savings Bank (now Westpac building) on the corner of George St and Moray Pl.
Southern awards jury convener Shana Payne describes the Vogel St substation as modernist architecture and says the modernist movement had two main guiding principles — form follows function, and truth to materials. There was a rationality and simplicity in resolving design concepts and a belief that the nature of building materials should be expressed in an honest way.
The substation is both functional and aesthetically pleasing, with an undulating front facade that combines playfulness with craft and technology, she says.
The exposed brick, a "raw and beautiful material", provides permanence, strength, style and stability.
"There’s multiple layers of brick and they didn’t just do brick walls. They designed curved walls and offset precast elements, resulting in a pattern of shadow and light. They took time and consideration with the design."
To be considered for an enduring architecture award, buildings must be at least 25 years old and remain important as high-quality works of architecture.
Payne says the substation has design integrity and is "sustaining its purpose within the historic urban fabric of New Zealand".
"The style, technology and craft of that time remains ... There’s an expression of the building materials’ durability in the way they crafted and engineered it."