City shaped by architect's sure and graceful design

Part of the atrium at Otago Museum, designed by Ted McCoy. Photo by University of Otago Press.
Part of the atrium at Otago Museum, designed by Ted McCoy. Photo by University of Otago Press.
Shall we ever see his like again?

A Southern Architecture, the new book about Ted McCoy's work, was launched the other night. Nearly all the photos are his. Most of the buildings are too.

They document a remarkable addition to our New Zealand tradition. At the moment it is hard to believe anyone can match it.

The book is attractive and a useful compendium of McCoy's buildings. One might question the quality of some of the reproduction, but not that of the photos and the buildings.

McCoy has been designing for 50 years. If you look at the productions of most architects over such a time there are usually some fallings from grace. Not in McCoy's case.

Because the book comprises photos by the author/architect you might suppose he has carefully selected his successes. He didn't need to.

I have never seen a bad building by Ted McCoy. I haven't seen a bad alteration. The book faithfully reflects the work of a designer who possesses an unerring grace.

It is difficult to know where to start - Aquinas in 1950 or the Otago Museum in 2000.

McCoy's buildings are about light, geometry and tradition. He emerged, as a very young man, already fully-formed as an artist and has continued to bring forth fine design after fine design.

He has produced not only most of the best buildings in Dunedin in that time but a singular development of New Zealand architecture. That is because he is not only an innovator, he has a sense of what was here before.

For historical reasons, Dunedin defined the high point of New Zealand's European architectural debut. For continuing reasons, it has defined the country's architectural survival and reinvention. The latter is mostly due to Ted McCoy.

A modernist working in a manner descended from Le Corbusier's brutalism, he found a way of marrying that to the place and to the pre-existing and very different revivalist Victorian and Edwardian inheritance.

A short but perceptive introduction by Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins describes this and also makes the point McCoy is an Otago architect, not just a Dunedin one.

That is worth noting because McCoy's contribution to postrevivalist Dunedin is so marked it is easy to forget the impact he has also had in Wanaka and Alexandra, for example. Lloyd-Jenkins draws a parallel between McCoy's work and the sculptured forms and intense light of Otago's landscape, which in this case I think is warranted.

It is conventional to talk about architecture as ‘‘sculpting with light'' but much of what you see leaves the impression the sculptor had cataracts.

By contrast, there is a clarity and a purity in McCoy's work, for example his St Pauls High School and the Hocken, now the Richardson building, which lends it a grace that seems effortless.

It isn't. You only have to look at some of its peers to realise how special it is. McCoy has also managed to design modern churches that feel spiritual rather than perfunctory.

His 1970 extension to St Paul's Cathedral is a case in point. One may regret the original design was not completed - I do - but that is not to say McCoy's sanctuary isn't a fitting complement and a meditative interior space, it is.

In fact, the sanctuary feels powerfully otherworldly despite its beautiful, deeply embrasured windows to the world outside.

To spend time with McCoy is to become aware of the origin of these qualities in the man. He is human and not everything that happens is to his liking.

In his speech at the launch he mentioned his disappointment at the city council's decision to back adding an atrium to the town hall in Harrop St, a sentiment shared by most of those present. But he possesses an inner peace, a certain gravitas and charm that is the source of those qualities in his buildings.

One wants to say there is no mystery about them. They use modern materials and make no secret of their engineering, yet they conjure these things to simple, mysterious effect, as for example in his chapel in the Moran building in the Octagon or the interdenominational chapel at Waitati.

These are solemn, thoughtful places, which quietly sparkle in the shifting light. A Southern Architecture, has photographs of the landscape and also of some of our heritage buildings, which helps to connect McCoy's work to its antecedents.

There is also an unusual photograph of the statue of Queen Victoria in Queens Gardens. She casts a long shadow, which is still very evident in Dunedin.

McCoy has done something similar but it has been to let in the light. By making himself a consummately Otago architect he has achieved an international distinction: he has designed modern buildings that belong in their place.

It sounds easy but it isn't. We may not see it at this high level again.

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