Modern buildings important part of architectural timeline

Port Otago’s administration building has won three architecture awards. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Port Otago’s administration building has won three architecture awards. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Will we live to regret the demolition of  Port Otago’s distinctive administration building, asks the Southern branch of New Zealand Institute of Architects: Te Kahui Whaihanga. 

When Mason and Wales’ Port Otago administration building was first proposed in 1980, it was reportedly met with a barrage of criticism. ‘‘How could such a modern design possibly fit into the genteel fabric of its 19th-century surrounds?’’ critics wondered.

In response, architect Ashley Muir cleverly conceived a mirrored glass curtain wall to envelop the structure, irreverently reflecting the surrounding tree-clad hills and historic buildings back at the viewer.

In 1981, the building won two prestigious architecture awards for its innovative and modern design. Forty years later it was awarded again — this time for its enduring contribution to the architectural history of Otago. Having remained unaltered and requiring little maintenance over the decades, the building was lauded by the awards jury for its integrity and modernity.

Its impending demolition is a saddening symptom of our inability to recognise the importance of maintaining a record of our country’s best architecture.

Otepoti/Dunedin is one of the few cities in New Zealand with a timeline of architectural heritage that remains intact — from the establishment of the city in the mid-1800s through to the present day.

Modern architecture is an important part of this heritage, yet works like the Port Administration Building and the University of Otago Archway Lecture Theatres by Ted McCoy are under threat.

The University of Otago Archway Lecture Theatres, designed by McCoy and Wixon in 1974. PHOTO:...
The University of Otago Archway Lecture Theatres, designed by McCoy and Wixon in 1974. PHOTO: GRAHAM WARMAN

But it is not just the loss of our architectural heritage that should worry us all. This building’s demolition and its new replacement will have an enormous environmental impact.

This building is in good condition, despite enduring more than four decades of coastal Otago weather. Perhaps from a financial perspective, repurposing it may not seem efficient. But has the efficiency of its demolition and replacement with a larger building been considered from a future-focused, sustainability point of view by its owners?

The carbon footprint of the construction industry is estimated to be up to 20% of New Zealand’s total emissions. Add to this the environmental impact of sending an enormous volume of waste to landfill, and the efficiency of repurposing the building can be viewed with greater perspective.

Like those in the 1980s who rallied against this building’s construction, many of us place value on preserving our heritage. But just as design trends in furniture, cars and clothing change over time, so, too, does the design of buildings.

Many of us will have observed with amusement as ubiquitous items from our youth — things we perhaps thought to be ugly or uncomfortable — gain popularity and value.

Some of us may have come to appreciate our parents’ or grandparents’ Don lounge suite, or Crown Lynn collection. Others may now regret having disposed of such items in the past.

In a similar vein, the loss of architecture from an era not presently considered worth saving will likely mean the loss of seminal works of that time. Will we regret it in the years to come?


The glass is meant to represent nothing to hide. A transparent, no curtain bedroom.

Curiously, Walter Gropius, German leader of the Bauhaus brutalist movement was the first advocate of industrial quantities of glass. He was cuck-holed by his wife during WW1 and went on to multiple mistresses and misery.

This was and always will be an awful building.