Modernist architecture a blot on the landscape

A view along Harrop St showing the proposed five-star hotel flanked by St Paul’s Cathedral and...
A view along Harrop St showing the proposed five-star hotel flanked by St Paul’s Cathedral and the Municipal Chambers. Image: ODT files.
There is an alternative way of building, one that respects the traditions that have shaped our city, writes Greg Dawes.

I have no opinion on whether Dunedin needs a new hotel. Assuming we do, I have no opinion on what kind it should be: a large international-style facility or a smaller, boutique-style establishment, perhaps in one of our historic buildings. Nor do I have an opinion on where it ought to be situated, whether downtown or near the stadium or harbourside. What I do have an opinion about is the design of the proposed hotel in Moray Place, which exhibits some of the worst features of a thoroughly discredited ``modernist'' style of architecture.

The modernist movement began in Europe in the first decades of the 20th century. Its proponents strove to sweep away centuries of tradition, to ``begin from zero''. They deliberately ignored the principles of Classical design set out by the Roman architect Vitruvius (80-15 BC) and the Renaissance writer Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72). They despised the building style that had been developed by the craftsmen of Northern Europe, which we know as ``Gothic''. They sought to establish a new style of building, suited to what they regarded as a new age. Like many other reformers, they were utopians, convinced a new architecture would create a new style of person. And like the other utopians of their age - think Marx and his followers - they wreaked havoc.

The architectural style they created was simple and plain, using basic geometrical shapes forming vast imposing structures. (The ``glass box'' was its most familiar expression.) Their buildings were often modelled on factories, for the modernists were enamoured of technology and naively unaware of the problems it could cause. Many, for instance, loved automobiles and designed cities to facilitate their use. Their movement is perhaps best known for its slogans: ``less is more'', ``ornament is crime'', ``form follows function'', ``a house is a machine for living in''. These now seem ludicrous: simple-minded expressions with no basis in history or aesthetic theory. But they were taken seriously by generations of architects, who have filled our cities with buildings of soul-destroying ugliness.

Perhaps the modernists' most damaging doctrine was the idea, still widely repeated, that we cannot design new buildings in the styles of the past. But this, too, is nonsense. Most of the older buildings we love are revivals of some past style: Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Georgian, and so on. Nor were these revivals merely a matter of decoration. The Gothic style of the university's older buildings, for example, was a deliberate reminder of the medieval origins of the institution, to give students and staff a sense of the history of their vocation.

And now we have another architect, an award-winning architect, who is offering us another glass box, entirely out of sympathy with its environment both in its design and in its proportions. In the photos provided to the council, it towers over the surrounding buildings, like a kind of architectural Godzilla. Its plain walls, with no features on which to focus, are merely intimidating. Even the architect seems aware of the monotony of his design, for he has varied his glass box with a kink in its outline, so the walls slope disconcertingly, first outwards and then inwards. But this does nothing to improve the building's visual impact. If anything, it makes it worse.

But, you may object, surely this is surely a matter of taste. Is beauty not merely ``in the eye of the beholder''? No, it is not. There are well-established principles which set out what most human beings find attractive, across time and across cultures. They tell us that beautiful architecture requires not simple, plain structures, but complex ones, with carefully scaled component parts: pediments, cornices, colonnades, architraves, and other ``ornamental'' features. These catch the eye, provide interest, and mitigate the otherwise overpowering impact of a large building. They offer features on a human scale. These complex structures form patterns, which can be repeated with variations within different buildings, lending harmony to a city and giving it a particular ``feel''.

So we do not need to put up with the kind of horror we are being offered. There is an alternative way of building, one that respects the traditions that have shaped our city, and there are architects prepared to employ it. Architecture is a form of public art. If we don't like other forms of art, we can avoid entering the gallery. We cannot, however, avoid the art that architects create for us. It is there, every day, shaping our environment and the way we feel about it. So we have a stake in what architects do and can demand they do better. If an architect could do better, then I might welcome a new hotel, even in Moray Place, if indeed it is needed.

Greg Dawes is a professor of philosophy at the University of Otago. His spare-time interests include cycling, urban design, and architecture.

Comments

Well said.

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