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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

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Throwing out old buildings is rather like throwing out old McCahon paintings, suggests architect Tony Watkins.

ImageOne of the great tragedies of the seventies was the demolition of Victoria Arcade. It was one of our finest buildings and it seemed that it was not at risk because it was owned by the body entrusted with protecting our heritage.



Against all logic the hand made bricks and the exquisite kauri joinery were all crushed to pulp by bulldozers clearing the site to make way for architecture. Out of the rubble arose one of the blandest buildings built in the seventies, the Bank of New Zealand.

This was an era when a heady mix of developer arrogance and shoddy architecture reduced the urban design of Auckland to tatters. The seventies did however produce one very fine architectural icon. The new Edmiston Wing of the old Art Gallery was a beacon of hope.

ImageThe brief for the building was wrong, in that it left the sweeping marble staircase which once graced the old foyer reduced to a heap of rubble. The corner entrance which was iconic new world urban design, as good as any you would find anywhere, suddenly led in to nothing more grand than the toilets and a tiny new auditorium. From celebrating the great community tradition of the corner pub and the corner dairy the Art Gallery corner became meaningless. The grand doors beneath the ornate clock-tower were closed and everyone was directed around to the tradesmen's entrance.


The result was however the finest back door in the country.

ImageBeyond its architectural merit the Edmiston wing also holds a unique place in the history of Auckland architecture. At a time when Auckland City Council was telling everyone else what to do, while itself producing nothing more than mediocrity, the Art Gallery extensions set a benchmark which others might aspire to. There was respect and understanding, but not imitation. Creativity rather than controls. Performance rather than policies.

ImageTimes have changed, but not always for the worse. We may have lost the craftsmen but fortunately we have come to treasure our heritage as never before. Today we would never destroy the corner entry to the Art Gallery. There would be a howl of protest.


Instead we are going to demolish the whole of the Edmiston wing.

The peculiar twist of fate is that it is going to be demolished, just as the Victoria Arcade was, by the very body which has taken upon itself the role of being protector of our heritage. The Auckland City Council.

We understand the security measures needed to protect a Colin McCahon from vandals and mould. However we have no problem when a McCahon is given by the care-giver to a new artist to paint over because they are short of a canvas.

Normally an architectural makeover of the back door would be of little interest but at a time when everyone is talking about sustainability and zero-waste it seems odd that no one has asked whether, after it is all over, we are going to be further ahead or further behind.

Every architect always believes that whatever they are going to do is better than anything ever done before. Every politician also knows that a spectacular new building will always get more votes than saving an old one. Every historian knows that those who do not learn from the past will repeat the same mistakes. 

 Aucklanders are in no position to smugly criticise the Taleban for destroying the cultural heritage of the Bamaiyan sculptures.

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