It’s just old


I recently came across a quote by Barry Humphries, made while he was visiting to promote his upcoming Dame Edna tour of New Zealand.
In discussing his Auckland venue he said: “The Civic is such a beautiful theatre I’m amazed you haven’t pulled it down.”

I have fond memories of the former His (later Her) Majesty’s Theatre in Queen Street, including my one and only glimpse as a young architectural student of the overwhelming talent that was Vivian Leigh.
And, much later in 1986, just before the theatre’s demise, the sight of Prime Minister Rob Muldoon as the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
His quoting of the infamous “pelvic thrust” lines was an aural and visual image worth preserving. Not so the theatre.

Sadly, most developers have a very “practical” view of history. During the next New Year’s Eve holidays they moved in and swiftly knocked it down before any protesters could gather.
Looking at the preservation issue from the opposite angle, every now and then people get very heated about someone injecting a touch of modernity into some of our heritage residential areas.

This seems to apply particularly in Auckland’s inner-city suburbs — perhaps because Auckland sadly has so little left to preserve — but the same heated objections arise in cities and towns throughout New Zealand.

Before I put my head above the ramparts of architectural comment — I can feel a growing tide of complaint as I write — I should state that I am on to my second quietly complying renovation of a late 19th Century cottage in Auckland’s Freemans Bay.

But get over it people. Just because a house is old doesn’t mean it has any particular merit or special right to survive — singly or as a group.
Sometimes it takes a bit of a visual kick in the guts by injecting a small slice of modern design into a street of older homes to reveal the value and appeal of those that remain.
Take a mental stroll back through time and see how and why these inner city suburbs were created. There are plenty of excellent books on the subject.

Regarding my own area of suburban Auckland, the book Urban Village by Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow provides an insight into not just what was constructed and when, but delves into the surrounding social history that was responsible for what has now become, confusingly for some, a gentrified part of Auckland.
I was born in Herne Bay, and remember my father telling me not to even walk through the suburb that is now my home.

Decidedly working class — at a time when the phrase actually meant what it said — Freemans Bay was also a hotbed of early social protest, and had a definite leftward lean to match the physical lean on many of the distinctly shoddily built cottages and early villas.
The area also contained a number of industrial and commercial premises, some of which remain in a relatively dilapidated state.
Others have been skilfully converted into residential homes and apartments, adding to the eclectic mix of styles prevalent in Freemans Bay, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn.

The adjoining suburbs of Herne Bay and St Mary’s Bay, being on the northern slopes, have a different mix, including larger, middle aged (1930-1970) homes and apartments.
Urban Village also provides a background to the reconstruction of parts of these inner-city areas by the Government and the Auckland City Council.

Today, these once maligned “terraced houses” built in the 1960s, along with the earlier government “Star Flats,” are an accepted part of the over-priced but very desirable housing stock. I own one myself and am continually surprised by how these once inappropriate imports into their 19th Century surroundings continue to hold their appeal.
Yes, sometimes designers, developers and those who act as our gatekeepers get it wrong.

There are plenty of examples of the tragic and inappropriate juxtaposition of the new among the relatively old.
There are also far too many examples of our council’s signing off on some truly abominable alterations and additions to cottages, villas and bungalows.
I’m not sure which is worse — a really bad renovation of a villa, or an inappropriate dropping of a large, blank-faced blockhouse among small, colonial cottages.

The problem is that one person’s personal statement of what they consider good design is another person’s view of really bad taste.
It’s a bit like the architectural equivalent of those annual advertising awards where the same ad is often top of the best and worst ad list.

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