An essay on the critical response to ‘Park Mews’, a building by Roger Walker By Thomas Rogers
As suggested in Peter Shaw‟s book „A History of New Zealand Architecture‟, Park Mews was a house designed and built at a time in New Zealand‟s architectural history when strict boring constraint was rife in the practice, creating forms of buildings translated from modernism that had no relevance to their surroundings. Across the range of publications, the more informed on the topic seeing past the juxtapositions of spaces and into this notion of context which is made so relevant by both Walker and the historical narrative of the building. Shaw‟s book offers a general history of architecture and the building appears in amongst other works of architecture and suggested influences, but is offered up with a factual, objective description that provides a variety of sources from which to begin an investigation, hinting at the books well-researched nature. This book is so brief in the description of buildings that there is barely room for critical comment due to the lack of ability to back an argument up. While the general history is important to the narrative of a building within a timeline or period, to gain understanding of a building and its narrative, these are only suitable as a light and factual presentation of buildings, to find more meaning of a particular work and uncover the real narrative, one must search deeper comparing the narratives and fitting them into their own individual one. At a time when modernism and the „International Style‟ ascribed to it was the expected norm in any large scale construction, Walkers style was destined to make a dent in New Zealand‟s architectural history, offering new ways to think about architecture. The first published article on the building was a newspaper article that contained quoted comments from only estate agents that offered shallow understandings of the building, describing it as a “town house”. The most informative review on Park Mews at this time was from the actual newspaper itself, this effect is described in Peter Shaw‟s „A History of New Zealand Architecture, in a paragraph by sir Miles Warren that claims “of all the arts, architecture in New Zealand has the lest informed critical press”(Shaw 8). The article, however, was released before the building was completed, a day before the apartments were sold, but this does not excuse the fact that the building was in such a public space and would have a great effect on the built environment, especially these that passed through the Victoria tunnel or on the bus through Moxham Ave to the airport. There should have been more critical review by this time. This is fitting with the slow-writing nature of architects, that they have to see something to write away from before they can begin, often from less credible sources. As sources became more credible and eventually overcame the hard and fast articles of the press, so did the building‟s standing in the canon of New Zealand‟s architectural history, placing the building alongside Ian Athfield‟s and rendered the style as a New Zealand‟s best response to the rigidity of modernism. This shift form temporary newspaper articles to a standing in permanent architectural publications was certainly lead by Gerard Melling who in 1985 dedicated an entire book of “Positively Architecture” to interviews, the life and works of Roger Walker. It is the combination of the specific architectural investigation with the inclusion in a general history, like Peter Shaw‟s that gives this building its placement as an important building; this was also aided by its very public stance. It is with the release of such publications that the building has reached the second life that Peter Blake has described architecture by, where most have forgotten or omitted the cost of construction and whether the building lived up to is intentions, published in books that contain glossy pictures of exteriors and little to none of the interiors. Unfortunately with a lot of the articles on Park Mews, and probably most architecture, there is an immense emphasis on the exterior shape and a tendency to omit what it is like to actually experience the building form an occupancy perspective. This is all very well and good as only a very small portion of people actually do experience the space. But the people that live in the building cannot be forgotten, as they are the targets of the advertisement that this building was conceived as. However, it seems that as the writing has, the developer did too forget the occupants of the buildings comfort. Due to strict budgetary requirements (the developer concerned primarily with profit) there was a loss in the quality of workmanship that was intended by Rogers Walker, and as he was not kept on to oversee the construction, certain things went out the window. The most telling of these was the carefully articulated plumbing and service drawings that Walker had personally crafted (a man who had not much time for regulations or codes) were disregarded and a cowboy with a plumbers wrench was briefed that “the quickest-and cheapest- route from A to B was a straight line”(Melling 62). Consequently, the internal planning of the whole building was sacrificed for the public outlook(fig 1+2). The buildings internal walkways, meant to be pleasant, communal spaces, were left dimly lit, service lanes essentially, giving a very dingy feel to the slightly risky complete concrete construction of these lanes(fig 3). But the interiors of the apartments are nice. Interestingly, „Positively Architecture‟ is the only source that has mentioned this aspect, perhaps because of the surface obsessed nature of the “magazine” fate that befalls most general histories, and did Peter Shaw‟s, a matter on which he claims the publisher forced him into omitting most interior shots and “making it easier to read”.
An exaggeration applied to this building is the randomness of the formation, and although it is random, if almost fails in comparison to the other buildings of Walker. This is mainly an issue due to the scale of the building, where it is a randomly assembled building, for an apartment block and does offer some very unique moments(fig 4 +5), compared with buildings like the Britten house, a celebrated Walker favourite, it almost seems flat(fig 6). This fact is very much so emphasised in Peter Shaw‟s picture of it that aptly addresses this situation, however not many sources find it necessary to juxtaposition the two buildings. One can only assume that it has gained more of an icon for the crazy Roger Walker style, it seems that this is only due to such a public placement. Unfortunately due to the buildings new paintjob – ascending shades of blue to meet the sky(fig 7)- this inherent flatness is reinforced and the link to Disneyland castles too(fig 8). Just another manifestation of the projects lack of architectural input after the developer was „finished with the architect‟. The vast majority of resources hold Roger Walker in the same way as Peter Shaw, and it is clear that most sources have formatted their writing to include Athfield in any discussion about Walker, if not before. There is always a sense of a battle in the more general histories for page space between Athfield and Roger Walker, which is acceptable as their styles are very similar, and they did work in the same period and they do mainly operate in Wellington, even though nobody can suggest a singular style generator, only that they were "appalled at the sameness and degrading monotony of our suburban areas"(Shaw 167). Peter Shaw's general history offers a range of sources in his writing and they lead to a variety of formats, fortunately. One of these, being David Mitchell, offers the possibility of Peter Middleton as an architect who bought the style to New Zealand and the Wellington pair who applied it, or rather, pulled it off. Shaw‟s book seems to offer the same general opinion on the Athfield Walker situation, claiming that Walkers buildings were "scarcely less shocking"(Shaw 167).
The more credible of the resources offer more solid influences for Walkers work and back each other up well on the matter. The chief of these would have to be Positively Architecture, which was the foremost of any direct publication on Walker and contained transcribed actual interviews with Walker hence giving any influences called upon by Melling a factual base and it seems that nothing of his is a fabrication or a stretch. It is stated in the interview that Walker was influenced by the work of Japanese Architects - which architect around this time wasn't in some way? - the ideas of a small group in particular called „Metabolism‟ are called upon, which makes sense more for Walker and Athfield than it would for anyone else as they were distinct for flexible composition and "one form filling not another"(Melling 12). This gives credit to sources like 'Long Live the Modern' and the article in „The Post‟ who give reference to "space age Japanese"(Andrew Barrie 197). Melling also states the fact that Walker had just finished reading two books before he was approached about Park Mews, one of which was the Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which, coincidentally, was scathing towards rationalism. Though the similarities in the way Roger Walkers buildings are perceived is vast, there is a narrative that has developed over time. Initially conceived as a marketing ploy for an “energetic Wellington developer”, Walker rose to the challenge of high-density housing and came up with a scheme that really challenged the normal and hence had a mixed volley of opinions shot at it. Given the time of the declination of the modernist movement and the realization that corresponding to an international style would not generate buildings that were sympathetic to their surroundings, Park Mews was a huge step forward for the progression of vernacular architecture. With this deviance from the normal, it makes sense that the surrounding neighbourhood described the building as a "noddytown"(Barrie 197) but it doesn't excuse El -Shorbagy describing Walker as a “Disneyland Architect”. Although he claims to have written a masters thesis on Roger Walker and his works, he directly contradicts and disrespects a statement made by Roger in a transcribed interview from Positively Architecture where Walker says that to "to say Disney is to bastardize"(qtd. in Melling 12). Upon reading this, the weight of the disrespect gives El-Shorbagy's history very little credit and renders it only a convenient resource for sources. The first writings as outlined, don‟t give much credit to Roger Walker as the architect; however, those names have been forgotten and what remains is the building itself and the legitimate academic studies into the building that generally treat Walker with the respect he deserves. These first writings outlined were namely the two newspaper articles that appeared in „The Post‟ in 1973, one being an advertisement and one being an actual article that seemed to have more insight into the composition of the building than the developer. The article never once mentions the name of the architect, fortunately an article described the building more in depth, conveniently so, two pages later, aptly titling it "Space Age Architecture” (fitting with Barrie‟s description or Vice versa?) and describing it as undefinable. From the general histories, Walker has been treated well, although always grouped in with Athfield next to whom it sometimes seems to not shine as well as it could next to a modernist city block or urban example of high density living. „Long live the modern‟ seems to hold all the buildings selected by Gatley in very high regard, as if they are all chosen for a reason and all have equal importance. While remaining very objective, with well informed notions of influence, the general histories never treat any architect with personal consideration, such is the nature of general histories and why they do not help us to gain any personal opinion about the architect except through their work. It is the personally directed works in which we are offered the most insight into the personal treatment of Roger Walker, and also the most struggle of opinions. „Positively Architecture‟ was a definite high point, a whole edition dedicated to interviews and the works of Roger Walker, rather than the standard
general histories that erupted after the release of Shaw‟s, he was not hidden amongst a mass of other works, or hiding behind a longer paragraph about Athfield‟s “similar” work. Though most decipher the development of regional architecture, and Walkers ability to challenge the normal, offering comic relief from the day-to-day, there are contradictions in these, one in particular, previously mentioned from ElShorbagy, that would have no doubt offended Walker. This is surprising as he had a copious amount of resources to delve into having written this article very recently. There are three main levels it seems of writings on a building; that of non architects- the brief newspaper article, the general history-factual based supported with a solid research and understanding, and the dedicated life review in a masters thesis. These all work together to provide a full scale analysis of a building from the broadly educated persons opinion or thoughts to a fitting within a timeline or cannon, right down to the specific influences of that building and what was happening locally and even inside the mind of the architect. The historical narrative is created by a combination of all these materials, not just a shallow reading of one. That is why Park Mews cannot be defined by a general history or one masters thesis. A building of its stature made at such a time may be clear in its intention, but what is not clear from such knowledge is its definition. Park Mews has been described by Peter Shaw as “scarcely less shocking”(Shaw167) than Athfield‟s work, by Gerard Melling as “an exercise in identity and communication”(Melling 62), by the local community (initially) as a “noddytown”(Barrie 197), and finally by El-Shorbagy as “Disneyland”. A building is not one of these but a combination of all these opinions and it turns out that the most true is the one that is most agreed upon. This does not mean that El-Shorbagy‟s opinion will recede, however, as there now is unfortunately a simplification of the building to its resemblance due to the addition of the blue roofs. Peter Shaw‟s book does provide the best narrative of the building in a history of New Zealand architecture due to its book-like format. It allows people to see the building in the line of how events unfolded, offering it as New Zealand‟s exposition of the failure of modernism and treats it as light heartedly as it was intended. However, as Shaw pointed out in a recent lecture, it is purposefully objective and hence doesn‟t have a lot of contradiction amongst other sources. The depth of the source is certainly vindictive of how much one source competes with another.
Picture Fig 7
Drawing by a tenant Obtained from the body corporate Fig 8
Picture obtained from body corporate.
References 1 2
El-Shorbagy, Abdel Moneim. “Roger Walker: A Disneyland Architect” . Konji. July 2010. Web. < http://architecture.knoji.com/roger-walker-a-disneyland-architect/> Barrie, Andrew. Long Live the modern. Ed. Julia Gatley. Auckland: Auckland UP, 2008. Print
Melling, Gerald. Positively Architecture: New Zealand’s Rogers Walker. Dunedin: Square One Press, 1985. Print Mitchell, David. The Elegant Shed. Christchurch: Oxford UP, 1984. Print
The Post. “Home was never like this” and “New Dimensions in living”. 20 June, 1973. Print.
Shaw, Peter. A History of New Zealand Architecture. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett Publishers, 2003. Print.