The Risk of Being Nowhere
By Tim Nees, Architect in Residence, College of Engineering, University of Canterbury
This article was first published in The Press on August 17 2016
Tim Nees is a practicing architect and Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. He is currently Architect in Residence at the University of Canterbury’s College of Engineering (Civil and Natural Resources). Amongst his many design awards, Tim is a recipient of the NZIA National Award for excellence in architecture.
As the Christchurch Rebuild intensifies and new buildings almost outnumber empty sites in the CBD, there is no doubting Christchurch has gained many fine works of architecture and even some great ones. Yet when the overall quality of the urban environment is discussed, concerned voices continue to be heard. ‘Bland and boring’, ‘lacking vision’, ‘could be anywhere’ are common complaints, often linked with a disappointment that too many issues identified in the ‘Share an Idea’ campaign have been ignored.
Some architects responded by requesting we suspend judgement and allow time for the city to settle, and that we need to accept this contemporary environment of ‘steel and glass’ as necessarily new and different to ways of creating buildings in the past. Others called for bolder designs, for architects to be more adventurous and create a new paradigm through innovative design where Christchurch can proudly become a global leader in urban architecture. Both responses fail to recognize [CG1] the disconnect between public expectations and built outcomes, and that this disconnect stems from a lack of connection to place, and a lack of substance, or meaning, in the new architecture. “Newness’ and ‘style’ is not the issue. ‘Meaning’ and ‘connection’ is the issue.
One of the architect’s most important responsibilities is being aware of how a building can and will affect people. Good buildings should feel appropriate, as if they rightly belong to the place and the time, the neighbourhood, and our lives. Good architecture responds to its place in the world, connects with that place and re-invests in the physical environment, the social environment, and the temporal environment.
Good buildings acknowledge memory. To build a relationship with memory is especially important in Christchurch, where many of our memory prompts have been removed. Whether we are aware of it or not, memory contributes to a full appreciation of spatial experience. Architecture has a responsibility to stimulate and sustain experiential memories of many kinds — from the sensual to the material, and to the immaterial such as light and shade — and so enriches user experience. These are the elements that construct the atmosphere of place and influence our experience of that place, and the memories we build as a consequence of our interactions. These same elements are what we take with us and talk about with others.
When a building carries meaning, we relate to the messages and stories it tells, and feel a sense of pride or gratitude or respect or love, a sense that it belongs and that we also belong and will experience the future of the city together. In this way the building earns our respect. In order for the city centre to be repopulated, Christchurch’s buildings need to earn people’s love and respect. The city needs people as well as buildings to regenerate a sense of collective effervescence and urbanity. Regeneration is not just about buildings, services, amenities and retail opportunities, it is 99% about people. Christchurch’s architecture, therefore, needs to communicate meaningfully with people.
Shigeru Ban recently told a Christchurch audience that loved buildings endure. Even temporary buildings like his Cardboard Cathedral may last longer than intended if people love them too much to let them go. The buildings and places that have earned my love in the past five years include Ban’s Transitional Cardboard Cathedral, and also the Botanic Gardens Visitor Centre, Cathedral Grammar Junior School, the Christchurch City Council Building, the Margaret Mahy Playground, and the Bus Interchange. They each in their own way use form, material and detail to convey meaning and provide memorable experiences.
The Transitional Cathedral is a big white tent, an archetypal gathering place with a worship space that immediately uplifts. The exposed repetitive structure recalls the Gothic Revival interest in the bones and sinews of a building remaining visible, of which there were many fine examples in Christchurch. The Cathedral Grammar Junior School draws on a similar Gothic Revival language of posts, beams and buttresses that interlock in a way that makes sense. The exposed construction is perhaps didactic; the students can learn from observation how the building was built. The Bus Interchange likewise draws inspiration from the Gothic Revival, although the formal references have been abstracted and reworked into something quite different. The building demonstrates how contemporary design can maintain an intelligent connection with history and still be cutting edge.
Still unfinished, the Awly Building on Durham Street also ranks reasonably highly in my book. Through colour, pattern and texture it talks to the Law Courts and Provincial Chambers across the road. In that respect, it is lucky to have had an architectural context to respond to. Awly doesn’t ignore the street edge; it provides generous pedestrian space and a promising looking courtyard on the western side. What’s more, the columns, timber soffits and bronzed handrails give it scale and detail passers-by can interact with and appreciate.
A loss of meaning in cities is not a unique problem. It is a global issue. However, given Christchurch’s circumstances and the regrettable decision to clear the city, it is perhaps more apparent here. But if we sadly agree meaningful buildings are an exception at present, shouldn’t we then expect more architects take care to invest meaning in their work so that more buildings can establish a positive relationship with the community, and so make the exception the rule?
Read the original article here