Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 2 4 March 1970
Recently I received a telephone call asking me if I would care to look around the new extensions to the Student Union building at Victoria, and express my thoughts on those extensions. I had already been wondering just what on earth was being constructed on top of the Union every time I lurched down the road from John Reid's, and was therefore pleased to have the opportunity to discover more. The tone of the caller told me what to expect.
"We'll have to go around it when the builders aren't there", he said. Not to mention the architect, I had thought. On this somewhat subversive footing we arranged to meet one evening after the five o'clock whistle had gone.
Before going I thought a little mental preparation was necessary. I thought that the architect's task-extending what is an architectural mistake from a previous decade — was an unenviable one, and that it would be as well to be open-minded and charitable about the new building. The trouble was that recent travels have allowed me to see the Student Unions at Auckland, Massey and Ilam, all of them designed by that very fashionable (and good) architect, Miles Warren. Superficially, at any rate, I had already decided that this odd structure was at the opposite end of the architectural social scale, and that objectivity on my part was going to be a pretty tough intellectual exercise. I gave much thought to the difficulties of extending the inextensible — Parliament Buildings say, or the Cathedral. I considered that the architect should either extend in precisely the same style as the original, which in this case would be a pretty hilarious happening, or design something in total architectural counterpoint to that original. The exterior of this building, through my postsquash fog, suggested that the architects — threatened with this Morton's Fork — had attempted to ignore it, and had fallen right into it.
"Well," I say to myself, walking up to meet my guide, "perhaps the exterior belies the virtues of the interior."
We make contact, and I am subjected to a ten-minute diatribe on the evils of the building, on the political ineptitude and chicanery that led to its commissioning, on the all-embracing incompetence of all who are connected with it. My objectivity is fast becoming a thing of the past although it is being replaced by a vague feeling of sympathy for the much-vilified architects. This last disappears in very short order.
A photographer lurks, ready to shoot anything I laugh at or walk into, and away we go through the original building, up towards the extension.
"This is the original Grand Staircase," says my guide. It's a shattering concatenation of yellow and green striped flooring colliding with red and black chequerboarding.
"Very regal." I reply. I can already see the difficulties ahead: the existing plan is of such weird shape and the consequent spaces so unresolved.
"I'll show you the main spaces first and the ancillary accommodation second," says my guide, or words to that effect.
"Lead on," I say, nervously. He leads on into the new rooms.
The first is the Great Hall, It is a huge, clanking space conies, divided in the minded with a ridiculous little [unclear: clera] a fine view over the back [unclear: y] Fifties-Ecclesiastical [unclear: wind]
"The position of this [unclear: build] lar exploitation of the [unclear: view] I suggest, looking around [unclear: f] " You are bloody [unclear: joking,"!] Actually there is a sort [unclear: of] are standing up, near the [unclear: e] prepared to fight your [unclear: visu] assorted columns, [unclear: glazing]
"However, there is a [unclear: viewi] guide, with heavy sarcasm.
"Show me," 1 reply. [unclear: Mutt] me.
It is a masterpiece. [unclear: About] trundles along two [unclear: exterio] completely unusable. If [unclear: yo] view or whatever, you [unclear: are] back of the head and [unclear: topp] are walking along it, [unclear: medit] get laid out. Because [unclear: steel] opening windows line [unclear: the] when open. The three foot vents anyone sitting [unclear: inside] sky. Outside, there is no [unclear: ro] stand, observe, and take [unclear: an]
I see something else. [unclear: "Are] these outer columns lean [unclear: si]
"They lean," answers [unclear: the] sufficient angle to be [unclear: not] like anything but a [unclear: build]
"I think they are [unclear: intended] upper windows around the trying [unclear: to] justify my [unclear: profes]page 9
Lounge, or something, [unclear: surrounded] by bal[unclear: rmous] screen things [unclear: er] the top. There is [unclear: ogh] a large Nineteen.
[unclear: me] to expect a simile harbour and city," views, [unclear: e] guide. [unclear: n] the inside, if you [unclear: hall,] and if you are [unclear: arough] a plethora of architectural features.
[unclear: any] outside," says the [unclear: er] his breath, he shows
[unclear: act] nothing wide, it [unclear: f] the Hall, and it is [unclear: there] to drink in the [unclear: get] smashed in the [unclear: the] edge. Or if you [unclear: you] will probably [unclear: top]-hung, outward[unclear: exactly] eye ball height, [unclear: e] windows sit on [unclear: pre] [unclear: nything] more than [unclear: it] down at all, so you [unclear: fiable] risk.
[unclear: deceiving] me, or do
They do too, at just a [unclear: t] not enough to look [unclear: r].
[unclear: Act] the slope of the [unclear: ine,"] I suggest, [unclear: snorted,] unimpressed.
Actually the columns don't appear to have much reason for existence as their base is virtually in space, and anyway there is a line of unequivocally structural supports a few feet away. "Okay, so they're architectural expressions." The higher windows that these columns might or might not be reflecting, lean out like a Control Tower window, at about five times the angle of the columns. "Let's get the hell out of here," I plead, "all these divergent angles are making me cross-eyed."
"Let us look at the mezzanine," the guide snarls, taking me back inside. This Minstrels' thing around the main hall is just about wide enough for one easy chair and a pair of obstructive outstretched legs. It is very long.
"Good for linear conversations," I observe.
"Good for ticket-collecting," he retorts. Still, it does have a view, provided the sun isn't shining too brightly. It also provides some of the most unresolved architectural detailing ever perpetrated. At one corner in particular, it looks as if several trades and their executors have all raced in towards each other, and on meeting, just stopped dead. Columns, windows, timber panels, balustrades, plaster, acoustic tiles, all sort of meet in a recess at the end of the mezzanine. At this point the mezzanine splits into a descending staircase, leaving a very functional, two feet wide approximately, flat space of incredible stupidity.
"Get me out of here," I choke. My open-minded critical faculties are now totally extinguished.
"Prepare yourself," say both the guide and the photographer in sepulchral tones.
"Christ, now what?" I ask.
"The greatest," the guide replies. We approach a pair of double doors. In the room beyond, just out of range of the door-swing, and to all practical purposes right in the middle of the route of travel, stands a large, round, concrete, column.
"No." I cannot believe my eyes.
"Yes," they laugh, "It's true."
This room is truly another masterpiece. It has four or five non-parallel walls, round columns, bits of round columns, bits of square columns, sharp re-entrant corners shamefacedly disguised by triangular meter-cupboards, windows again overlooking the kitchen and yard but positively not the view. Yes, students of architecture must not miss this room. Pevsner must record and immortalise it.
"What the bloody hell is it for?" I am practically screaming.
"I'm not sure yet, but I think it's going to be a music room of some sort."
"That would be it, perfect, in view of the acoustics," I reverberate. "Yes, that is all it needs. To be a music room."
Sadly I turn away from this fantastic room, thinking of the image my beloved profession must present to Academe.
"I'm going for a drink. In fact several." I say, as we totter past valedictory examples of bad building and nondesign, telephone cubicles in fantastically noisy lobbies, doors opening into circulation areas where they will hit someone, rhomboid rooms, inadequate toilet facilities, a cacophany of waste spaces in endless confusion.
"About fifteen hundred words then?" enquires my guide.
"Probably two would suffice," I say, "but I'll try and write something comprehensible." Writing comprehensibly on the incomprehensible is about the same as extending the inextensible, I think to myself.
Standing near the Cable Car on my way to the Western Park Hotel I look back towards the University. With the exception of the Gold-Medal Library Arts Block, it is a mediocre collection of architectural misfits, and I am tempted to think that somebody has got it in for Victoria. The culmination of this mediocrity, the Student Union and its extension, assures me that somebody Has got it in for the students.