von Meier States Defects in New Elam Building

Left to right: A rendering of the Elam Fine Arts Building in 1963; the building as it appears today (2017).

Left to right: A rendering of the Elam Fine Arts Building in 1963; the building as it appears today (2017).

The article below is reprinted from the May 6, 1963 edition of "Craccum," the weekly publication of the Auckland University Students’ Association. 


The finishing touches are just being applied to the first project of the University's ambitious £26,000,000 building programme. Land is being purchased and ground cleared for the new science block; drawings for the arts block and the library, also to be built by the firm of Massey, Beatson, Rix-Trott, Carter and Co., are being studied currently. 

It is a crucial time to invite serious architectural criticism of the newly completed Fine Arts building and to examine the implica­tions it might have for the entire programme. In fact, the term 'architec­tural criticism' may be anomalous. The Fine Arts building has such serious short­comings that the term 'archi­tecture' can be applied to it only problematically at best. It is a masquerade of architec­ture. It is devoid of human warmth, puerile in a design sense, and if only a joke or a sporting diversion, then ex­pensive enough to make a very bad joke indeed.
        But there is no protest or criticism. Among professional architects there exists a mutual praise and self-preserv­ing sentiment that virtually excludes any possibility for sound and honest criticism of another architect's work. The average citizen, who always pays most and suffers most from bad design, whether in architecture, furniture or motor cars, is too ignorant or too apathetic to propose solid objections to the way his tax money is being spent.


There is one hope: that the students most directly affected by the current debacle of bungled building and those scheduled to suffer soon in new academic abodes, take a long, thoughtful look at these architrectural problems and at their implications.
        To take a long look at the Fine Arts building, one must cross to the other side of Grafton Gully. There is a pleasant slope of grass in the Domain, or a vantage point near the hospital, or a bench in Blandford Park. Perhaps from the cockpit of Captain Ladd's aeroplane the building would look its best, set in thick trees on the side of the bank, partially hidden.
        From a distance there are no clear architectural masses to assert themselves, just bits of brick, white panel and glass windows: fragments that are untroublesome, and easy to forget. From any distance the looming monstrosity of the government flats, a white shadow of Big Brother hovers over the Fine Arts building, harsh and white like a set for a Kafka novel, compelling the vision, usurping the critical eye.
        A distant view and a long thoughtful look are incompat­ible. We must go closer.


The room I know best, and the room I use most, is the lecture hall. It is on the ground floor, and is the first part of the building complex one comes to following the road in from Wynyard Street. It forms with the library above, a short two-storeyed wing, on one side facing a small concrete court­yard in which pieces of sculp­ture have been set. This hall is now being used for lectures for the BA unit, History and Theory of Fine Arts I, and for lectures in the same field that form part of the pro­gramme for Diploma of Fine Arts students. It will seat about a hundred people and has been used for other assem­blies and, with the chairs removed, for receptions.
        Most of the lectures in art history require the projection of slides, hence there is a large white plaster-surfaced screen at one end of the room and a projection booth sus­pended from the ceiling at the other end. The screen is built into the wall, and is immobile, as is obviously the booth.
        There is a fixed distance between them which can be varied only about six inches by moving the projector itself forward and backward in the projection booth. The size of the projected image varies according to the distance be­tween the projector and the screen, in this case about 30 feet. Another way of control­ling the size of the projected image is to vary the size of the lens on the projector. But there are only a limited num­ber of standard lens sizes. Since the projection distance is fixed, only the lens sizes may be altered. But with a 120mm lens the projected 35mm slide overlaps the screen by an annoying six or eight inches. If a 150mm lens is used, the slide 'fits' on to the screen, but about six or eight inches of screen space, is wasted along each edge.
        The optimum use cannot be derived from the screen, and one suspects that the architec­tural solution was arrived at arbitrarily, without cognisance of, the operative factors in­volved.
        This suspicion tends to be confirmed, if anything, by an examination of detailing in the room. When not in use, the screen is covered by four large sliding wooden panels, two on each side 'telescoped'. These are heavy, somewhat cumber­some, and certainly an expen­sive solution to a fairly simple problem of protection. The panels are constructed out of two types of timber in con­trasting light and dark tones that I find rather garish. Nor is this questionable taste much improved by the highly var­nished surface finish.


Unfortunately, this same criticism applies throughout the building. Where native timbers are used, in every case their natural beauty is cheap­ened by an indiscriminate coat of varnish. Not only is the screen panelling particularly offensive in this respect, neither does it work very well. There are no stops for the sliding panels so that they might be centered easily. When closed, their patterning, slightly askew, upsets the visual equilibrium of the entire room. This can be psychologically subtly disturbing in a class whose attention is directed towards the panels for an hour at a time.
        A corollary to the problem of slide projection is that of lighting. The room must be darkened enough for the slides to be visible; for colour slides this means that the screen must receive as little inciden­tal light as possible. But at the same time, students need a certain amount of light by which to take notes in refer­ence to the slides. The problem is not adequately solved by compromising on the total light available in the room. It should be obvious that the solution lies in controlling and directing light and light sources.
        The control of light is attempted by hanging blackout curtains in front of all win­dow areas. But these curtains hang in folds and the light streams in. Some sort of box­ing arrangement should be attempted to control the direct and reflected light that spills in over the suspension rods of the curtains, but this seems to be very much of an after­thought and will be a stopgap measure at best. An added inconvenience is that the cur­tains are difficult to draw and are suspended on such flimsy rods that their weight (prob­ably abetted by a lusty pull at the recalcitrant draw cords) has already caused one rod to give way. No attempt whatso­ever is made to direct the interior lighting, which is sup­plied by nine fluorescent fix­tures, arranged in parallel rows of three. Clearly this should be supplemented by lighting directed so as to avoid washing out the image on the screen, but still providing ade­quate illumination for taking of notes.
        Another factor which, for no excuse, affects the lighting, is that the two sets of double doors leading into the lecture hall from the corridor have panes of pebbled glass. These will require curtaining, and for the time being are covered by posterboard. A solid door would have been more reason­able. But this same type of door recurs throughout the entire building. It gives a dull, stuffy, institutional feeling.


The door handles are par­ticularly unappealing bits of hardware, in general very badly installed: more than one set of knuckles have been scraped by crooked screw heads. One of these doors was in place at the entrance to the photography darkroom during construction, however; the glass pane was removed and a panel of plywood sub­stituted. A great deal more sensitive thought might have been given to such questions of detailing.
        Within the lecture hall itself, however, there are just three other things that deserve par­ticular mention. The first of these is the ladder leading up to the projection booth. It is no doubt costly, made of alu­minium, and is conspicuously ugly. I do not know if the architect has calculated the possibility that the steps of this ladder could snap as a result of metal fatigue (alu­minium is particularly brittle). The ladder itself appears badly made, with projecting bits of metal here and there, and a dangerously impossible hand­rail set much to close to the wall.


But even having our sympathy, the architect must, in the end, assume the respon­sibility for the finished (or unfinished) result. The concrete base of the floor was not properly. laid. Only a cursory attempt was made to correct it, and it is still not level, but punctuated by swells and hol­lows. Covered with undulating cork tile, one of these waves crested under a set of the double entrance doors, which remained partially opened for a few weeks until the door could be planed down. How long the cork will stay glued down is anybody's guess.
        Next, the booth itself is ill-conceived: a box stuck up on the ceiling. Shelves were overlooked and supplied by the contractor at the last minute. The architect was unaware of, or unconcerned with, the specific type of equipment to be used in the booth (movie projector, tape recorder, turn­table and amplifier in addition to the slide projector) or storage space (for tapes, records, slides, films, etc.). The points and light switches are badly placed and such a simple thing as coordinating the on-off positions of three switches was botched.
        Ventilation in the booth will almost certainly prove to be inadequate, and the projection apertures are narrow and badly placed. A good design for this space would have  demanded careful investigation of its function and meticulous planning. The result here is unfortunately a nasty, cramped and inadequate space.
        Finally, our attention will have come to rest on the floor itself. There were many prob­lems over the construction of the floor, involving differences of opinion between contractors, sub-contractors and other parties. Something like this prob­ably happens on most jobs, and indeed, will be virtually impossible for the architect to avoid, if only because archi­tecture is the creation of human beings.
        To sum up all these specific points of ccriticism, the lecture hall as it stands today is a failure. It does provide shelter from the elements and it is, to be sure, a package of lec­ture-hall things. One can give lectures in it. But strictly speaking this fact gives it little superiority over a cow barn. Functionally it is not truly adequate (mostly because of the lighting). Architecturally it is a dead loss.
        One architectural possibility that might have been exploited — just one — is the relation­ship of the lecture hall space to the exterior courtyard we mentioned before. This was the ideal opportunity for an archi­tectural expression of the fact that the lectures inside the hall bear some fundamental relation to the pieces of sculp­ture outside, in the courtyard. The heavily proportioned white painted window and door frames rather give one the sense of being in a cage; they brutally separate the spaces and symbolically divide two activities of the school which in reality seek an intimate and vital interrelationship.
        There are a series of large general planning issues that must be raised. The first of these is concerned with obso­lescence. Any large building erected for the University should take into consideration the problem of growth and expansion. If this is not done, the building as a whole is threatened with premature obsolescence. In the new Fine Arts building, it seems that there was very little thought given to this. It would perhaps require the professional judg­ement of a practising architect or engineer to tell whether—and if so, what kind -- of additions could be made to the building.


There seems to be only one wall that suggests it could be added on to: the two-storeyed reinforced concrete wall at the end of the library and lecture hall. Roadway and parking facilities are now being con­structed outside this wall. Apart" from this possibility all exterior additions will probably have to be separate or semi-separate structures.
        An equally serious situation is met with internally. The room spaces are quite inflex­ible, and possibilities of growth and change seem to have been totally neglected. An example of this is the problem of office space. The BA unit in the History and Theory of Fine Arts which was introduced just this year required an imme­diate addition to the staff of another art historian.
        The University was fortun­ate enough to be able to appoint Mr. Arthur Lawrence as Visiting Lecturer for 1963. As an art historian, it was, of course, desirable that he have an office near both the library and the lecture hall. But the only space available was the last remaining staff studio, located on the top story of the building. Other University lecturers face far greater in­conveniences but none of them in a brand new building. What happens when the Faculty of Fine Arts appoints yet another member of staff?
        A number of studios were designed for use by Honours students. In the first year of operation, already it is honours students without studios of their own now share part of lecture rooms, but what happens when rising enrollment prevents this, prob­ably within the next very few years? The limited availability of space also creates a problem for storage. Apart from the cloakroom, no significant space is provided for storage (a traditionally important prob­lem for schools of fine arts).
        There exists a gallery in one of the sculpture rooms, but storage of pieces requires negotiating a steep and nar­row ladder impractical for most pieces of sculpture, and impossible for larger pieces. Lockers for students are absurdly small and give the corridors a cluttered feeling associated usually with ancient grammar schools. There is, after all, only a certain amount of space to be obtained from a building of a given size. The critical question to raise is how much space in the given building is wasted. Here, there is much. For ex­ample, there is the length of the corridor on the first floor, some 80 feet by about six feet wide and five feet high, above the false ceiling of the corri­dor. This space could be con­verted into usable storage area with added labour and expense. As it is today, it is wasted space, with only trap­door access.
        From the outside the build­ing presents hardly a more favourable aspect than from the inside. The typical facade is composed of insensitive rectangles of glass, composition board of a glaring white, and the dull, incessant mullions and partitions. There is some­thing suggesting the inhuman­ity of a factory or the impersonality of an office block. These characteristics might apply to some schools of art and they might have been true of Elam some years ago, but they are manifestly false in the face of what has been happening here in Auckland in the fine arts in the last few years.
        A narrow, dogmatic, aca­demic-in-the-worst-sense atti­tude has been superseded almost entirely by a new, liberal, healthy, anti-authori­tarian attitude. Results are already apparent. There are some young fine arts students who could hold their own with any students in the world of comparable age and experi­ence. Three or four (which is a very satisfactory average) have true and exciting promise. Throughout the whole school there is a spark in the air, a sense of subtle urgency that something is happening, and that this something is very close to the core or to the well spring of all true art. It is sad that the new building enfolds all this in' a lie.
        It is not only  a lie in the realm of the spirit, admittedly a difficult area in which to achieve consensus or agree­ment about what is happen­ing. The building is a physical lie. What does it mean, physic­ally, in Grafton Gully? What is there about it of relevance to the magnificent site? De­spite all the glass, there is but a single place from which one can enjoy a view of the harbour and Rangitoto beyond and that is at the head of the northern stair well. This space could have been a wonderful lounge area. The architect filled it with two custodian's closets and, as usual, destroyed the sweep of the view by split­ting up the window area into cage-like series of separate panes. Apart from the fact that the administration, wing rests on the hillside, the whole building might just as well be erected on the plains of Cen­tral Otago.
        The approach from Wynyard Street is down a long drive, under some grand trees: an oak, a cypress, some Norfolk pines and, on the left, down hill, a bamboo grove. The drive, when finished, promises to neuter some of the charm. A consolation is that it could have been much worse. With one or two other individuals, I claim credit for personally making certain that the larg­est of the big oaks was not destroyed during road building operations. Even so, the trunk was grazed by the tumbling stump of a redwood that "had to be" cleared. Much earlier a rimu tree was carelessly killed when it was scraped by a bulldozer blade.


Lining the drive is a curb. How much an insignificant thing as a curb can have a character? Out of the many possibilities for making a curb, if indeed a curb was needed at all, how well does  this choice fit in with the character of the whole building? It is a fair warning. (Judge its character for yourselves). The the curb becomes a bluestone wall. It is handsome, as well it might be for the expense. I would prefer something less preten­tious, like a wall of scoria boulders, such as the one on Gillies Avenue near Mortimer Pass. There is an upper and lower parking area. Behind the lower bluestone wall there is buried a beautiful old wall of brick, worn and warm and weathered, but still basically sound. I wonder if there was any way that wall could be incorporated into the land­scaping? Probably the plan­ning mentality was as inflex­ible as the architectural forms suggest. A bluestone wall, somewhat cold, to be sure, now covers the buried brick one built by some unknown but not insensitive early Aucklander.
        There is not room here to question the conception and the detailing of every space in the building. In almost every area there are things that are just quite simply wrong. A random and by no means exhaustive sampling fol­lows. My office has a wretch­ed carpet, salvaged from the old school on Great North Road because there was no more money left when it came time to put in things like carpets. (The bluestone walls were in though). There is also a 'curious double-paned frosted glass window in the middle of one of the in­terior walls. It has no latch, it is about seven feet above floor level and it fronts onto a Mysterious Space. On the other side of this Mysterious Space is  yet another pair of frosted glass panes which can be seen from the interior cor­ridor. Your guess is as good as mine.
        The staff common room has one full glass wall (sub-divi­ded of course) facing the main entry of the school. This-is not conducive to privacy. Another wall has a string of mean little windows near the top of a bleak expanse where one would like to see a glass wall.
        The students' common room has partitioned glass panes that cry to be opened onto the small adjoining courtyard. In front of the lower glass win­dows are radiators (a debat­able solution, even though Mies van der Rohe can be cited as a precedent). Neither common room possesses so much as a single gas ring or hot plate. If one should perchance, choose to fry an egg, there is an electric plate in the graphics studio, at the risk of having etching ink in lieu of tomato sauce. The stu­dents' Common Room has in­stead a Mysterious Column. This Column is free standing and runs from floor to ceiling. It is rumoured that the Mys­terious Column continued through rooms on the floors above and below the common room. There are various theories about this Column. Some say it is hollow, and that just after the contractors left, there was still an aroma of amontillado clinging to the vicinity.
        Students visiting from the School of Architectuure are in disagreement. Some hold that this Column represents an en­tirely new Order; others that it was intended to be Tuscan but that the contractor forgot the base and the capital.
        Offices in the administrative wing are all located on the shady side of the building. A few crisp mornings toward the end of March already made them uncomfortably cold. The main school office is another reminder of primary school days in its layout and materi­als. The library is one of the least unsuccessful rooms on the main floor but there are annoying things like an elec­trical socket right by the en­trance doors and none behind the librarian's desk. A small electric heater just to take the chill off during the first hours of the morning means a dangerous cord dangling in front of the doors and the stairway to the mezzanine.
        The sprinkler system which accounts for the string of pipes in most rooms is in­stalled without apparent regard for what is being protect­ed from fire, here the books. One of the sprinklers set off accidentally could do a famous amount of damage in the two minutes' time it theoretically takes to have the valve shut off. By the way, this master valve is located in the techni­cian's workshop, which is usually kept locked; how much more reasonable it would have been to put the valve on the other side of the wall, in a corridor and easily available in case of emergency.
        In the first weeks of opera­tion, the sculpture studios, all located on the ground floor, have presented a serious main­tenance problem. One of the principal activities is plaster casting, which means that the floors are covered with plaster chips and powder. They can­not be cleaned or hosed down quickly and efficiently, so the plaster is tracked all over the building. Mats and a grating are just not the answer, while it is also unreasonable to require students to make a complete change of clothing when leaving their sculpture for a cup of tea in the com­mon room or more import­antly, to work out some idea arrived while sculpting, in a different medium. Such essen­tial pieces of furniture as bins for storing clay were added as afterthoughts, to meet the objections and requests of people who were to use the rooms.
        The graphic studio, like the sculpture studios and one of the design rooms, suffers from high, prison-like sills. There is an impersonal sense of space, made less comfortable by sporadic pillars (actually steel girders, sheathed in that ubi­quitous varnished wood). The main design studio and the photography studio are prob­ably the best conceived work­ing spaces in the building. This is primarily due to the personal efforts of the two lecturers immediately  concerned, each of whom supplied detailed and well thought out programmes to the architect. Even so it is now necessary to use the photography studio as a seminar room three days of the week for the history and theory classes.
        The design of the staff studios, located on the top floor of the building, derives probably from a mistaken notion of the ideal 19th cen­tury artist's garret. There is south lighting (southern hemi­sphere, you know) and sills high enough to block out any view of greenery in Grafton Gully. The resulting light is an incredibly harsh glare. The floors are covered with a repulsive blue linoleum. Two storage cabinets for each studio are located outside the doors; on the other side of the corridor, and have un­locked sliding panels.
        Studio doors have the recur­rent pebbled glass panels that need a piece of tapa cloth or cardboard tacked up inside to preserve some degree of privacy. Any piece of work done in the studio must be carried down the stairs by hand from the fourth floor, as there is no lift in the building.
        Hazarding a rough guess, the amount of floor space saved by installing a lift in place of one of the two stairwells would probably have paid for the lift itself. The north stairwell would be the one to replace if only because of its nasty little rectangular windows poked in the phony brick facade (another costly bit of icing on the stale cake). Apart from this brickwork, however, the whole building looks like it might be toppled, by the first strong breeze. Actually, one small schoolboy with a cricket bat could do an incredible amount of damage. Against more natural elements, the structure should survive quite well, which is likely a damnation in disguise.
        It is a pity that the building will probably never fall down. This is partly due to the vast quantity of steel used in its construction. I should like to have an engineer's opinion about the degree to which the building is overstructured. And steel in New Zealand is not cheap. This is the first of the University's  new buildings `meant to last', but it is impos­sible to escape the visual impression that it is just another- 'temporary' expedi­ency.
        Just how inexpedient the building is, though, is summed up by the failure of the paint­ing studios, located on the first or main floor. There is one large room and two smaller, but still fairly good sized studios. The level of the win­dow sills is again about five feet six inches from the floor: just enough to shut out the magnificent view, but not enough to exclude the glare. Supposedly students are in­tended to concentrate on forms of Ideal Beauty and not to be aware of the forms of nature and the restless, chang­ing natural light of the world about them.
        Well, an interesting thing has happened in two of the painting studios. The rooms were at first bare and inhos­pitable, and students stayed there to paint only grudgingly, having nowhere else to go. Then, with the staff's permis­sion, but quite on their own initiative, they parceled out areas of the room, like medieval fiefs.
       Each student used pieces of discarded furniture, timber, or some of their own old paintings with which to build a wall around his 'land'. These walls usually rise to shoulder height and some of them are little more than symbolic. However, they are also a type of symbolic architectural criti­cism: students were forced to do what the architect failed to do, to provide for them­selves places in which they could work. It is unpremedi­tated, necessity-driven criti­cism like this that I find almost heart-breakingly elo­quent.
        In fact, this specific example points.up a 'fundamental criti­cism of the whole architectural conception of the new Fine Arts building, the importance of which far transcends any particular criticisms of detail or material. The building is conceived as a series of boxes, or box-like spaces. The.admin­istrative structure of the school is 'expressed' architecturally by locating the activi­ties of sculpture, painting and design on three different floor levels. The administration has one wing and the library, with the history and theory lecture hall, another. The staff com­mon room and the student common room are at opposite ends of the building. Staff studios are on an Olympian level.
        Now this is all very neat, but the kindest critic could not really call it imaginative. It is the sort of thing that looks impressive only on the drawing board. As an expres­sion of what the Faculty of Fine Arts is, it is an outright lie. This does not keep it from imposing (or at least imply­ing) a mode of activity upon those people who live and work in the building, and therefore, it simply cannot be ignored. Quite against the will and efforts of the school, the various activities are, severed into categories.
        Tremendous, but totally un­necessary barriers are erected between activities, and cross fertilisation is precluded to a large extent. Two great needs are completely ignored. There needs to be one large space with facilities for many differ­ent kinds of activity: sculp­ture, drawing, p a i n t i n g, graphics, design, reading, coffee, smoking, music, or what­ever else should chance to occur within the bounds of propriety. This should be a room that is intimate with life, just as art and life are so essentially interdependent.
        And there also needs to be space where one may be alone: alone to read or think, alone to nurture that first shy of inspiration, alone to work: in fact, alone to do any of the things that one might do in a large room with other people, but would just rather do alone. Pigeon hole architecture prevents this as much as it prevents the other. No pigeon hole is ever truly private, and artistic creativity may consider some privacy essential.
        I am not interested in ex­amining here the excuses for the new Fine Arts building. Anyway they tend to follow a pattern common not only to architecture or to the other fine arts. Excuses become very tedious; New Zealand is a small country; there were only limited funds available; there were import restrictions: people do not like 'modern' architecture here, etc. I find it very unfunny that otherwise intelligent people persist in kidding themselves along with the weak alibis, and think it is high time those intelligent people muster enough common sense and in­tegrity to start demanding reasonable explanations.
        The first line of enquiry, which is also likely to prove the most embarrassing and hence the most dangerous, might be the question of responsibility. Of course, there was a programme submitted by staff members many years ago. This was little more than a guide in most cases and the present staff had very little to  do with the design and virtually nothing to do with the architectural con­ception. In any case the staff became officially connected with the building only at the beginning of this University term.
        Normally the architect would assume responsibility for the "architecture" involved. But who is responsible for the architect? These in­tricate issues are, however closely they impinge upon architecture, outside the scope of an architectural critique. There seems to be a clear need for further types of criticism. I would like to read statements by people who live and work in the building, by professional architects who dare brave the "club rules" enough to make a straight-­forward assessment of the building as architecture, or by engineers, librarians, aestheticians, artists, garden­ers, by anyone who has look­ed carefully and who has something to say. The most trenchant criticism could well come from students in the school of architecture who have acquired some profess­ional background but who have not yet become stultified or members of the mutual admiration society.
        It is frustrating in the ex­treme to think of the maxi­mum' possibilities: what the building could have been, with the exciting program of a school of fine arts, with rich natural materials and with an incomparable site. It makes one angry to think of the minimum that the building should have been, and all that we, have is a grim and sterile foreboding of things to come.


Building: Faculty of Fine Arts, the University of. Auckland. (Elam School. of Fine Arts.)
Location: 58 Wynyard St. (just behind St. Paul's Church, corner Symonds and Wellesley Streets).
Architect: A. H. Curtis.
Architectural Firm: Mas­sey, Beatson, Rix-Trott, Carter and Co.
Contractors: Calder Construction Co. Ltd.


Kurt von Meier,
Senior Lecturer, History and Theory of Fine Arts.