David Tsow: Skyscraper was ahead of its time

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Architect followed Le Corbusier's principles when he designed No 1 Greys Ave, writes David Tsow.

The building at 1 Greys Ave in central Auckland rises from its park-like setting, above the hustle and bustle of the city. Photo / Richard Robinson
The building at 1 Greys Ave in central Auckland rises from its park-like setting, above the hustle and bustle of the city. Photo / Richard Robinson

Rumblings about the possible demolition of the Auckland Civic Administration structure at 1 Greys Ave have led me to investigate this interesting building, which first intrigued me when I visited Auckland 13 years ago. I didn't know then that it was Auckland's first skyscraper, built in 1966.

It appears to follow Le Corbusier's design principles dating from the 1920s, making it a rarity in a world of concrete and glass boxes. The inventiveness of the designer, Tibor Donner, Auckland's chief architect at the time, is in his unique translation of Le Corbusier's principles into a specifically New Zealand context.

Why did Donner choose to follow Le Corbusier when the prevailing thought on high-rise office buildings was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's "skin and bones" approach? In 1956-58, the Seagram building in Manhattan, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, became the prototype of the high-rise building.

The world followed that example. But Donner rejected it, and because of his choice this building is an excellent example of the spirit of New Zealand innovation for study and analysis.

Donner had visited New York in 1956 to study the Lever House (Errol Haarholf, A Guide to the Architecture of Central Auckland, 2003), designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill according to architectural principles as stated in Mies van der Rohe's Working Theses (1923): "The office building is a house of organisation, of clarity, of economy ... That is to say, buildings consisting of skin and bones."

Donner deliberately turned his back on all that, however, and instead drew from a number of Le Corbusier principles, beginning with the "five points" of that designer's manifesto (Five Points Towards a New Architecture published in 1926 by Le Corbusier and P. Jeanneret).

The first point deals with supports, and in the Donner building the supporting columns at the ground floor, two storeys high, very clearly express Le Corbusier's ideas.

The second point is the roof garden. In Donner's design, it is clearly visible from the north and is articulated by its own roof.

Third, the free design of the ground floor plan consists of a two-storey high lobby, and further examination of the plan will reveal other elements of this concept, such as the corner staircase.

Fourth, the horizontal windows also follow Le Corbusier's principle, but they are reinterpreted in aluminium, and the north elevation has aluminium sunscreens, the struts of which emphasise their horizontality. Finally, the fifth point, the free design of the facade, is exhibited in the four different designs for the four elevations.

Other external features I have observed that relate to principles Le Corbusier proposed are the rounded corners of the penthouse, the probable "regulating line" in the design, and the possible "modulor" basis (the scale of proportions derived from the human body) for the windows - all areas for research and analysis.

The site of the Civic Administration building and the approach to it also deserve attention. The site is park-like and in the woods, yet it is in the urban centre.

The approach is not urban, is not on street level, but rather is down from the street, since the building is in a hollow.

The building is set apart from the grime and hustle of the city, and yet it is a high-rise office building. The contradiction between a poetic, pastoral image and the urban function of the building is arresting.

This unique building is a remarkable New Zealand architectural object to be studied and analysed.

It represents New Zealand's approach to innovation and creativity and contributes to the dynamic expression of the New Zealand identity.


David Tsow is an architect (retired), MRAIC, Professor Emeritus (Ryerson Polytechnical University, Canada).

- NZ Herald

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