Paul Moon: Shed no tears over those eyesores

The Queen's Wharf cargo sheds were designed purely for functional reasons with no regard to visual appeal. Photo / Dean Purcell
The Queen's Wharf cargo sheds were designed purely for functional reasons with no regard to visual appeal. Photo / Dean Purcell

When did architects forfeit the right to comment on the aesthetic value of buildings, such as Auckland's rightly-maligned Queen's Wharf sheds?

Probably during the Industrial Revolution, when the profession discovered that it needed technicians to build bigger factories and more opulent-looking public buildings.

Artistic sensibilities increasingly were looked on as an optional accessory, while structural capabilities and functional requirements came to dominate the requirements of the profession.

Prior to then, architects were artists first, and building designers second. The magnificent constructions conceived by the likes of Bernini and Michelangelo were marvels of creativity and originality, and achieved lasting appeal.

Yet, both of these men, and scores of others like them before the 19th century, came to architecture after starting their careers in the fine arts.

This is no longer the case. Increasingly, it seems that architecture has become dominated by the art of fashion-infused mimicry. So much of what is designed and erected mirrors (sometimes literally) adjacent buildings.

Consider Auckland's Queen Street as an example. Since the 1980s, architects have deposited piles of stark steel and glaring glass in the form of office buildings that often stand cheek by jowl with very similar edifices.

Nothing stands out for its creativity, nothing is memorable. Safe and bland is the order of the day, and it has been carried out diligently.

During the same period, the country has been subject to residential design which - notwithstanding occasional flares of architectural brilliance - shares the same trait of relying on imitation.

Bereft of any strong urge of creativity, or perhaps just bowing to client demand, too many architects over the last two decades resorted to designing homes that would import "a touch of Tuscany" into suburban New Zealand. This was an architectural caricature at its most craven, without even mentioning the issue of leaks.

There is now, however, a shrill chorus of architects pleading for the long-unloved and unlovable sheds on Queen's Wharf to be "preserved". Architects have suddenly become the self-appointed arbiters of public taste, even though the evidence of so much of their work would appear to militate against this position.

An architectural firm has recently argued in the Herald that "The proposal to remove them [the sheds] seems to be made on an aesthetic evaluation based on their present condition".

This is not the case. Their aesthetic value, even if they were restored to pristine condition, would be negligible, except for those with very fanciful imaginations.

The sheds were constructed during a period when the Arts and Crafts movement was reaching its maturity, yet they show no influence of this. Neither are there any traces of modernism in the sheds, which was the emerging force in design at that time.

Indeed, there is not even the residue of Gothic-Revival, which a few of the more conservative architects still indulged in at the beginning of the 20th century.

So some architects have started to throw around words such as "heritage", "rejuvenation" and "history" as an alternative justification for keeping these dour and decaying storage spaces.

The fact is that the sheds on the Wharf were designed purely for functional reasons, in an age where aesthetic appeal in industrial buildings was considered even less important than it is now.

To elevate them to anything even resembling architectural merit is disingenuous.

Realising this, the argument has again shifted - even more unconvincingly - to emphasising the fact that among the materials used in sheds' construction is kauri and Australian hardwood (which could surely be recycled for better uses), and that there is some alleged intrinsically historical value in these morose buildings continuing to slouch on our waterfront.

Admittedly, historical value is subjective, but it is surely a fallacy that just because something is (relatively) old, it therefore deserves a protective case placed over it so that it can be preserved in perpetuity.

And all the time that the space is being held hostage by these grim buildings, the opportunity for our present generation of architects to shine by designing something genuinely inspirational on Queen's Wharf is kept out of reach.

That, surely, is the bigger architectural offence.

Dr. Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and is currently completing a biography of the artist Augustus Earle.

- NZ Herald

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