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Julia Gatley has a hateful problem of hideous proportions. "I don't understand how people can find these buildings ugly because I find them really beautiful." She's talking about modern architecture, in particular, public and commercial buildings like Auckland's Parnell Baths, the state-owned Grey's Ave Flats and the city's Administration Building.

The latter, beside the Aotea Centre and known as the Civic Building, was voted the second worst building in Auckland this year. Gatley, an Auckland University lecturer in architectural history and design, is aghast: "I can't comprehend why people find the building ugly because I look at it and I really admire it. I admire its proportions, the height, how slender it is, the modulation of the surfaces through the glazing bars, the expression of the stairwell at the northern end of the building ..."

It's a view that Gatley, and a dedicated group of academics, architects, historians and heritage consultants want more to share. Enter Long Live the Modern: New Zealand's New Architecture, 1904-1984, the culmination of a two-year project that has seen her, with the help of about 50 contributors, scour the country for 180 examples of modernism we ought to value.

The fat coffee table book, which launched yesterday with an exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery, is challenging. The front cover image of the Monro State building in Nelson sets the scene. Designed in 1966 by Cedric Firth using pre-stressed concrete "to generate the appearance of a floating box", it is indeed a concrete box. Look again and it is possible to appreciate the symmetry, simplicity of structure, clean lines, even the textural variation in the exposed aggregate panels of the building's flanks. But it's a shift in focus that doesn't come easily. Ditto for other images - a swag of mundane state housing projects, unassuming sheds, curtain wall office blocks and assorted, seemingly unappealing monstrosities. There are even photos of motorways.

Yes, Gatley has had some people look at the book and suggest these are buildings that should be pulled down. But she is undeterred and asks them to think again. "The more you look at these buildings, the more you like them. What I'm trying to do with both the book and the exhibition is put the issue of modern heritage into the public realm and hopefully raise public awareness about the value of these things."

The modern movement began in the 1920s with architects like Le Corbusier in France and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus school in Germany. Its aesthetic involved the simplification of form, the elimination of ornament and above all, perhaps to reflect the purity of the ideas, a strange obsession that buildings should be white. It was also about the honest expression of materials and structure, and had catch cries like "form follows function".

But as Long Live the Modern shows, modernism was much more than the formative 1920s high modern period. It moved on to a more sculptural phase which explored the possibilities of concrete and celebrated its rough texture - a good example of which is seen in Ryder Hall at New Plymouth Boys' High.

All around the world, the modern also took on a local flavour - here most clearly expressed in simple timber and concrete block houses, "elegant sheds", such as those built by the Group Architects in the 1950s and 60s. Interestingly, the local response, using local materials and attempting to respond to our culture and ways of living, went for a natural timber look and rejected whiteness in favour of the dark. A celebrated architect of the period, Vernon Brown, was particularly fond of creosote.

There was also quite a lot of nonsense spoken about modernism ideals. "For a long time modernism had rejected history," says Gatley. "Or at least they claimed to reject history. It turns out it was all part of the propaganda." Which is why she regards architects like Peter Beavan as so important. Masterful with the modern aesthetic of concrete and steel, Beavan also embraced history and the surrounding context in his designs.

Modernism had a strong egalitarian bent too. Hence the inclusion of state housing projects in the book. "Modern architects really believed the architecture they were producing, particularly with public housing, was going to improve the lives of the people who lived there." Long Live the Modern stretches the historical view, beginning with early 1900s "skyscrapers" - just seven or eight stories high and with exteriors wrapped in historical dressings, but with steel frames and lifts, which were undoubtedly modern.

Power stations feature, as do motorways and bridges because what could be more modern than electricity and the car.

Then there's mass production and standardisation in housing and building materials. New technologies to herald the new era. "The aim was to be inclusive, to go broad, to expand people's understanding of modernism, not to lock it down into a narrow definition," says Gatley.

But the difficulty of changing people's perception isn't her only problem. Auckland's Civic Building, for example, is ranked 16 on the "DoCoMoMo" top 20 list of New Zealand modern buildings deemed worthy of protected heritage status.

While the Parnell Baths and the Greys Ave Flats have heritage protection status on the council's District's Plan, the council's own building doesn't. Neither does it make the Historic Places Trust register.

DoCoMoMo is the international body formed in 1988 dedicated to the "DOcumentation and COnservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the MOdern MOvement."

Its New Zealand arm formed after a conference in 1996 and promptly set about making its top 20 list - an exercise that showed just how far behind we are in heritage protection of our more recent past.

The Historic Places Trust, where Gatley previously worked, is gradually catching up with about 10 of the top 20 on its register. But the idea that modern buildings should be preserved in recognition of both our history and contribution to a movement in architecture that swept the world, isn't catching on fast.

Large city councils seemed more attuned to the idea. Auckland has about 20 post-1940 buildings with heritage status on its District Plan, including the 1974 West Plaza building on the corner of Albert and Fanshawe Sts. Designed by Price, Adams, Dodd, the building was voted the fourth best building in Auckland this year, showing the public doesn't always view the modern as ugly.

For those who know, the building is regarded as a shrine to - some would say a rip-off of - Gio Ponti's 1958 Pirelli building in Milan. But as the book points out, it was buildings like this that bought "a verve and sophistication" to Auckland and helped turn it into an international city.

While our large cities do show some sensibility towards modernism, the smaller councils, which take their lead from the under-resourced Historic Places Trust, don't yet have it on their radar. Wanganui, for example, still hasn't listed the 1956-60 Wanganui War Memorial Town Hall, despite it being on the trust's register. The "clean, white, modernist block floating on pilotis" is described by Gatley as "perhaps New Zealand's fullest, and finest, public expression of mid-century international modernism".

Despite the difficulties, Gatley remains convinced the modern is making a comeback. "There is a cyclic process of particular movements falling out of fashion, then interest in them starts up again. Look at the fall, then resurgence in Art Deco. That's what is happening with modernism, the interest in our modern heritage will only increase."

If a first look at Long Live the Modern gives the impression modernism in here is writ small, mean and nasty, it pays to have another look. As the book shows, New Zealand has a long history of the modern, and for those with open eyes, a rich heritage.

In print: Long Live the Modern: New Zealand's New Architecture, 1904-1984, edited by Julia Gatley, Auckland University Press, $65.

Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to Nov 22. Includes Institute of Architects Auckland Branch, Architecture Weekend - conversations with architects Ted McCoy, Jim Beard, Peter Beaven, today 1-3pm.

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