When Lance Girling-Butcher took on the job of steering the Len Lye Centre project through for New Plymouth's district council he was well aware of an impending irony -- he would never get to see the outcome.

Girling-Butcher was going blind when, as a new councillor in 2007, he was asked to take charge of the Len Lye Committee.

"Looking back now, I can see it was a cunning move by [then-mayor] Peter Tennent," he said as the centre opened this week. "My eyesight was pretty bad then, so nobody could accuse me of self-indulgence."

Glaucoma-induced blindness had already forced him to retire early from his job as editor of the Taranaki Daily News in 2006, but didn't deter him from standing successfully for council.


With a lifetime interest in the arts, he embraced the Len Lye Centre project, applying a steady hand to get the building through a political minefield of ratepayer resistance, design controversies and fund-raising.

A good number of the mines involved a growing feeling in conservative New Plymouth that the council was living beyond its means, and a flash new arts centre was the last thing it could afford.

By the 2013 local body elections, that feeling was so strong that Girling-Butcher and many of his fellow councillors were dumped. He puts his demise down to his association with the centre.

Which leads to another irony: building the Len Lye Centre didn't actually cost the ratepayers a cent. All $11.5 million for the project came from corporate and community sponsorship.

The naysayers said it would cost the city an extra $650,000 a year to run, but that was wrong, too.

In its first full year, the centre and the joined-at-the-hip Govett-Brewster Art Gallery will cost $3.2 million to operate (some of that offset by income from various initiatives -- which is about $200,000 more than if the gallery had continued without change.

Girling-Butcher felt he already knew what it looked like when he had his first tour of the nearly completed centre and renovated gallery, which opens to the public today.

"I mightn't be able to see it -- but I can experience it. The sounds, the feel of the great polished concrete ramps, the ambience, the noise of people enjoying it. It has a terrific atmosphere, and you can appreciate it almost as much from all your other senses."

In fact he does know what some of Lye's kinetic sculptures look like. He was chief reporter of the local evening paper, the Taranaki Herald, in 1977 when Lye came to the Govett-Brewster for the opening of his first exhibition.

"I took my family along, and I'll never forget the reaction from my three-year-old son, Tim, when he saw Trilogy play. He was transfixed. It may have led to his future career -- Tim is now a technical director at the Museum of Sydney."

He was helped by a vivid description of the centre by the architect, Andrew Patterson, and by running his hands over an architectural model.

He believes the outcome is a triumph not only for art but for New Zealand's engineering community, which used first-time techniques and much ingenuity to make the building a success.

He's delighted gallery staff have already shown through a group of 40 people with a variety of disabilities to test the building's utility. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery had already won national awards for arts access and he predicted the Len Lye Centre would achieve something similar.

Gallery staff say the centre's disability aids include wide walkways and ramps, flat surfaces, scarcity of stairs, a hearing loop that accommodates hearing aids, safe spaces, special days when trained people will offer assistance, and wheelchair-friendly lifts and toilets.

They got positive feedback from the test group, with only a few minor issues to do with visibility of steps. It helped staff develop safe pathways that will be used in future.