A new school for creative and performing arts opened in Auckland this week in an historic building. GRAHAM REID profiles the brickwork.

Alan Smythe's new office is a toilet. Literally. Or, more correctly, it was a toilet.

The genial director of Scapa, the University of Auckland's new School of Creative and Performing Arts, gestures towards the half-marbled wall before him.

"This was a urinal. You can still smell it some days," he laughs, then jokes about the possibility of a plaque reading, "Ray Columbus was here."


Columbus would not have been the only famous patron of what is now Smythe's office at 74 Shortland St, a distinctive and solid building which formerly housed the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation television studios, and before that was home to 1YA, the country's government-owned national radio station.

Now named the Kenneth Myers Centre - after the late father of Douglas Myers, a major benefactor of Scapa - the building saw the early stars of radio and television pass through its doors.

If these walls, now repainted in anticipation of throngs of creative students, could talk ...

"Once I was doing an interview with a dancer from the Royal Danish Ballet who was guesting with a New Zealand company," recalls former broadcaster Shirley Maddock. "Immediately beforehand the sports programme was interviewing a jockey who they'd foolishly invited to bring with him his horse. As you might guess the horse was a bit nervous and just at the entrance from the foyer into the studio he did his lot. But the ballet dancer took no notice and did a great jete [leap] over the top of it."

Maddock, who started in radio in 1953 and became a legend in local radio and television broadcasting, also recalls the terrazzo floors and high ceiling studs in the enormous cloakrooms of Shortland St, and a fire, started by a mouse in the cabling, which suddenly took television off air one night.

Columbus remembers frequently being in the upstairs studio from 1963 onward - initially with his band the Invaders - for programmes as diverse as New Faces and Town and Around.

"People like Hudson and Halls were discovered in that room, that was where everything used to happen. Then in 67 C'mon started in the downstairs studio and [producer/director] Kevin Moore did these incredible productions out of the place."

Max Cryer produced Mastermind in the building for eight years.

"But the pioneer of all that television was Kevin who produced miracles in that studio upstairs. And downstairs the world thought it was a Hollywood set, it was so grand."

The distinctive windowless brick building, designed to ensure it was soundproof, has numerous performance spaces. It is ideal as a school where students will scrape cellos, play jazz, rehearse dance productions and use the studios for film and television studies and production again. They will bring creative life once more to a building formerly at the cultural heart of this country when it took classical music and news to the ears of the nation, and then in later years was television's home to talent shows such as Have A Shot, and Just a Song at Twilight, with Reg Morgan and Jack Thompson around the piano playing popular songs from the 20s and 30s.

Later it was where our pop industry was made visible in shows such as Let's Go and C'Mon under the eye of Moore, and the venue for Telethons.

Thousands of ordinary, and extraordinary, New Zealanders have been through the building. Orchestras and interview subjects, rock stars and opera singers, comedians and politicians all passed through the heavy wooden doors until its labyrinthine corridors ("the catacombs," says Columbus) progressively fell silent this past decade.

The Shortland St building - yes, it lent its name to the programme - was one of the few major buildings constructed during the Depression.

Opened as a purpose-built radio station in the 30s, the building is classified by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a "category one" heritage building being of "special or outstanding historical cultural significance or value."

The site was a difficult cliff face, and while the frontage suggests a single storey structure, there is a tiered, three-storey drop at the back, down to a small garden outside the new cafeteria.

Programme organiser for the national radio stations in the early 60s, Sid Williamson recalls the building had excellent studio facilities "but because it was built into a cliff it was very difficult to get equipment into, there was a very steep pathway of steps down to the bottom level."

Maddock, too, remembers it as a very inconvenient building for people to work in because there was no lift. "The programme department was on one floor and the studios were on another so people had to carry heavy discs and tapes up the stairs. "

Perhaps because the purpose of the building was quite specific, its design is unique. It was aesthetically dislocated from its period, however, at a time when self-styled international modernists held sway. This building's facade was an ornate pastiche of historical styles.

Broadly art deco and with a facade inspired by Romanesque architecture, it was the work of architects Norman Wade and Alva Bartley, who also designed the gracefully ornate building on the corner of Queen and Durham St West, formerly Landmark House and known as the Auckland Power Board building.

The zig-zag pinnacles and the radio transmitter on the Shortland St roof emphasised verticality - much as the windows and mock columns on the former Landmark House do - and the stylised neo-classical motifs followed trends from Los Angeles.

On its opening in 1935 it was hailed as "a magnificent broadcasting palace" by the Northern Regional Director of Broadcasting, Mr John Proudfoot.

In 1960 the building was brought into line with contemporary fashion: ceilings were lowered, partitions erected to break up internal spaces and the handsome dome above the lobby area was covered by a false ceiling.

There had been a "mad drive to modernise" according to Geraldine Speed, a design consultant who in 1985 oversaw the restoration of much of the building to its original state.

After television went off air for the night on October 17 of that year, Donald and her crew ripped down the false roof in the foyer to reveal the grand lead-light dome once more.

"We had been briefed by the head of TVNZ to upgrade four of their buildings," says Speed. "and when we were fishing around we discovered there was a dome in there which had had a suspended ceiling put in below it. There was also an art deco window on the second floor which had a ceiling going through it so we removed that and uncovered another two-thirds of the window.

"When we opened up the dome above the reception area it was in most glorious puce-pink and green. We brought it back to a very nice off-white porcelain and reconstructed some amber panels. The glazing was geometric but the colouring was not actually uniform. We also had to add a Georgian wired glass dome over the top again so no one would fall through."

Speed recalls the night they removed the false ceiling to reveal the dome. Two decades of dust billowed out onto Shortland St and fire alarms were set off all down the road. They had to go to Auckland Hospital to get dust masks.

In the 16 years since those restorations, however, the building had become increasingly redundant as television production moved to Avalon outside Wellington and to the present complex on the corner of Hobson and Victoria Sts.

Bren Morrison, director of architects Warren and Mahoney, who undertook the $4.5 million restoration and refurbishment, notes in recent years that only isolated rooms were being used and the building was mostly in derelict condition.

"There was a degradation of quality as you went down the floors and our intent was to restore the building back to its original function."

Constraints by the Historic Places Trust's categorisation meant there could only be limited structural change, although changes were necessary to allow wheelchair access to all areas. For seismic reasons some brick walls were removed and Morrison discovered some internal doors with elaborate designs of inlaid native timbers were missing: "They are most likely coffee tables now in various houses around Auckland."

In the course of refurbishment and renovation some timber-framed walls were removed to create more feasible studio spaces: "Essentially, however, we were not extending the building envelope but upgrading the interior and restoring the exterior. It was half restoration and half refurbishment."

In the downstairs studio spaces there are few historical design references but that grand dome in the foyer is now fully restored and off the central lobby a corridor wall has been removed to allow for the new Gus Fisher Gallery, a contemporary art gallery administered by the university.

The first exhibits to open there, and in a smaller gallery opposite, on March 3 will be part of Bright Paradise, The 1st Auckland Triennial, the first of a proposed three-yearly exhibition of national and international artists.

This debut triennial will be spread between the city's New Gallery, Artspace and the Gus Fisher Gallery, which will exhibit work by Bill Culbert, Sabina Ott and Patrick Pound. The Ott installation sees the walls of the old television studio painted in broad stripes and with Astroturf laid on the floor.

"It'll be pretty dramatic," says Robin Stoney, acting director of the New Gallery and manager of the university's nearby George Fraser Gallery. She says the university is considering commissioning sculpture for the lower level garden, which director Smythe describes as a haven of peace in the middle of the city.

Smythe's intention to bridge the gown-and-town divide mirrors his entrepreneurial career as the man who brought the city the Starlight Symphony, Opera in the Park, Carmen and La Traviata. Already the first production from within its walls has appeared, Malaga written and directed by Igelese Ete for 300 students, which opened at the Auckland Town Hall.

The choral and dance work depicts the journey of Pacific peoples to this country. An earlier version played at the opening of Te Papa.

In recent weeks performers have been rehearsing in a downstairs beech-floored studio of the new Kenneth Myers Centre, their enthusiasm permeating the old walls of the building just as that of thousands of performers have done before them.

"It's the perfect place for a school of performing arts," says Ray Columbus, "It keeps the long train running and hopefully some great talent will come out of there. That building is an institution and whoever came up with this idea, it was a stroke of genius."

As with the restored Civic and St James, another of Auckland's historic buildings has sidestepped the unwelcome jackhammers of urban development to live again as a cultural and artistic centre.