Queen’s Wharf as a Blank Slate

You might have seen this confused, offhand little piece about the Queen’s Wharf sheds by historian Professor Paul Moon of AUT in the NZ Herald.

Moon doesn’t like the sheds. They are ‘rightly-maligned’, ‘long-unloved and unlovable’, of ‘negligable’ value even if restored, ‘dour and decaying’, ‘morose’ and slouching, and ‘grim’, holding the wharf ‘hostage’. In their place, he would like to see ‘something genuinely inspirational’. He assumes that works of this kind can only take place on a tabula rasa.

Architecture in New Zealand, Moon avers, is dominated by ‘fashion-infused mimicry’, is ‘safe and bland’, imitative, ‘bereft of any strong urge of creativity’. Apparently architects have become ‘the self-appointed arbiters of public taste’. (No architects I know of have claimed this position; in fact retaining the sheds has proven to be a rather unpopular position to defend). Moon opens with the bizarre argument that architects have forfeited the right to comment on the aesthetic value of buildings because they have become insufficiently artistic, putting their work in thrall to ‘structural capabilities and functional requirements’. It’s disturbing to hear a Treaty historian (of all people!) tell someone they’ve forfeited the right to speak. Moon implies that there hasn’t been any real artistic architecture since prior to the industrial revolution. He feels that architects are supposed to be individual creative geniuses like Bernini or Michelangelo, overlooking the fact that a number of these two architects’ most renowned works are in fact reworkings of (sometimes mediocre) existing buildings.

The idea that architecture springs in purity and force from some magical resource of creativity or inspiration, and must struggle to overcome the sniping of petty technicians is very Ayn-Randian, and completely out-of-touch with the way that design proceeds. Materials, stakeholders, constraints, context and – yes – history, are not wet blankets suffocating the creative life out of architecture. On the contrary, they are the raw materials out of which good design is formed. Moon might be nostalgic for a Howard Roark to sweep in and deposit his creativity all over the wharf, but this isn’t my idea of a good time. Architecture is not simply the production of great artworks. The lives and stories of which the sheds are a trace are common and everyday, but that doesn’t mean they should be erased from memory as unimportant. Again, as an historian, one might expect Moon to be more sensitive to minor histories.

He is preoccupied with questions of artistic style, counting against the sheds that they don’t instantiate the Arts and Crafts movement, modernism, or Gothic Revival. As if the only value in historical architecture is in reinforcing the march of architectural styles. As if, by not falling into a neatly labeled drawer they forfeit any value whatsoever. That Moon can’t think of any merit other than the reinforcement of art-historical meta-narratives is a good reason to seek out people who have spent time developing knowledge and expertise in the field.

Complaining that Queen Street is cluttered with ‘piles of stark steel and glaring glass’, Moon doesn’t seem to notice that an careless attitude towards the built and spatial heritage of the city was a major part of the problem! Similarly, one of the main reasons the leaky ‘caricatures’ of pseudo-Tuscan houses Moon mourns are bad architecture is not that they are insufficiently creative or inspired, it’s because they fail to take proper account of local conditions and traditions of construction.

Few architects are arguing that the sheds should be preserved at all costs. It is kind of Moon to point out that ‘just because something is (relatively) old’ it doesn’t need ‘a protective case placed over it so that it can be preserved in perpetuity’. Nobody that I am aware of has proposed this. But demolition is permanent. We shouldn’t knock the sheds down unless there are concrete plans for something demonstrably better. At the moment, there exists no master-plan for the CBD waterfront, no clarity about whether the wharf is to be a cruise-ship terminal or not and no realistic timetable for new construction to be completed in time for the Rugby World Cup, and no consistency in the process of procuring a design. Demolition should not be a default stance. Inventive, memorable, and imaginative architecture doesn’t have to begin with a clean slate.

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