This has not been a unique obsession. Many of the best architects starting practice in the 1950s shared the same ideals, propelled by their adoration of concrete-driven European Modernism and the relentless and unapologetic sleekness of steel-based American architecture in the mid to late 20th century. What is unique, however, particularly in Christchurch, is the effect of a great consistency of this work in one place.
Perhaps the best buildings in the city are represented by a collection of low to medium rise buildings of between five and seven storeys, accumulated over a period between 1960 and 1980. These share a similar language of heavily modelled concrete-based facades and simple unaffected forms. It can be argued that the character and consistency of Christchurch may have been improved had buildings of this scale been adopted more uniformly and with greater density; the high rise and small cities do not mix, with exceptions America and Australia. This medium rise collection of commercial and community buildings in Christchurch represents a kind of ‘Modern Heritage’ which is every bit as important as the best work of older generations of designers and craftsmen. In a very real sense, this work catalogues the aspirations and optimism of a growing and ambitious city at a time when New Zealand was still joined at the hip to mother England but was outgrowing that mother’s care and protection. It was the work of feisty young architects working at a time when New Zealand had the third highest GDP in the world after the USA and Sweden.
The commercial buildings of this time are driven by the pragmatics of structural and office planning efficiencies. The SIMU building with its finely modelled, vertically oriented precast panels is one of the finest examples. The Christchurch Town Hall represents the formal departure from the rigours of stacked floor plates. Here the full possibilities for a more organic and volume-driven architecture are explored without relinquishing the commitment to carefully fabricated and beautifully connected materials.
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