Of universities and architecture

So, way back in the mists of time (i.e. about a couple of months ago…), we promised you a blog about the house built on this site after the existing house burnt down, tragically killing the son of the occupants. And, at last, here it is! Because even the most attentive reader is likely to have forgotten what that earlier post was about, here’s a quick reminder: Jessie wrote about the material culture used by Florence and Howard Strong in the late 19th century, Howard being the Head Librarian at the Christchurch library at the time.

The librarian’s house immediately post-earthquake. I have not researched when the house stopped being used as a librarian’s house, but it was a commercial premises by 2011 and the interior had been pretty much entirely stripped out and refitted. Image: K. Watson, for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

Jessie’s post finished by talking about how the artefacts from the librarian’s house represented a more personal element of the history of Christchurch’s public library, an aspect of library history that is perhaps not often documented. In talking about the ‘new’ house today, I am returning to a more institutional aspect of the library’s history, but one where the institutional and the personal intersected. The house built for the Strongs following the 1894 fire was built by Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury) for the librarian and his family to live in. This, then, was a case of an institution making decisions that would affect the lives of those who lived in the house. It is too strong in this case to say that such decisions would have controlled the lives of the occupants – this was a fairly standard house – but that was certainly true when some institutions built residences: think of asylums, orphanages, gaols and even hospitals. The librarian’s house is more akin to a manse, a caretaker’s house or a sexton’s cottage. It is a very different thing to live in a house that someone else has built for you, as opposed to one you have built yourself. In this situation, you really have no choice at all. While it’s possible that the Strongs were consulted about their new house, it seems likely that such consultation would have related only to the interior: the library was in the heart of the city with the librarian’s house right next to it. This was a prominent location and Canterbury College was an organisation that was very conscious of its image, and of the how architecture contributed to that image.

At the heart of Canterbury College’s was the university itself, now The Arts Centre of Christchurch Te Matatiki Toi Ora, and undeniably an architectural taonga. (Side note: I was intrigued to learn during the course of researching this blog that the College actually built the first library building (in 1874) before it built the first of the stone university buildings (in 1877)). The university chose to build in the Gothic style (as did the two high schools – Christchurch Girls’ and Christchurch Boys’ – that also built on the university site). A number of Christchurch’s significant early buildings were built in this style (or, more accurately, the Gothic Revival style – quite frankly, architectural ‘styles’ are a nightmare for someone who isn’t an expert). These included the Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers (1857), the Canterbury Museum (1870), Christ’s College (1863) and the Christ Church Cathedral (1864).[1] It is no coincidence that the university chose to build in the same style, which was synonymous with the ideals of the Canterbury Association (responsible for founding the settlement of Canterbury in 1850, and disbanded in 1852).

The North Quad, The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora. These quads mimicked the layout of the colleges at Cambridge and Oxford. Image: Krzysztof Golik, 2017.

The Canterbury Association was formed at a time when some of the upper echelons of English society were becoming increasingly convinced that industrialisation had ruined England, not so much because of the societal or environmental costs that we might first think of today, but because it had destroyed England’s rural and feudal society and the Christian values that were part of that. A number of those who were instrumental in the association had connections with organisations that espoused these elitist views (such as the Tractarian movement, the Young England movement and the Ecclesiological Society) and they became one of the underlying tenets of the association. There was an architectural component to this: that the Church of England needed not just to return to the values of the pre-industrial church, but that its architecture also needed to return to the Gothic style. There was a strong nationalist component to this, which held that Gothic architecture was a true English style and therefore the only appropriate style for the Church of England to build in (Lochhead 1999: 46-50). As such, Gothic Revival was the preferred architectural style of the Canterbury Association. It intrigues me that most of the best-known buildings built in that style in Christchurch were built after the association was no longer, particularly given that many of the key values of the association were undermined even before their first settler had arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand. The ideal persisted for some, even if the reality was very different.

By the time the college embarked on building the university, the association was long since defunct and it is arguable that the Gothic Revival style in Christchurch was by now more about power (the Provincial Council buildings, although the provincial council was disestablished in 1876), religion (the cathedral) and education (the museum and Christ’s College). Each of these buildings were strongly associated with the elite, and thus Canterbury College positioned itself as an institution of and for the elite. The style and manner in which it was built also consciously echoed the university buildings of Cambridge and Oxford (Lovell-Smith 2001).

Christ’s College. This school was established in 1850 (although not on this site) on the model of the English public school system. Image: Wikipedia.

The library complex was located only a couple of blocks from the university, on the site of Puāri Pā Urupā (Tikao n.d.: 5). Puāri was a kāinga nohoanga (settlement) and kāinga mahinga kai (food-gathering place), located to the north of the urupā, on the banks of the Ōtākaro (Avon River). It was used for some 700 years, from the time of Waitaha up until the Kemp Purchase (1848; Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu 2020). In 1868, Ngāi Tūāhuriri tried to claim the site (and that of Ōtautahi) through the Native Land Court, but were not successful (Tau 2016).

The library was built in a very different style from the university. The first of the buildings, constructed in 1874, was Venetian Gothic and designed by W. B. Armson, who was particularly known for this style. It was a single storey brick building with limestone details and a slate roof. In stark contrast to the Gothic Revival style, Venetian Gothic had strong associations with commercial buildings and commercial prosperity and was a style that looked more to Italy than the English Gothic (Ussher 1983: 13). The commercial connotations make it a curious choice for a library. The second library building, built in 1893, could not be called Venetian Gothic, but certainly echoed elements of the first building: it was brick, with limestone detailing (including limestone window surrounds), pointed window arches and brick dentils under the eaves. The following year, the college rebuilt the librarian’s house.

The 1874 Armson library building. The polychromatic brick work, pointed window arches and rondels are particularly distinctive Venetian Gothic features. Image: K. Watson, for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

At this point, they turned to Collins and Harman, the architectural firm that Armson had founded and who had designed the 1893 addition. What brief the college gave the architects is not known, but the plans are now held at the Macmillan Brown Library. These indicate that the university were uncertain about exactly what they wanted, for two different drawings were prepared for the street-facing elevation. Both options were two-storeyed, with a veranda and the same number and arrangement of windows. The front doors were identical, as were the veranda posts. The main difference lay in the materials used, and the concomitant effect this had on the decorative details: one design was to be built in wood, the other in the brick, with limestone detailing and polychromatic brickwork in the gable apex. The wooden house was to have pierced bargeboards (in wood) and stickwork in the gable apex. The window surrounds on the two designs were quite similar, both featuring label moulds (an important component of Gothic architecture) above the windows in the bay, although these were to be executed in wood on the wooden version and in limestone on the brick version. The wooden version also appeared to have some slightly Gothic detailing at the top of the windows in the bay on the ground floor – not quite the quatrefoils of the 1893 building, but something akin to that. The wooden house was to have eaves brackets, while the brick one was to have brick dentils below the decorative brickwork in the gable. Stylistically, the wooden house was probably influenced most by Arts and Crafts ideas or the American stickwork style, while the brick version was perhaps more Queen Anne in style.

The timber version of the house (all Collins Harman plans show timber houses in this colour, as opposed to the red used for brick buildings). Image: Librarian’s house, Public Library, No. 1, Armson Collins Architectural Drawing Collection, Macmillan Brown Library.

Unsurprisingly, the university chose the brick option, which was far more in keeping with the rest of the growing library complex (there were two further additions to the library, both of which were also built in brick with limestone detailing, although the Venetian Gothic influences were increasingly watered down).

The brick version of the house. Image: Librarian’s house, Public Library, No. 1, Armson Collins Architectural Drawing Collection, Macmillan Brown Library.

I cannot help but think that the choice to build in brick must have been some comfort to Florence and Howard Strong, who had lost their son, home and contents to the fire that had destroyed the wooden librarian’s house. What is surprising to me, given the university’s clear sense of image (or ‘brand’, if you will), is that they even considered a wooden house, which would have been at odds with the other buildings. While the materials of the house matched those of the library, there was little that connected the two stylistically, and no real consideration appears to have been given to including Venetian Gothic elements in the house. Perhaps it was the case that, while building a library in the Venetian Gothic style was one thing, building a house in it was a step too far. Or perhaps it was a desire to visually distinguish between the house and the library that led to this decision. This could also explain why the university contemplated a timber design. In the end, though, they must have decided that they wanted the house to appear to be part of the complex at first glance, but to be different, unlike the case with truly institutional accommodation, such as the aforementioned asylums, etc.

Katharine

References

Lochhead, Ian, 1999. A Dream of Spires: Benjamin Mountfort and the Gothic Revival. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Lovell-Smith, Melanie, 2001. ‘Arts Centre of Christchurch’ [online]. Available at https://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/7301 [Accessed 15 Decemeber 2020].

Tau, Te Marie, 2016. ‘The values and history of the Ōtākaro and North and East Frames’ [online]. Available at https://matapopore.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GrandNarratives_InternalPages-Copy-small.pdf [Accessed 15 December 2020].

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, 2020.’ Kā Huru Manu’ [online]. Available at https://www.kahurumanu.co.nz/atlas [Accessed 15 December 2020].

Tikao, Debbie, n.d. ‘The Public Realm of Central Christchurch Narrative’ [online]. Available at https://www.otakaroltd.co.nz/assets/Uploads/ThePublicRealm.pdf [Accessed 15 December 2020].

Ussher, Robyn, 1983. ‘Armson in Christchurch’. In W. B. Armson: A Colonial Architect Rediscovered. Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch. Pp. 13-16.


[1] These dates refer to when construction of the first stone part of each of these buildings/complexes. Some, such as the cathedral, took many years to complete, while others were part of large complexes that kept on growing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.