Otago Stadium

Artbeat column no 436 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 16 February 2009

The stadium saga continues and will for a while, despite some people’s impression it’s all over. Both the city and regional councils have attached conditions to their support. Each will vote again before the matter is decided.

The discussion continues to throw up more or less likely precedents and to make aesthetic claims. The city council’s last Monday produced two references to the “wow” factor with regard to the stadium’s design. It was suggested people would visit the city just to see the building.

I’ve said before it’s no architectural masterpiece, rather a dull and clumsy example of its sort. Some of its biggest supporters admit as much so I won’t go over it again. But some of the comparisons are illuminating, if only because they show you something about the enduring value of aesthetics and the sometimes ephemeral value of functionality. The comparisons made last Monday included the Railway Station, the Regent, the art gallery and Olveston.

The Railway Station, opened in 1906, is not a good parallel to the stadium because it was built with central government funds not council money. Also, the opposition to it, also mentioned in debate, was not chiefly to its expense, at least not in Dunedin, but to a functional issue: it blocked an important access from the city to the harbour.

That remained a concern and still is today, though no-one has recently suggested removing the Railway Station. It served as a passenger station well enough but by the time it was 60 that use was declining. At the nadir of its architectural fortunes in the late 1950s it was recognised for the gem it is by an international authority and thus saved, eventually to serve another purpose in a different era. Abandoned by the railways it was taken on by the city, is still a passenger station but is principally a visual attraction in its own right.

The Regent was built at private expense as a “super cinema” in 1928. When that use died it was taken on in 1973 by a private group who converted it to a live theatre and then gave it to the city. Civic money has gone into it, though never heroic amounts. It made the transition because its interior is a tour de force of the Baroque revival.

Before the art gallery was moved to the Octagon a range of options was developed, including re-developing at Logan Park and building wholly new on a green field site. (That exercise cost about $30,000. The comparable one for the stadium was the $600,000 investigation which produced the Carisbrook upgrades and Awatea Street.)

For the art gallery the green field option was dropped as too expensive. The makeover of the old DIC department store in the Octagon was chosen instead. That was mostly paid for by the city. There was public opposition, about 33% at the highest. It cost about $15m, in 1996, while the green field choice would have been $30m+. The existing building was of limited aesthetic interest. Its old function had gone but made it suitable for this conversion.

Olveston was completed in 1907 as a grand house for the Theomin family at the private expense of David Theomin. He liked to do things well. He hired one of the leading British architects of the day, Sir Ernest George. It was designed to accommodate live-in servants and elaborate entertaining. That way of life had gone in New Zealand and the house’s revivalist architecture was badly out of fashion when Sir Nikolaus Pevsner visited in 1958. It was he whose comments saved the Railway Station. He also praised Olveston, saying it was “an extremely interesting and very grand house” while pointing to the distinction of its architect.

In 1966 Dorothy Theomin died and it became clear she had offered it to the city: as a gift, together with a modest endowment to maintain it. Some city councillors, notably the late Maurice Joel, were inclined to turn it down because they felt it was of no interest and might be an expense. Many members of the public thought otherwise – your columnist included.

The building was clearly of architectural distinction. True, it had outlived its purpose. If it were sold it would become a student hostel or a hospital. It would lose much of its value as a social record. Yes, it might add a little to the city’s overheads. But with all its contents it would make an impressive museum of grand Edwardian life without any real parallel in New Zealand and thus a tourist attraction. The city council reversed itself. Cr Joel had the grace to accept he’d been wrong.

The stadium is not like any of these. If watching live rugby fades as mass entertainment it would be a hard sell as a tourist attraction.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times  http://www.otagodailytimes.co.nz