Revision gets closer to mark

Artbeat column no 452 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 13.7. 2009

Paris has its pyramid and Dunedin will have its cube. The city council has decided to proceed with the most recent plan to redevelop the Dunedin Centre. This option doesn’t put an atrium in Harrop Street but will place a rectilinear glazed structure behind the Town Hall’s Moray Place façade.

The project has been long debated and has considerable significance for the arts. The complex contains two significant auditoria, the Town Hall and the Glenroy. It also houses an art cinema, The Metro. The buildings and the townscape around them are of considerable aesthetic merit. Has the council finally got this right?

The scheme grew from a desire to upgrade the Town Hall auditorium technologically which by itself would cost less than $20million. To this was added a plan to improve and enlarge the Dunedin Centre, the city-funded conference provider, of which the Town Hall auditorium is physically and administratively a part. To achieve that it was proposed to build a mostly glass extension into Harrop Street which significantly raised the costs.

Many objected to this for aesthetic reasons because it compromised the Town Hall building, blocked an attractive vista along Harrop Street and reduced the space between the Town Hall complex and the nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral. It would also require relocating the Town Hall’s vehicle access which would have eliminated The Metro while compromising the Town Hall’s functionality.

To its credit the council listened to the complaints and followed several suggestions. These included: abandoning the Harrop Street extension; finding the extra space desired by extending internally into the adjacent Municipal Chambers; remaking the carpark across Harrop Street below the cathedral into an urban park. This has further added to the costs but has removed the objections mentioned above. When this was unveiled at a presentation before the council deliberated it met with a lot of support.

The Glenroy auditorium’s seating capacity will be significantly reduced but I’ve heard no complaints about that. Vehicle access along Harrop Street will be eliminated, which isn’t good. I questioned the need for the proposed water features in the outside park, the replacement of the present Harrop Street verandah with a glass one and asked if the picture window put in the Harrop Street façade in the 1980s could now be filled in. There didn’t seem much willingness to entertain the last two suggestions.

Cost was cited as a reason regarding the window, although money would be saved by not building water features. The architect, Jeff Thomson, pointed out originally there’d been no verandah on Harrop Street. True, but the present one seems useful and inoffensive.

Then there’s the cube. In the mid 1980s the present entrance, designed by Tim Heath, was built on the Moray Place façade. It has columns and a lean-to roof descending from the base of the large columns which dominate the upper elevation. It’s been nicknamed “the eyebrow”.  The proposal is to remove that and replace it with the glass cube which won’t touch the original building except very lightly just at the old building’s entrances. The functional purpose is to replicate the space now provided by the eyebrow and to house a lift giving disabled access.
It’s been pointed out there is existing wheelchair access off Harrop Street and allowance in the regulations for an exemption meaning there’s no need for the lift. However, as well as these functional considerations there is an aesthetic driver too. We were shown slides of I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, and other heritage buildings recently modified with glass. The desire is to restore the façade to its original appearance and to make this as apparent as possible by making the new structure separate and in glass.

This doesn’t work aesthetically. The cube will look like an incongruous glass box behind the Town Hall in Moray Place and the then restored façade will not be very visible behind it. I’m not a great fan of the eyebrow but it would be better to leave it alone. That would certainly save some money and this approach better conforms with ICOMOS heritage guidelines. It would be more popular too.

Even so there’s much that is good in the present scheme. The Town Hall auditorium will at last get its upgrade without its interior appearance being compromised. A long-standing oddity of the complex will be ameliorated. When it was first proposed to build behind the Municipal Chambers there was to be continuous first floor access from the Octagon to Moray Place. A change of plans meant the Concert Chamber’s ground floor, the present Glenroy’s, was dropped lower disrupting this useful connection. Now mezzanines will be built establishing it. There will be a useful and potentially exhilarating route through the whole complex with fine heritage spaces at either end. And that will indeed be welcome.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times