All S’miles

The Unitec lecture series on contemporary New Zealand architects began last Wednesday with a talk by Sir Miles Warren on the work of the Warren and Mahoney practice over the last 50 years. In a remarkable statement he said that this was the first time he had been asked to give a talk at a New Zealand architecture school. 

Sir Miles felt that he and his founding partner Maurice Mahoney were complementary in that Mahoney was largely silent while Sir Miles “talked far too much”.

The practice started at a time when (following the prevailing form of architectural photography) architects tended to think of buildings in black and white. Although Sir Miles described architecture as a performing art and is well known for his beautiful watercolour renderings, it was the black and white elements of architecture that were emphasised in his take on the history of the practice: it was interesting that he discussed his work almost entirely in terms of tectonics.

The typical representation of well-known designers as creative, slightly loose individuals more akin to artists than to other architects didn’t fit with this man for whom architecture is about precision not sloppiness. “Architecture is”, he declared, “a 3H not a 6B”.

Sir Miles claimed that he had spent more time writing specifications during his career than drawing, and stressed that a good set of drawings and a good specification were the best way of achieving quality architecture and a smooth construction process.

The firm’s history was described as an evolution of skills and techniques with technical ability built up over a series of projects. Lines of research were followed until they had been exhausted or until the technology changed.

In their early work the desire to treat walls as solid and load-bearing was made possible with the extensive (and new at the time) use of reinforced concrete block. There seemed to be a hint of nostalgia in his voice when Sir Miles described solid walls as a connection to the Europeans and their privileging of the mason over the carpenter. But his slides showed projects where the clarity of walls that “really work” was used to great effect when contrasted and combined with the lightweight structural bravura of flying timber roof construction.

In all the work shown, the structural technology being used was expressed in the detailing with a language intelligible to an audience greater than just architects and engineers. In retrospect Sir Miles felt that this communication with architecture’s audience was lost when the firm began doing some work in a post-modern style. He suggested it failed as it relied upon a knowledge of the history of architecture that New Zealanders don’t possess.

Sir Miles modestly attributed his firm’s success to luck and timing. He felt it was easier to practice successfully in a time when buildings were designed for their future occupants rather than speculators, and when clients and architects didn’t negotiate over fees.

It was extremely important that an architect could draw well, if only to impress the client at meetings by drawing on-the-fly, and he felt that it was a W&M trait that the sketch plans emerged exactly into the working drawings – of course those in the audience who attended the previous lecture by Mark Wigley didn’t believe him.

Looking back now, however, he expressed some regret that they took a conservative stance on accepting work and he wished they had had the courage to do less work and to do that work even better.

He felt that NZ offered fantastic opportunities for young architects and that houses could be designed these days with far greater complexity and richness than when he began. He still feels that there is nothing better than sitting down on a Sunday morning with a clear head and a sharp pencil and he has completed two jobs during the last year while in his ‘retirement’.

The Unitec public lecture series will continue this week with a talk by Ted McCoy.

Aaron Sills