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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Liberating Everyday Life

Visual arts

Wellington born-and-bred architect Bill Toomath stands as one of the most important figures in New Zealand architecture of the post-war period. As a young architect, he was instrumental in bringing the key modernist idea of open-plan living to our shores. He is currently the focus of a retrospective celebrating his 60-year career at the City Gallery and recently made time for a chinwag with Salient arts reporter Stuart Taylor.

Salient: First of all, I’d like to thank you for making the time to sit down and talk with us.

Bill: It’s a pleasure.

Salient: The introduction to the exhibition makes note of the potential contradictions of exhibiting modern architecture in a white-walled gallery setting. How would you view this relationship between architecture and the gallery?

Bill: Well, drawings are after all quite fascinating, and the different techniques of model making and so on are little artefacts and works of art in themselves. Somehow the purity of that gallery space, now that I see it in reality, sort of underlines that point. On the other hand, I suppose, we looked for a theme to activate the exhibition which was the liberating of modern open planning instead of the rigid compartmentalisation of the typical Victorian house. It’s not just the buildings, but the human element, which in fact is the driver.

Salient: That idea of open planning still carries exceptionally strong favour today, even to the point where it’s a term perhaps overused by real estate agents and the like.

Bill: Oh yes, well that has in fact led to certain kinds of rigidity and almost absurdity in the extreme of the real estate agents, and in the minimalism of popular magazines where the bric-a-brac of everyday life is hidden away and you end up in a sort of mausoleum-like environment. Yes, the real estate agents have made the most of it.

Salient: Your concern would then be that the term is perhaps used a little bit liberally—that it is perhaps not considered quite as delicately as it was in the post-war period where all of these interventions were considered rather carefully in terms of the effect that they would have spatially.

Bill: Yes, sure, the interrelationships are very important, and the interesting thing is that it in fact goes full circle back to the peasant cottage and some of the most liveable and delightful early forms in the peasant cottages of Europe, North America, South America and so on, of this complete unity of the family activities. The whole interaction of family life occurs within often quite complex spaces. These so-called minimalist plans have got to get back to that sort of reality of family living.

Salient: Along the lines of the relationship between art and architecture the recent addition to your house is a three-dimensional translation of the painting St Jerome in his Study by Antonello de Messina (1475). Could you perhaps discuss a little bit about your attraction to this particular image, and what you hoped to achieve with this process?

Bill: Well it’s somehow very much bound up with my own love of that painting which I discovered back in the 1950s in London. It totally fascinated me that there was such an accurate depiction of a very specific space. The idea struck me that the Antonello painting would make a sort-of perfect work station and working atmosphere. I suddenly got the urge to build it and find out what the spaces would actually feel like.

Salient: And you applied some of the modernist ideologies in its translation?

Bill: Certainly, yes, well I hope that the modern enclosure which I have designed around the core of Antonello’s paintings is still a pure modern, rational and functional approach. I’m not denying functionalism in any way, I just feel that we can relax some of the strictures and embrace a much richer recognition of our earlier culture and embody it in our views today.

Salient: Are there any firms locally or internationally that have caught your eye, or are particularly excited about?

Bill: Oh, I think we are very fortunate to have some excellent architects within our own country and within our own city here, it’s rather unfair to single names out, but in general in Wellington and Auckland and Christchurch there are half a dozen firms that I could name whose work is convincing, appropriate locally, and I think that we are very fortunate to be able to call on such firms here.

Salient: So you have some confidence in the future of architecture within New Zealand?

Bill: [laughs] So far as one can be confident of anything in the future. I think we’re too common sense and pragmatic as Kiwis to go for these extreme over-the-top ‘starchitect’ type things. I think we’re blessed with some pretty fine designers here and it’s a joy to see it happening.

Salient: Fantastic, well, just to close with, I was wondering if you had any advice to give to the students of today?

Bill: Use the time to explore. Read widely—not just the latest magazines—widen your understanding of the world, how people live, pay attention to history, read poetry, absorb great music, because you’ll never have a time with such freedom again.

Liberating Everyday Life is currently showing at the Hirschfeld Gallery until March 14

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