30 June 2011

Memory of long-dead dogs

It’s strange being back. I’ve now been in New Zealand for a week, and I’m getting used to the culture shock of moving from one country to another on the other side of the world. Of course I’ve done it plenty of times before, but it’s always a little unsettling.

The first thing I noticed, as I followed the well-worn trail down from the family home to Onehunga Mall to buy a new SIM card for my phone, was the punishing winter glare. It was a warm, clear-skied day, with traces of rain evaporating from the mismatched concrete on the footpaths, and the light of the sun was piercing and disorienting to my eyes, which have grown accustomed to the gentle, pollution-filtered rays in England. And the precipitation - it comes every day in punishing, increasingly subtropical waves. On Tuesday I was out driving in a lightning storm, with sky-splitting dazzling cracks and relentless, teeming rain bouncing off the roads. At journey’s end I lurked in the parked car as long as possible, hoping it would abate. When it didn’t I pulled my hood up to offer feeble protection from the elements and I ran, skittering between the largest puddles as they merged into one, and re-entering the dry with soggy trouser-legs and a dripping coat.

Some things remain constant. New Zealand TV is still relentlessly lousy. TV1 and TV2 are a complete write-off and have been for years, but even TV3 seems to have joined them with a slew of reality programmes and identikit American shows about grisly murders. And TVNZ7, which is right up my alley in terms of featuring intelligent programmes, is being killed off next year as soon as its existing funding runs out. Is it any wonder that so many of my (clever, high-earning, ideal audience demographic) friends have almost entirely given up watching TV in favour of internet news and podcasts? 

Some things have changed. The combination of the rise in GST and general inflation means that prices now seem prohibitively expensive here. I was in downtown Auckland awaiting my first ride on the new train line to Onehunga and I needed to find a cheap lunch option.  Strolling up to Burger King, I discovered that a regular burger combo now costs $9.90. Ten bucks for fast food!

But the main thought that crossed my mind as I took my usual walking route to Tin Tacks Corner and south past the down-at-heel shops of Onehunga Mall, is that for every house on the back streets of this part of Onehunga I can still visualise the dogs. Dogs who for many years punctuated my after-school paper route delivering the long-defunct Auckland Star with sudden bursts of peril. Some would charge at me from behind their garden fence as I reached across to shunt a newspaper in the letterbox. Some would yap at me from behind closed windows or at straining at the end of leashes and chains. And others, the most troublesome, were allowed to roam free by their idiot owners, and would chase my bicycle, barking madly and nipping at my ankles.

It was a long time ago, and they’re all dead now, those dogs. But I still keep a wary eye on the houses they lived in as I walk south, down the hill to Onehunga.

29 June 2011

The architectural history of the Beehive

The Beehive, March 2010
Dr Robin Skinner, an architecture lecturer at VUW, spoke last night in Parnell here in Auckland on the behind-the-scenes machinations leading to the design and construction of the Beehive, the distinctive Executive Wing of the New Zealand Parliament. Skinner, who has been lecturing on the topic for nearly a decade, dispels the widely-held belief that the famed Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence 'designed it on the back of a napkin', and that his overall involvement in the project was minimal. Rather, Skinner produced evidence to show that Spence was paid a large sum of money to be actively involved in the fine detail of the project. This work lasted over a year, both in New Zealand and back in Britain, and Spence was only sidelined in the mid-‘60s once New Zealand’s Ministry of Works architects re-asserted their dominance over the project. After Spence's death in 1976 Ministry of Works officials downplayed his initial role, and without Spence to refute the claims increasingly this has become the accepted view.

Skinner was able to show some fascinating early design sketches for the new Executive Wing, by Spence, the Ministry of Works, and by disgruntled private sector New Zealand architects. Spence’s working documents show the impressive level of detail he provided, and reflect his life-long interest in round buildings. The Ministry of Works and disgruntled private sector New Zealand architects came up with their own concepts for the site too, with comically awful results - this was the mid-'60s after all, the decade in which concrete bunker monstrosities were par for the course. It is a sobering thought that the Beehive, which is acknowledged as a distinctive design but is still very much an acquired taste, was the best of a decidedly mixed bunch.   

It’s also interesting to note that during the gestation of the Beehive, which paralleled the early years of the iconic Sydney Opera House project, its proponents were confident that in this project New Zealand would have its own local architectural world-beater – a symbol of architectural modernity and innovation that would seal New Zealand’s standing as a confident and independent young nation. While the building has attracted a certain fierce loyalty over the years, and is certainly a much more pleasant place to work since its thorough internal re-fit in the 2000s, it could hardly be said to have attained the status of a beloved cultural icon in the way that Sydney’s beautiful finned creation has. As Tom from WellUrban puts it, it's probably a case of the Beehive endearing through enduring: '[I]t may be a period piece, a tacky hangover from 60s Modernism, yet time has moved on to the stage where it's almost reached the level of kitsch that leads to ironic celebration and thence to real appreciation'.  

24 June 2011

My top 5 museums in Berlin

My most recent European adventure was a five-day visit to Berlin at the end of May, which was a great success. It had been an age since my only other visit to the German capital, so a return journey was definitely called for. I stayed in the excellent Wombats hostel in the former East Berlin; the nearest U-Bahn station is still named in the Cold War style, after Rosa Luxemburg, a co-founder of the precursor of the German Communist Party, who was murdered in 1919. 

The Museuminsel - the island in the Spree river that holds a collection of the world's finest museums - was definitely at the top of my Berlin agenda, and I managed to see nearly everything it had to offer. In fact, my Berlin visit turned into a museum and gallery extravanganza. Here's a rundown of my personal top five, in no particular order.

Märkisches Museum

The first museum I visited was the appealingly low-key yet interesting Märkisches Museum, which provides an overview of the history of Berlin since its founding in the Middle Ages. Located in a red brick monastic-like building, the museum displays a wide array of items from the city's past, including a great selection of old toys - Germany was once the world centre of expertise for toymaking - and a fascinating range of consumer products from previous generations. I couldn't overlook the annex containing medieval weaponry and armour, with racks of swords and a cumbersome full suit of plate armour. I also spent a while admiring the images in the venerable Kaiser-Panorama, an elegant circular polished wood booth with more than a dozen viewing windows. Each window displays a different stereoscopic photograph, and the whole set rotates every 30 seconds or so, enabling a viewer to take in all the photos from their seat without moving. There were some lovely crowd scenes at a Zeppelin launch and at political rallies in Unter den Linden, which just shows that stereoscopic photography is still as much of a novelty as it was a century ago.

'You can have anything you like, as long as it's tiny'


Cash register, c.1910.

Bode Museum

Part of the thrill of visiting the Bode Museum, which occupies the northern tip of the Museuminsel, is soaking up the glorious building itself. Its semi-circular neoclassical front caps off the island beautifully, and once inside visitors are immediately confronted with an extraordinarily palatial setting, with marble staircases, gold trimmings everywhere and a triumphant regal statue as a centrepiece. The collections are equally impressive, with a huge number of artworks from the years before photography came along and complicated everything. The Bode is particularly strong on religious artworks. My favourite was probably the lively and charismatic statue of the Virgin and Child from the 1460s in which the baby Jesus is wriggling furiously and draping himself in Mary's cloak, while she tries to keep him under control. And a bust from two centuries later, a Mater Dolorosa from Seville in the 1670s, is an amazing feat of verisimilitude: the anguished expression is augmented by the superbly lifelike crystal eyes and the two tears rolling down her cheeks.   

Bode Museum

Virgin & Child From Dangolsheim, c.1460.

Mater Dolorosa, c.1670.

Pergamon Museum

My 1997 visit was marked with torrential rain as central Europe was beset with the worst flooding for 50 years, but I still had an enjoyable time exploring the wonderful history of the city. The highlight of the whole visit for me was touring the splendid Pergamon Museum on the Museuminsel in the river Spree, and basking in the glory of its key exhibits: the great altar from Pergamon in Asia Minor, the reconstructed Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon and the Roman Market Gate of Miletus. In my 2011 visit I was determined to revisit the museum to take in its superb sights once more - this time with my D-SLR in tow. 

The wonders of the British Museum are of course universally admired, but not even a visit to the Parthenon Sculptures gallery can prepare you for your first sight of the magnificent Pergamon Altar, which is the centrepiece of the museum and the first thing you see once you enter. The sharp, polished steps climb to the holy space atop the altar, which affords a fine view of the highly detailed and well-preserved sculptures in the frieze depicting warring gods and monsters, which runs around the altar and continues along the walls of the museum. The next room is extra-tall to house the soaring facade of the Miletus market gate, a Roman construction from around 120AD, held aloft by graceful narrow pillars and flanked by regal statues. And beyond that lies the reconstructed minor gate from the great and ancient city of Babylon: the Ishtar gate, with its vibrant blue-glazed tiles depicting fearsome monsters with eagle claws and scorpion tails. This is only the smaller of the two gates that guarded the entrance to the great imperial city of antiquity, but it still towers majestically.

Pergamon Altar

Detail of Pergamon Altar frieze

Miletus market gate

Ishtar Gate
Ishtar Gate detail

Neues Museum

This substantially rebuilt museum reopened in 2009, and contains the strongest selection of Egyptian artefacts in Berlin. Its most famous exhibit is the immaculate Nefertiti Bust, which sits resplendent in its own dedicated room, gazing down a long corridor of other lesser riches. Alas, no photographs are permitted of this one exhibit, but there are plenty around on the net. I did photograph many other exhibits, including a depiction of Nefertiti herself with her royal husband Akhenaten - two slender faces gazing out serenely from their glass case, as in life side by side. The statues from the 18th Dynasty are approximately 3350 years old. Another statue, of the head of an 18th Dynasty princess, is a remarkably accomplished piece, with elegant swooping eyebrows adorning the wide expanse of the eyes and contoured around the curve of the skull.  From a much later era, when the Romans controlled Egypt, there's a splendid statue of the sun god Helios, which faces the Nefertiti bust down the long, long museum corridor. This statue from the 2nd century AD depicts the god in all his immortal perfection, and is a testament to the artistry of the age.    

Akhenaten & Nefertiti busts

Helios statue

18th Dynasty princess bust 

Deutches Technikmuseum

Long-time devotees of Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go will find much to admire here, in Berlin's technology and transport museum. Signs are good even as you approach the complex, with a looming Douglas cargo plane that participated in the Berlin Airlift suspended high on a rooftop above the museum's new gallery building. This is a museum that flaunts its big toys. The entrance hall boasts the Cessna in which the young Mathias Rust famously invaded Soviet airspace and landed near Red Square in 1987. (Rust was imprisoned for a year for the flight, before being deported back to Germany. The Cessna affair helped Premier Gorbachev's glasnost reforms, because it fatally damaged the standing of the Soviet military old guard.) I found the section on early radio and television fascinating - it included a very elderly Baird Televisor from 1932. There was also an interesting collection of vintage still and film cameras, just waiting to inspire the next generation of budding Henri Cartier-Bressons.

The largest space within the museum is reserved for its collection of vehicles. The nautical section has a full-size steam tug from 1901, and the aviation area upstairs boasts a splendid collection of German aircraft. My favourites were the Ju-52 trimotor airliner with its stylish shining metal ribs, and the innovative and graceful Stahltaube monoplane from 1914. Out the back in the museum's rail sheds is a fine selection of steam trains; I've never been a big train fan, but I have to admit that venturing underneath one massive engine via a service pit and smelling the fresh oil was remarkably good fun. (You'll not find me joining the trainspotters at the end of the platforms at Clapham Junction, however).

Deutches Technikmuseum

Mathias Rust's Cessna that he landed near Red Square
Heavy express locomotive, 1956 (rebuilt from 1939 streamlined locomotive)
Baird International Televisor, 1932.

Junkers Ju-52
Medium-format cameras from 1929-60.

01 June 2011

NZ roads: safest they've been since 1973

Online polls conducted by newspapers are, generally speaking, complete piffle. Ones with political topics are easy for party activists to skew with targeted voting campaigns, and the selection of the poll options for most topics usually seems to either reflect the narrow perspectives of the question-setter or a need to beat up a story, rather than a desire to accurately gauge and reflect actual public opinions. 

This came to mind when I skimmed over this morning's Herald poll, which poses the question 'To reduce New Zealand's appalling road toll we need to...'  Currently the poll results for the four options, after 10,400 responses, are:

Reduce speed limits
Improve our roads
Improve driver education
Get more cops on the road

These are all viable policy approaches to reducing the road toll, certainly. Under the artificial proviso that I'm only allowed to choose one option instead of a mix of several, I would probably go along with the majority of respondents and opt for improving driver education too. Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the Dog & Lemon motoring guide, agrees that driver education is a problem. In 2008 he said: 'The New Zealand system makes the assumption that public transport doesn't exist and that education is not that important and that it's ok to have third world roads. No wonder so many people get killed'. I think New Zealand drivers would benefit from compulsory defensive driving refresher courses every five to ten years, to shake people out of the bad habits they get into, particularly as our roads have become far more crowded in recent years; many New Zealanders passed relatively easy tests and learned to drive when the population was a lot smaller, and I believe this has an effect on their approach to driving. 

But before we flail for simplistic solutions to a very real problem, it's important to look at the initial premise, which simply isn't valid. Certainly, for the families and friends of people who die or who are seriously injured in road accidents, the effects of the road toll are calamitous, and every sympathy must go out to them. But the fact remains that while there is always room for improvement, New Zealand's road toll has been steadily declining since it peaked at 843 deaths in 1973. This is despite significant increases in both the national population (1973: 2.99m; 2008: 4.23m) and the number of motor vehicles on the roads since that time. (n.b. I can't track down the underlying historical road toll numbers on the MoT website, despite it saying that it has all the figures back to 1950).

While there is every reason to take strong measures to address the ongoing problem of New Zealand's road toll, it is daft to call it 'appalling' when it has demonstrably been in a steady decline for more than a generation, despite an increasing population and greater numbers of vehicles on the roads. Rather than throwing exaggerated rhetoric around, we should be congratulating ourselves that our policy approach appears to be working, and continue to refine our approach to road safety to keep the numbers of road deaths going in the right direction.