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'.  
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