Clas­sic hit

Part Oxbridge quad, part high modernism, War­ren and Ma­honey’s Col­lege House opened 50 years ago. Not long af­ter, a young Mal­colm Walker was so in­spired by the build­ing that he ditched sci­ence for ar­chi­tec­ture – half a cen­tury on, the build­ing is as pow­erf

HOME Magazine NZ - - Art & Design - Text Mal­colm Walker Pho­tog­ra­phy Pa­trick Reynolds

Sir Miles War­ren’s Col­lege House 50 years on

Col­lege house: ‘a res­i­dence for 120 gen­tle­men’.

That was the to­tal brief to the ar­chi­tect. And that’s what was built. Beau­ti­fully. (Find­ing 120 gen­tle­men in the mid 60s wasn’t quite so sim­ple.) De­signed by Sir Miles War­ren, Col­lege House is a col­lec­tion of build­ings form­ing one of our great mid-20th cen­tury ar­chi­tec­tural works. Sit­ting in an el­bow of the Avon and look­ing fresh af­ter 50 years of hard labour and earth­quakes, th­ese build­ings are mag­i­cal. Raw, clear and, as is the na­ture of ex­cel­lent things, sim­ple in con­cept. But so right. Col­lege House changed my life. It con­verted me from a wide-eyed pro­vin­cial youth set for a ca­reer in chem­istry and as­tro­physics to an ar­chi­tect. I was a res­i­dent for two years and ‘C H’ showed me how ar­chi­tec­ture works; how an un­der­stand­ing of be­hav­iour, con­struc­tion, ma­te­ri­als and hu­man­ity can be as­sem­bled to de­liver more than the sum of its parts. The essence of Col­lege House is not the beau­ti­ful (but im­pos­si­ble) chapel or the rec­ti­tu­di­nal (but won­der­ful) din­ing hall. It is, as it should be, the res­i­den­tial blocks, known as houses, and how they re­late to th­ese other build­ings. There are eight ‘houses’ ar­ranged to the side of a for­mal quad­ran­gle. Very English, very Christchurch, very Angli­can. Each house is three storeys, each storey has five rooms, a sink and bath­room. Each has 15 in­hab­i­tants. The cen­tral floor has a dou­ble room that serves as a so­cial space for the house. The or­gan­is­ing of five rooms to a floor func­tions much as a so­cial group­ing for a flat. No long, anony­mous cor­ri­dors here. Cir­cu­la­tion be­tween floors is by ex­ter­nal stair­ways, which re­in­force the sep­a­ra­tion of the floors to each other, and the houses from each other. The use of dis­crete build­ings and ex­te­rior cir­cu­la­tion is a po­tent one. To en­close the cir­cu­la­tion would be ar­chi­tec­tural sui­cide. Miles knew the or­der of things. At the top of the quad­ran­gle is the main en­try, lounge and din­ing room, at the bot­tom sit the recre­ation rooms, with the li­brary above. The chapel is off to the side – per­fect! The style is Bru­tal­ist but the en­vi­ron­ment cre­ated is any­thing but. The rooms are com­fort­able, sunny, so­cial – and ev­ery­thing is gen­er­ous – win­dows, door thick­ness, stor­age. And what bet­ter ma­te­rial than con­crete and hard­wood for stu­dents? The struc­ture is em­i­nently climbable, the roofs will sup­port a car, or flee­ing groups of wa­ter­bombers. Rooms will ac­com­mo­date cheer­ing win­ter fires (not rec­om­mended) with sur­pris­ingly lit­tle dam­age. Doors sur­vive be­ing re­hinged from their bases, wiring can be eas­ily rerouted for re­mote switch­ing by one’s neigh­bour. Win­dows weren’t too easy to break – but I did have a brick ar­rive through mine with a note ad­vis­ing me that my win­dow was bro­ken. But, mainly, the rooms were quiet and de­fen­si­ble; we did have work to do. The quad­ran­gle, over­looked by the houses, was per­fect for croquet and com­pet­i­tive drink­ing – usu­ally to­gether. It was the set­ting for wag­ing bat­tles and for

in­for­mal gath­er­ings of plot­ting or the­o­ris­ing stu­dents. I won’t men­tion the py­rotech­nics that took place, lest my eyes mist up with wist­ful­ness, ex­cept to men­tion nearly a month’s board spent on a fire­works as­sem­bly lit from one wick. Bril­liant – it ranged far and wide, won­der­fully spec­tac­u­lar, spo­radic and dan­ger­ous. And the teapot of blast­ing pow­der was mem­o­rable... an­other good rea­son for con­crete build­ings. The place hummed with vis­it­ing speak­ers in the lounge – in­clud­ing Sir Miles, who gave talks on ar­chi­tec­ture. Good on him. The chapel is ex­tra­or­di­nary. From the con­ceit of glaz­ing the stair ris­ers (again a ref­er­ence to out­side cir­cu­la­tion) to the mad truss work of the ceil­ing – more stud­ied than the al­tar. It’s a strong and in­ti­mate build­ing and a spe­cial ac­cent to the whole of the place. The din­ing hall is some­what the­atri­cal – its de­sign put cer­e­mony into din­ing. The servery is screened off from the din­ing space, which has a low-raised dias at its head and is fur­nished by re­fec­tory benches and ta­bles (that or­gan­is­ing thing again). And there’s more madly won­der­ful truss work. The hall has been re­built and en­larged since the earth­quakes. All power to the board, it has been care­fully con­sid­ered and mod­elled to main­tain the con­sis­tency of the orig­i­nal build­ing. This place is too strong to be med­dled with – some ear­lier un­sym­pa­thetic al­ter­ations are tes­ta­ment to this. The thing is, Miles got the es­sen­tials right – and then he made it in­ter­est­ing. Th­ese build­ings are ro­bust and so­cially planned – en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ships are formed – and it’s im­pos­si­ble to not be part of the place. To de­sign some­where to eat and sleep is easy, but to make a place to be­long to – that’s ar­chi­tec­ture. The so­cial or­der flows from floor to house to quad­ran­gle to din­ing hall, and struc­tures the way one in­hab­its the place. Col­lege House is a place of or­der, but not of rules. At one end-of-year for­mal din­ner it was de­cided that when, as Angli­cans do, the Queen was toasted, we’d drink then throw our glasses over our shoul­ders. “Gen­tle­men – the Queen!” Then the sound of 120 glasses break­ing. I wouldn’t sug­gest we do that for Sir Miles. Just drink deeply, thank him and put the glass back for some­one else to use. Col­lege House is bloody bril­liant. Here’s to its next 50 years.

for­mal quad­ran­gle. 11. Light fil­ters into a stu­dent room through a tall win­dow and cleresto­ries. A for­mer res­i­dent, Walker says the rooms are com­fort­able, sunny and so­cial, and demon­strate gen­eros­ity – from door thick­ness to stor­age. 12. The din­ing...

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