ROBIN WHITE’S PAST WORKS

White’s charis­matic early style, rem­i­nis­cent of Rita An­gus, is highly recog­nis­able.

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Ep­som Girls Gram­mar. Hav­ing been “a bit of a loner”, school sud­denly started mak­ing sense to her when she dis­cov­ered the art depart­ment. Her art teacher was known to the stu­dents as Mrs Hard­cas­tle, but in the art world as May Smith, one of the lead­ing lights of paint­ing in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury. When it be­came ob­vi­ous White wanted to pur­sue art as a ca­reer, her par­ents backed her 100 per­cent. “The kind of ad­vice I was get­ting was, ‘It doesn’t mat­ter what you do, just aim for the top.’”

Be­ing made an Arts Foun­da­tion Lau­re­ate and, more to the point, be­ing awarded $50,000, is “amaz­ing”, says White. She’ll be able to do things she of­ten puts off be­cause of the cost, like get­ting her eyes checked and go­ing to the den­tist. She also plans to visit the Maruki Gallery in Ja­pan to view the Hiroshima Pan­els, some­thing she’s wanted to do since she was lit­tle. And she’ll re­turn to Kiri­bati to fol­low up on ideas she started work­ing on two decades ago.

Th­ese days, the tiny coun­try faces im­mi­nent ex­tinc­tion by cli­mate change, some­thing White fore­shad­owed in her work back in the 1970s. Does she see any progress since then or have we spent four decades rolling back­wards? “The Bahá’í view is that both those things hap­pen in par­al­lel. But what we have is a choice. You can throw your lot in with all of those move­ments which are in line with a vi­sion of growth, in which we come to un­der­stand the mean­ing of unity in di­ver­sity, a one­ness of hu­man­ity. Be­cause we are one hu­man fam­ily.”

“I would like to think that our work is a tan­gi­ble ex­am­ple of what peo­ple can achieve when they work to­gether.”

begin­ning of the 1990s marked a re­vival of in­ter­est in post-war mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture, but this re­vival did not ex­tend much past the mid-1960s, when Meg­son’s ca­reer was begin­ning. Meg­son con­tin­ued to find him­self a man out of time.

There were other, more prac­ti­cal rea­sons. His pho­to­graphic ar­chive was lost in the days fol­low­ing his death, per­haps cleared from his univer­sity of­fice and now gath­er­ing dust some­where, for­got­ten but wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered. It may in­stead have sim­ply been thrown out.

A good pho­to­graph of­ten lasts longer than the build­ing it­self; ar­chi­tec­tural rep­u­ta­tions are se­cured by an iconic im­age. Dur­ing his life, Meg­son had re­tained tight con­trol over the pub­li­ca­tion of his oeu­vre. With his pho­to­graphic ar­chive gone, the build­ings were no longer re­pro­duced prop­erly, if at all, and faded from view.

The cre­ation of my book, Claude Meg­son: Counter Con­struc­tions, was in­tended to en­sure Meg­son’s fas­ci­nat­ing work is not for­got­ten. In an age where too many homes seem to in­clude large, fea­ture­less open­plan spa­ces, Meg­son’s build­ings are in­cred­i­bly elab­o­rate. They can seem like small, an­cient hill towns and have an un­der­ly­ing logic and hu­man­ity that re­wards ex­plo­ration. A key part of my book was re-pho­tograph­ing some of his best sur­viv­ing build­ings with pho­tog­ra­pher Jackie Meir­ing. I wanted th­ese new images to ex­plore some­thing of the ar­chi­tec­ture’s still beauty, range of at­mos­pheres and un­der­ly­ing phi­los­o­phy.

COCKER TOWN­HOUSES

The Cocker Town­houses were built for brother and sis­ter Bill and Fi­nola Cocker over a very long ges­ta­tion from the early un­til the late 1970s. Bill died many years ago but Fi­nola still lives in her town­house. Bill was an avid col­lec­tor. When he was alive, his house was stacked with works by Ralph Hotere and Richard Killeen. I re­mem­ber ex­cit­ing him about the fur­ni­ture of de­signer Humphrey Ikin. By the next visit, he had bought one of Ikin’s cof­fee ta­bles, un­der which he stored more art.

The build­ing is the prod­uct of clients want­ing both a de­gree of re­treat from the city and to give back to the area. It freely con­verses with the lan­guage of its neigh­bour­ing vil­las and yet also as­serts its own moder­nity.

The town­houses’ con­struc­tion is ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­tri­cate: white painted weath­er­boards, tim­ber doors and pro­ject­ing bal­conies, slate roofs and metal gar­goyles. There is even a watch tower, ac­cessed through a smug­gler’s hatch af­ter a ver­ti­cal climb. It gives one of the best views of the city’s sky­line.

We fo­cussed on an in­te­rior re­stored with great care by ar­chi­tect Ken Crosson, who had been a keen stu­dent of Meg­son’s. The spa­ces are small and in­ti­mate; in this re­gard you might say they are char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally Meg­son. The idea of large-scale sheet glaz­ing and the open plan was alien to his think­ing. The in­te­rior ra­di­ates warmth and ci­vil­ity. Wher­ever you sit or rest, you are al­ways in con­tact with ei­ther gar­den or sky.

BOWKER HOUSE

The Bowker House comes at the end of Meg­son’s peak decade, but also just be­fore his ca­reer started to lose mo­men­tum. The house suf­fered from a ma­jor fire a decade af­ter its con­struc­tion – it was re­built, but this process took its toll on Meg­son.

The Bowker House is Meg­son’s big­gest com­pleted build­ing. Even then, his ini­tial plans en­vis­aged it many times larger again. It was orig­i­nally go­ing to be clad in Kamo brick, but was scaled back to con­crete block for bud­get rea­sons. The en­trance level sur­rounds three sides of a swim­ming pool. The lower level con­tains bed­rooms for chil­dren and guests and is built level with the side of pool.

Every room is capped by a pyra­mid of dif­fer­ing height and pro­por­tion. Sev­eral are top lit. There are rooms for break­fast and evening din­ing,

in­for­mal and for­mal liv­ing, and court­yards for use at dif­fer­ing times of the day. The house epit­o­mises Meg­son’s phi­los­o­phy of shap­ing in­di­vid­ual spa­ces around oc­ca­sions and rit­u­als, spa­ces which, though in­di­vid­u­ally small and sim­ple, mul­ti­ply and com­bine to cre­ate a labyrinthine and fas­ci­nat­ing build­ing as a whole.

When you look at the highly ab­stract draw­ings Meg­son pro­duced for this house and so many oth­ers, it is no won­der he at­tracted artists as clients. Like the best artists, Meg­son did not flit from style to style. He stuck to a sin­gle-minded, risky ex­plo­ration of spe­cific ideas. His re­assess­ment is long over­due.

Above This mas­sive 652 x 364cm tapa cloth art­work, ti­tled ‘In my fa­ther’s house’, was part of the Ko e Hala Han­ga­tonu: The Straight Path se­ries 2013-2016.

Above, from left ‘Fish and chips, Maketu’, oil on can­vas, 1975; ‘ This is me at Kai­tan­gata’, screen­print, 1979; ‘Man­gaweka’, screen­print, 1974; ‘I am do­ing the wash­ing in the bath­room’, wood­block, 1983.

Above White used earth pig­ments, nat­u­ral dyes and tu­i­tui (can­dlenut soot) on ngatu (bark­cloth) to cre­ate the large-scale tapa art­work.

Above The Cocker Town­houses, one of five pro­jects by Meg­son ex­am­ined in the book Claude Meg­son: Counter Con­struc­tions. Each of Meg­son’s rooms and every rit­ual con­tained in them was de­signed around pre­cisely di­men­sioned fur­ni­ture set­tings.

Above The Bowker House. Meg­son’s houses are acts of be­spoke car­pen­try, brick and block lay­ing on a huge and un­for­giv­ing scale. Right An ax­ono­met­ric pro­jec­tion of the Bowker House.

Claude Meg­son: Counter Con­struc­tions is avail­able for sale at coun­ter­con­struc­tions.com

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