ROBIN WHITE’S PAST WORKS
White’s charismatic early style, reminiscent of Rita Angus, is highly recognisable.
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.
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.
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.