Gentle giant of architecture was determined to leave legacy
JArchitect b 1929 d October 31, 2018
ust a few weeks before his death, architect Maurice Mahoney set out in his car to find his legacy. He was making a list of all the buildings from his architecture practice Warren and Mahoney that had survived the Christchurch earthquakes.
It didn’t matter that he was in the late stages of terminal pancreatic cancer. He was on a mission and wanted to see for himself which of his buildings were still standing.
For his daughter, Jane Mahoney, it was a mission that captured much about her father, who has died at the age of 89. He was a fastidious list maker, who kept a note of every restaurant he and his wife Margaret had ever visited.
But he was also determined, meticulous, had a famed grasp of complex detail, and was proud of his built legacy and monumental contribution to New Zealand’s postwar architecture.
And he had good reason to be proud. Maurice Mahoney came from a working-class background in east London, but went on to be a driving force behind a distinctive form of modernist New Zealand architecture.
He was modest and unassuming, but had a clear sense of purpose that made him a quiet powerhouse.
Mahoney was born in the poor east London neighbourhood of Plaistow in 1929. His family moved to New Zealand in 1939 when he was 10.
Their passenger ship was one of the last to leave Europe because World War II had been declared just a few weeks earlier. The ships moved in a convoy across the Atlantic under blackout conditions. The ship behind theirs was sunk by a German submarine, his daughter said. ‘‘As a 10-year-old it was all just exciting. He didn’t realise the full trauma of the situation.’’
The family settled in Sydenham, Christchurch. His father found work as an electrical engineer at a printing company.
Maurice was interested in architecture from an early age, but his family could not afford to send him to university, Jane Mahoney said.
‘‘Unlike other architects of the time, whose parents could send them to university, it took him 12 years to get his degree while working fulltime in architecture offices in Christchurch. He didn’t have the luxury of going to university.’’
His family moved to Opawa in the 1950s. He designed a house for them on Opawa Rd when he was only 23. He fell in love with the girl next door, marrying Margaret in 1960. The two would remain together until his death, raising four children – Sarah, Jane, Nigel and Emma.
He met Miles Warren when he was 16. They would go on to form a partnership that would define their professional lives, forming Warren and Mahoney in 1958 when they were both in their 20s.
The pair were prolific and groundbreaking from the 1960s to the 1980s, designing notable buildings such as the Christchurch Town Hall, and the Michael Fowler Centre and Westpac Stadium, both in Wellington.
Other works included College House at the University of Canterbury, the Crowne Plaza hotel, the former central Christchurch library and refurbishing the Parliament buildings, which was Mahoney’s last major project at the firm before his retirement in 1992.
His daughter said the partnership between Warren and Mahoney worked because they were such different characters.
‘‘They were almost chalk and cheese,’’ she said. ‘‘Miles was always the great orator and the figurehead of the firm, while Maurice always shied away from that and would much rather be working in the backroom.
‘‘Miles was very much the ideas man and the big-picture vision, while Maurice was very much working through the details and turning something into a reality.’’
Warren said the partnership worked ‘‘because each of us supplied what the other lacked’’.
Architectural historian Jessica Halliday said Mahoney was a ‘‘giant of New Zealand architecture’’ who ‘‘led the postwar revolution in modernism’’.
‘‘He was the one in the partnership that really took the genius of Miles’ design concepts and made them buildable and worked out how to fit them together.
‘‘He was very tall and proper. You were very aware of this lean, tall and upright figure that was quiet and solid and modest. The same was true about his work. He did a lot of the solid work.’’
Warren and Mahoney principal Peter Marshall said Mahoney was known for his accurate and meticulous hand-drawn plans.
‘‘He was a craftsman. He understood the craft of architecture. He understood how buildings came together and got great pleasure from doing so.
‘‘Whenever a drawing left his office it was ready and correct and accurate. It never had to come back.’’
The Christchurch Town Hall was one of his proudest achievements. His daughter said he was sad he would not be there for the reopening of the refurbished building in March next year.
‘‘The original opening of the town hall was a huge thrill for his parents. It was a really proud and emotional time. We are all gutted that he will not be there for the reopening.’’
But the town hall is a rare survivor of Warren and Mahoney’s prolific reign in Christchurch. Many of their buildings were demolished after the 2011 earthquakes.
‘‘He found it very frustrating that a huge percentage of his buildings were pulled down when he believed they could have been repaired,’’ Jane Mahoney said.
But Warren remembers ‘‘the pleasure of designing and making buildings together’’ with Mahoney and pictures him ‘‘quietly working away making superb drawings’’.
‘‘We had a very good run. We knew when to stop.’’
In his final months, Mahoney turned that meticulous attention to the detail of his own funeral arrangements. He designed the displays for the ceremony and left detailed notes for speakers at the funeral, Jane Mahoney said.
‘‘He wrote instructions to sit on the lectern. It instructed people to speak directly into the microphone. He was a details man.’’ – By Charlie
‘‘He was a craftsman. He understood how buildings came together and got great pleasure from doing so.’’
Sir Miles Warren, left, and Maurice Mahoney at the Wellington launch of a book marking the 50th anniversary of their architecture firm in 2005. SIMON WOOLF