Interview: Sir Miles Warren

by Rebecca Macfie / 07 December, 2012
Acclaimed Christchurch architect Sir Miles Warren has made a magnificent gift to New Zealand.
Sir Miles Warren
Sir Miles Warren in the sculptured garden of his Ohinetahi homestead, photo Martin Hunter

At 83, Sir Miles Warren is trim, quick and in full creative flight – designing and campaigning, planting and building. Architecture and gardening: it’s often said these have been his exclusive passions. In the library of his Ohinetahi homestead at the head of Lyttelton Harbour, both obsessions have full expression.

Broken only by four sets of elegant french doors leading to the veranda and the botanical masterpiece beyond, the walls are cloaked in books containing a universe of knowledge – about architects and buildings, art and architectural history, the development of cities and urban form, and the making of great gardens. A brown and gold frieze circles the room, reciting the names of architects whom Warren has admired and been influenced by, among them the French modernist Le Corbusier and Cecil Wood, in whose Christchurch office he began to learn the art of architecture as a 16-year-old draftsman in 1945.

Through the french doors to the northwest, the eye sweeps out across Ohinetahi’s immaculate lawn, skirts the sculpted curve of macrocarpa hedges and is drawn down a broad herbaceous border. To the northeast are 12 rectangular rose gardens, contained by strong, straight buxus hedges and offset by curvaceous clipped chessmen. Beyond the apricot-and-white roses stretches the milky expanse of the harbour and out to the west is a glimpse of the bony flank of Banks Peninsula and the crater rim. The views from within are whimsical hints of what lies beyond: a meticulously conceived treasure regarded as one of New Zealand’s best gardens, which has been more than three decades in the making and is still under vigorous development.

There is the red garden, criss-crossed with brick paths and hemmed by buxus and stone walls; the hornbeam walk leading to a perfect oval lawn, above which floats a Neil Dawson globe; a lush potager and a damp, sloping woodland of oaks, magnolias, rhododendrons, hostas, trilliums, ferns and gigantic gunneras. The 1.7ha garden is populated with 150-year-old trees, bold modern sculptures, stone pillars and architectural fragments rescued from doomed historic buildings.

In 2008, Warren – then aged 80 – added a large new wing to the garden. The neighbouring 0.75ha property to the south was purchased, an infestation of blue gums cleared and a park created. An amphitheatre runs down towards the water, built from some of the 140 tonnes of stone removed from the third storey of the homestead after the September 2010 earthquake. A remnant pile of rock sits to one side, waiting to be transformed by the gardening architect into some new embellishment.


All of this, including the Category 1 historic homestead, has been gifted by Warren to New Zealand, along with enough funding to continue employing two gardeners and cover the cost of maintenance, rates and insurance. Although the earthquakes have savagely rubbed out much of Warren’s architectural legacy in Christchurch, the establishment of the Ohinetahi Charitable Trust secures the future of the garden and house. In time, he hopes the revenue from garden visiting will cover its costs. In the meantime, he has relegated himself to the position of tenant in his own 35-year labour of love. “What happens in New Zealand is that people make gardens and then retire, and they are lucky if [the garden is] handed on to members of the family, but generally it doesn’t continue. The only way this garden could continue is by both gifting and, of course, a substantial endowment.”

Warren – who has never married – bought the property in partnership with his sister Pauline Trengrove and her architect husband, John, in 1977. By then, his reputation as the doyen of New Zealand architecture was reaching its apex. Along with business partner Maurice Mahoney and his great rival Peter Beaven, he had stamped modernism on the urban landscape of Christchurch with such buildings as the Dorset St Flats, which promised a new era of compact, sophisticated urban living, Canterbury University’s College House and the internationally acclaimed Christchurch Town Hall.

Ohinetahi seen looking towards the restored homestead
Ohinetahi seen looking towards the restored homestead, photo Martin Hunter

Ohinetahi was a mess when they first laid eyes on it. The extensive garden, planted by the botanist Thomas Potts in the 1860s, had been mostly consumed by a century of regrowth, although many of Potts’s original trees still stood. The house – which at that time included a stone third storey – was leaking badly. But the Warren-Trengrove partnership of three saw the potential for a brilliant garden and bought it anyway. It took two years to restore the house, and the three toured the great gardens of England for guidance on Ohinetahi’s garden design – measuring the size of herbaceous borders, scoping hornbeam walks and tapping the wisdom of the professional gardeners responsible for the likes of Hidcote Manor and Sissinghurst.

The result was a landscape plan designed around two cross-axes and a succession of garden “rooms”. “Pauline was the gardener among us. She was and is still a great plantswoman,” says Warren. “I suppose John and I gave the architectural content of the garden. You could say it was one of the first Arts and Crafts gardens in New Zealand.”

During the week he would lead his booming architectural practice, working on a succession of prestigious commissions, including the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington and the New Zealand Chancery in Washington; and in weekends and holidays he would labour in the garden, cleaning bricks, laying paths, building stone walls and structures, clearing, weeding and planting. “Imagine the pleasure of having spent all your weekdays as a professional architect, and then working in an allied art as an amateur. If it didn’t work, we’d replant it. We didn’t have the constrictions of a client. In the early years it was pure indulgence.”

After 12 years the Trengroves said they were leaving Ohinetahi. Warren – who has the polite, gentlemanly reserve common to the elder statesmen of the Christchurch establishment – allows a hint of hurt to express itself: “John and Pauline announced it was all far too much work and they were going to town. And then they blithely went and bought 10 acres and made a splendid garden. So what was I to do? It was quite a quandary.” He wondered if he, too, would have to move off the property, but thankfully he was able to carry on with the help of housekeeper-gardener Marilyn McRae – “a splendid plantswoman” – and gardener-builder Ross Booker (who is still Warren’s right-hand man).


At 4.35am on September 4, 2010, Warren awoke to thunderous noise. “It was the four upper stone gables collapsing onto the tin roofs. A whole pile of rock had crashed through there [by the library fireplace]. The gables had fallen off, which was bad enough, but the whole north wall had moved out – by only 100mm – but it was most precariously balanced. “I came downstairs, totally unaware of the amount of damage, came through here [the library] and tripped over the grandfather clock, weaved through the books to get the torch, which was carefully arranged right beside the stone wall. I was totally unaware rocks had crashed through on either side.”

But as it turned out, the September damage was a blessing. Through the ongoing aftershocks, family and friends immediately emptied the house of its historic and artistic treasures, people in the building trade whom had worked with for decades swung in with assistance, and the Christchurch City Council helpfully interpreted the rules governing work on heritage buildings in a way that enabled repairs to get quickly under way. This was, of course, in the days before the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) and its sweeping powers to demolish any building deemed unsafe, regardless of its historic significance.

By the time of the February 2011 earthquake – centred much closer to Ohinetahi than the September quake and with far more violent shaking – the stone third storey had been removed, which probably saved the building. It took a year to completely repair and strengthen the homestead – reconfigured as a more modest and less-imposing two-storey structure. But although Warren has managed to save his home, his once-enormous architectural footprint on Christchurch has largely disappeared since the February earthquake, and grave threats hang over many of the buildings that remain.

One of the fathers of what became known as the “Christchurch School” of modern architecture, Warren had spent time working as one of 4000 architects for the London County Council in the early 1950s. He had struck the “extraordinarily exciting” early days of the postwar boom, when modernism was at the forefront of architectural thinking. He also travelled through Scandinavia to soak up that region’s distinctive architectural style, and returned to Christchurch in time to catch, and help create, an enormously productive and prosperous architectural wave – a far cry from his early days in Cecil Wood’s office, when architects were struggling to remain solvent because of the dearth of work through the Depression and war years.

Warren surveys the expanse of Ohinetahi
Warren surveys the expanse of Ohinetahi, photo Martin Hunter

He introduced a style distinctive for its use of reinforced concrete block (usually painted white), exposed concrete and timber. The modest, sleek Dorset St Flats were among his early signature designs. In 1958, he formed his lasting partnership with Maurice Mahoney to create a succession of major public buildings – the Christchurch Dental School, College House, the Canterbury University Students Union (and later the unions at Auckland and Massey universities), Christchurch City Library, modern additions to Christ College’s historic campus, the Park Royal Hotel and dozens of commercial office buildings. In 1966, when Warren and Mahoney were still in their thirties, they won the prestigious competition to design the long-awaited Christchurch Town Hall, which opened in 1972.

Each design was presented to the client as a watercolour sketch, painted by Warren. The early work of Warren and Mahoney, along with that of Peter Beaven, was “new and distinctive, and the whole country woke up to it”, says Julia Gatley, University of Auckland senior lecturer in architecture and planning. “They influenced a generation of Christchurch architects.” They worked in a style that later became known as brutalism, which, translated, means raw concrete. The structure of the buildings was not hidden behind applied claddings or facades; how the building was constructed was expressed in its appearance.

Architectural historian Jessica Halliday says the brutalist style was about “material truth, structural truth, functional truth” – the building and its structure could be “read” and its purpose was apparent. She regards the Christchurch Town Hall as the “climactic work of the postwar Christchurch School”, a triumph of planning, collaboration and craftsmanship that not only broke new ground internationally for its superb acoustics and “majestic” styling, but was also “clever and clear” in the way it functioned as a public space. “It’s a whole work of art, and all parts of it function together.”

A key part of the building’s success was Warren and Mahoney’s collaboration with brilliant acoustic engineer Harold Marshall (now Sir Harold). “We had the extraordinary good fortune that Harold Marshall had just completed his research into the acoustics of lateral reflections,” says Warren. “And the Christchurch Town Hall was the guinea pig for a whole series of concert halls.” It came to set the standard in the acoustic design of concert halls around the world. The Sydney Opera House, built around the same time for almost 30 times the cost, is recognised as acoustically inferior, Warren notes.

Did they know it was going to be so successful? “You either throw a double-six or you don’t,” he replies. At the opening concert on September 30, 1972, the Woolston Brass Band (the city didn’t have a professional orchestra at the time) and full choir performed. Warren had urged the organisers to push the place to its acoustic limits. “At the end of the programme they performed God Save the Queen, the first verse forte, the second verse fortissimo – the band really gave it everything and the choir burst forth. My mother was sitting next to me, and she said, ‘Dear, I don’t like loud noises but that was a special noise.’ I said, ‘Mother, you’ve got it in one.’ “I must confess every time I come into the Town Hall, I think, ‘Hmm, it’s a good space.’”

Marshall – who is an architect as well as an acoustician – describes it as the “finest piece of architecture built in New Zealand in the later half of the 20th century. Its fitness for purpose, the elegance with which it is crafted – handrails, doors, detailing, structure and materials and the clarity with which it is conceived all contribute to the whole.” But it is set to become a political battleground, after the Christchurch City Council voted unanimously – following a passionate deputation in late November from Warren, Marshall, Halliday and architectural historian Ian Lochhead – to restore and strengthen the earthquake-damaged complex for an estimated $127 million.

The Government-run Christchurch Central Development Unit, which controls the planning and rebuild of the central city, envisages a new performing arts precinct, and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has failed to rule out the possibility that he will override the council’s decision to restore the Town Hall, because it would “unpick” the CBD rebuild plan.


Warren stands within Ohinetahi
photo Martin Hunter

After watching the centre of his city reduced by excavators to mostly rubble and bare ground – and seeing much of his own design legacy destroyed – Warren admits to “grief, sadness [at] the loss of the whole heritage of the city”. But he is also pragmatic: much of what has been lost, including the rows of old brick buildings that heritage advocates “bleat” over, was “junk”, he says. “It was a miracle the first [September 2010] earthquake was at night. If it had been during the day, the death toll would have been appalling. The Christchurch City Council had been advised again and again [to require unreinforced masonry buildings to be strengthened].

Fortunately, the best have been saved – the Arts Centre, the Provincial Chambers, Our City O-Tautahi [the city’s original Queen Anne-style municipal chambers], which had been disgracefully neglected by the city council.” That said, he thinks buildings that were repairable have been lost because of Cera’s overly risk-averse attitude. He has had to battle hard to save one of his own early buildings, Warren & Mahoney’s first office at 65 Cambridge Terrace, built in 1962 and celebrated for its elegant design. The building is now owned by, and home to, the Warren Architects’ Education Trust, which he set up in 2006 to promote architectural education among professionals and the public. “It has been saved only by engineers and ourselves as architects determined to hold on to it. It’s been a long process. We think we are winning.”

The Dorset St Flats, which still look sharp and contemporary six decades on, have narrowly escaped a Cera demolition order but remain abandoned, and tied up in insurance red tape. Mercifully, earthquakes don’t destroy gardens, and the bureaucrats and insurers facilitated, rather than blocked, Warren’s prompt and determined restoration of Ohinetahi’s homestead. After a lifetime of creating, Warren is stooped but unbowed; after 60 years of shaping our most important public spaces, he has given us his own remarkable private paradise. As Julia Gatley says, Warren has been not only an outstanding designer, but a generous leader and educator; the gifting of Ohinetahi springs from that same well of generosity. Thank you, Sir Miles.


Click here to read the Listener's 1987 interview with Sir Miles Warren.
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