The Real McCoy

by Guy Somerset / 25 October, 2008
Influential Dunedin architectTed McCoy has left his markon the Otago landscape.

'See, I stopped all right," says Ted McCoy after we come to a smooth halt at a set of traffic lights. We have just been talking about design writer Douglas Lloyd Jenkins' comments on 83yearold McCoy's driving in his introduction to the book A Southern Architecture: the Work of Ted McCoy. Lloyd Jenkins describes McCoy "at the wheel of a favoured Saab, careering about Dunedin, acutely aware of every element of the architecture and geography of the city he loves, but oblivious to the needs of either fellow drivers or unsuspecting pedestrians. For McCoy, the pursuit of architectural understanding has always come first. Noparking zones and loading docks have no meaning, not when they sit between McCoy and a detail of a specific building that he thinks you need to see."

"I thought that was a bit off," jokes McCoy. "Trouble is, I was telling him to look here and to look there."

As he now is me: here being the First Church of architect Robert Lawson ("He designed that when he was only 25.") or some "lovely blossom" on a tree; there being the "wonderful asset" of the town belt or "the first building I did".

The building in question is Aquinas Hall, student hall of residence, designed by McCoy in 1950 when he himself was only 25 and had just established his practice in Dunedin after graduating from the University of Auckland's School of Architecture the previous year.

Winning such a major commission from the Dominican Order was coup enough. "They just interviewed me and I talked my way into it. The profession here thought they were mad, giving a job that size to a student. It's only later I looked back and thought, 'Oh my God, how did I get that job?' When you're young, you think you can do anything, so I just threw myself in at the deep end and learned that way."

Then Aquinas Hall won the New Zealand Institute of Architects' gold medal for the best building of the year - with McCoy also winning the bronze medal for best house, for his CL Nees House in the city. It was the first year anyone had won both medals and a precocious beginning to a career that would span the next halfcentury and many more awards, culminating in a gold medal for lifetime achievement in 2002. McCoy went on to design some of Dunedin's most notable - sometimes controversial - architecture, including St Paul's Cathedral, the Hocken Building (now renamed the Richardson Building) and the 2000 redevelopment of Otago Museum.

When he returned home in 1950, McCoy "brought back to Dunedin an international feel for architecture", says Michael Findlay, who teaches design at the University of Otago and is author of five of the six McCoy entries in the new book Long Live the Modern: New Zealand's New Architecture 19041984. "I think he definitely showed what could be done in Dunedin."

The feel McCoy brought back was modernist, the prevailing style in architectural schools of the time, influenced by Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn. But his modernism was also tempered by his feel for Dunedin's Victorian architectural heritage and a sense of place.

"From the late 1950s," writes Lloyd Jenkins, "Otago began to complicate McCoy's modernism, in a way that local modernism needed to be complicated if it was to have any real local relevance. In this, McCoy's work, born of place rather than borrowed from elsewhere, remains an important exemplar for the generations of architects that follow."

As McCoy puts it in an exhibition devoted to his work at Otago Museum, his buildings are "designed to embrace the site rather than commandeer it".

Showing me around the house McCoy designed for him in 1966, his photographer friend Gary Blackman speaks of "a brutalist element to Ted's elegance" - a phrase that could equally be reversed.

But even though it is tempered, McCoy's modernism hasn't always been to everyone's taste. Nearly 30 years on, his 1979 Hocken Building can still be "a bit hard" for Findlay's design students. "It's a very powerful building," he says. "You either like it or you don't."

McCoy takes criticism of the building in his stride. "One, people don't like concrete buildings. Two, they don't like very big buildings," he says, laughing. "But that never worried me, because you know some people are going to like it and some people are going to hate it. Eventually, it will find its own level. Because when you do anything new, most reaction is anti.

"You think of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, where they were throwing things at him and there were catcalls. Its first performance was a disaster. Yet it's a magnificent piece of music and has established itself now as a part of the classics. That's usually the case. Initially, there's a reaction: it's something new, people don't like it, they like what they're used to so they react. But a couple of generations down the track, people look at it differently and it's a different feel."

McCoy's reference to Stravinsky is typical of an approach to architecture that will see him citing literary influences as often as professional ones. "It all feeds in. I used to be interested in books a lot. At the stage I was a teenager or in my early 20s, I'd be reading Flaubert, de Maupassant, Chekhov, all that range. And really enjoying that ... you never know what goes in and what comes out."

Similarly, his exhibition at Otago Museum features pottery and ceramics he owns, along with artworks from a collection that includes Ralph Hotere, Toss Woollaston and Jeffrey Harris.

At home, McCoy subscribes to the Arts Channel and the History Channel, and among his CDs I spot a Nick Cave compilation - burned for him by The Clean's David Kilgour, the partner of his daughter Genevieve.

McCoy and wife Nola take no little delight when you ask them about their children. "I always start out saying, 'Two boys', and then go, 'Oh yeah, and 11 girls,'" McCoy says, having pulled the same trick on me and waited for me to pick my jaw up off the floor. Four of the children are architects, including son John, who took over McCoy's half of the partnership McCoy and Wixon, established in 1967.

"As it turns out, he's a very good architect, certainly as good as or better than me. He's done a very nice job at the university down here [with the St David Lecture Theatre], which I regard as better than anything I've done," he says.

Ted McCoy's final job was the redevelopment of Otago Museum, for which he was called out of retirement, testimony to the regard in which he is held.

As, too, is the fact the museum was prepared to swallow his first demand: that it demolish the expensive outside staircase it had only just built to enable a new firstfloor entrance, and instead return to a groundfloor entrance.

"It's just a matter of logic. You have one of the loveliest little parks in the city outside - the Museum Reserve - yet you decide to ignore that and build a damned big staircase outside and go up another level. It's so obvious you didn't need to tell anyone that's where the entrance should go. Then you realise, once you get in there, you've got to provide an orientation for everybody, so that was obvious, too: you just go straight up through the building, you cut out the floors above. And then you have that as a central access to the galleries around the atrium. So people don't get lost, they know where they are, they can see the atrium through the galleries."

Stated thus - and after you've basked in the white, light and space of the atrium McCoy created - it does indeed seem blindingly obvious; how could anyone have thought differently?

"There are a lot of stupid mistakes made in life. People don't think. They don't do what is so obvious."

McCoy laughs. He is phlegmatic about stupid mistakes, having seen a fair few of them in his career, not least to his own buildings. It is in the nature of the profession that an architect has little control over the afterlife of his work, and some of his buildings have not fared well.

In A Southern Architecture he writes of his 1959 Dr Bourne House being subsequently altered by new owners "beyond recognition".

"Oh, it could not be worse what's been done," he says. "Totally butchered. And it had received a gold medal from the Institute of Architects. But that didn't mean a thing."

McCoy also writes of a new entrance "entirely out of character" for his 1979 National Bank headquarters in Christchurch, now belonging to new owners.

"Some buildings you do feel you got where you wanted on them," he says. "You feel that was as good as you could have done on that particular building. And that was one I felt that about."

As he says this, we are driving back from the Blackman House, which, thanks to Gary Blackman and his weaver wife Margery, has enjoyed better owners than most - better owners than McCoy himself might have been.

"It's even got the original sink bench, which I would have taken out ages ago. But she won't touch it.

"This would be the one house I've done where they won't touch anything. Margery wants it to be the original house. But that's rare. You expect to have change. What breaks your heart is that sometimes the changes just kill the house. They are just insensitive to what the house is all about. You can't do anything about that. Houses are sold, new owners come along. It's their house. That's life. You can't have everything the way you want it."

McCoy's biggest regret isn't what was done subsequently to one of his buildings, or a building that fell short of his expectations; it is something that he didn't get to build in the first place: a new National Art Gallery in Wellington.

He won the commission for a proposed building in 1984 - one of several projects beyond Dunedin, including many in Wanaka, a New Zealand High Commissioner's official residence in Canberra (also never built) and, the farthest afield, a New Zealand High Commission chancery in Papua New Guinea.

But the gallery was abandoned because the land on which it was to be built had been set aside in 1927 for a High Court. A change of government brought a change of tack - the result being Te Papa.

McCoy, having visited the great art galleries of the world in preparation

for the commission, shares the view that combining with a museum was a mistake.

"Think of the British Museum combining with the National Gallery in London - it's just stupid, and on my tour there was nowhere where that happened."

Along with the Hocken Building, the buildings McCoy is happiest with include St Paul's Cathedral in 1970, his 1982 Otago Boys High School redevelopment and the 1969 University College hall of residence for the University of Otago.

We visit the latter - its original entranceway another victim of meddling additions - when he walks me through some of his many campus commissions. As I admire the dining hall within, and the churchlike splendour of a ceiling that mixes exposed steel beams and wood, McCoy talks of always budgeting for a "good longlasting finish".

And how long is long, I ask.

"Forever."

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