A brief history of the 'third-ugliest building in the world'

by Redmer Yska / 01 April, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Ugly buildings

Photo/Getty Images

It’s hard to find a fan of the brutalist concrete building housing the Executive Wing at Parliament, but, 40 years on, it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

The recent flurry over what one critic called the “disgusting” $1.5 million state-house artwork on Auckland’s waterfront shows that Kiwis still get worked up about architecture. And few local structures have ever gathered more flak than the Beehive, which this year marks 40 years of continuous occupation.

Ever since the reinforced-concrete edifice was conceived, in a sketch scrawled on a napkin by British architect Sir Basil Spence during a long lunch, it has been mocked and reviled, and some grumpy occupants have even threatened to abandon it.

But the building enters its fifth decade intact, despite being named the world’s third-ugliest building by a tourism website, which called it “a slide projector that fell on a wedding cake that fell on a water wheel”. (First and second respectively are a monstrous sandstone playhouse in Baltimore and a TV tower in the Czech Republic).

An example of the architectural brutalism the French call béton brut (concrete in the raw) , the Beehive is one of a kind. The distinctive ziggurat design makes its interior like a confusing journey through an ancient Egyptian step pyramid, or an electricity substation built by the old Ministry of Works.

The structures used to house our parliamentarians were never this ambitious. Parliament House was completed in 1922, though Parliament met in the unfinished building for the second session, late in 1918. Work on the southern wall remained incomplete and the building was never officially opened.

In 1953, PM Sid Holland described the main building and annexes as “a collection of dogboxes”, and urged construction of a proper executive wing. But it was not until 1962 that Spence, famous for his modernist masterpiece Coventry Cathedral, was tapped by the Holyoake Cabinet. The name was born when Spence spotted the name as he piled up boxes of Beehive-brand matches to illustrate his concept. It stuck.

When the concept was unveiled in Parliament in 1964, Labour MP Basil Arthur called it “a shocker [that] should be scrapped”, though his leader, Arnold Nordmeyer, praised it. The Government Architect was given the job of turning the Spence scribble into workable plans, but struggled with the constraints of a round, multi-level design, especially for the upper floors.

Cartoon/Chris Slane

A Chris Slane Listener cartoon from 2006 exploited the Beehive’s shape. Cartoon/Chris Slane

Hidden price

Work began in 1969 with excavations for a carpark and basement, including a civil defence complex and a swimming pool. Stage I was completed by 1972; stage II early in 1977, when the Queen unveiled a plaque in the reception hall. Prime Minister Rob Muldoon “topped it off” a few months later. The final price tag remained hidden, though one estimate puts it at $70 million.

Muldoon made the Beehive his bunker, a metaphor for his unassailable style, as he shut himself off from the economic and social headwinds of the day. He was also an early critic, overheard at the opening scoffing at a massive wall hanging in the atrium by Guy Ngan and Joan Calvert. The holes in it prompted him to remark, “Heh, it looks like the moths have been at the carpet already.”

It was a cheap shot. The extensive use of marble and the native timber finishing were impressive. But the Ministry of Works’ decision to go for brown and orange tones served to somehow freeze the Beehive in the 1970s. As journalist, and Listener columnist, Joanne Black later wrote, “the décor is brown (and would feel brown even it was a different colour)”.

The limitations of the circular Spence design also showed in wedge-shaped rooms, cramped offices, low ceilings, windows that couldn’t be opened and interior walls of grey concrete. The grumbles began as soon as staff sat down.

In the 1980s, Muldoon and his monolithic Beehive became a focus of protest. Security guards replaced elderly messengers and identification cards became compulsory.

Anti-tour protesters. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/EP/1981/2696/15

During the 1981 Springbok Tour, protesters forced their way into the debating chamber in the adjacent Parliament House, while nervous police officers blocked MPs without identification from entering.

The tour shone an unwelcome spotlight on parliamentary security. A police review found the Beehive vulnerable, noting that “a motor vehicle laden with explosives could easily drive underneath”. Cabinet approved an expensive security overhaul, appointing a security czar and 25 assistants and requiring photo ID for everyone working in the building. It was part of the legacy of 1981 that other public buildings would follow.

PM David Lange joined the ranks of Beehive critics after he and fellow Labour ministers finally evicted Muldoon from the ninth floor in 1984. He compared the sound of the air conditioning starting up (directly above his office) with a jumbo jet crashing on his desk. The air circulating was unbreathable, he said: “I had headaches and sinuses for the five years I was in there.”

A tiny room adjacent to the air-conditioning plant above his office became a hiding place for Bellamy’s restaurant staff to puff furtive cannabis: in 1986, a pair of bleary kitchenhands dropped onto the private balcony outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, to the consternation of Lange, seated at his desk. They had locked themselves in and escaped to safety by crawling through an air duct, before thudding onto the balcony.

Lange was unimpressed and had them sacked. But it could have been worse: the PM had just finished a testy ANZUS chat with US Secretary of State George Shultz, who had armed minders in tow.

The criticisms mounted. In 1995, Deputy PM Don McKinnon proposed a mass retreat to a new palatial ministerial building. “I have yet to find a minister who likes working in the Beehive,” he said. Despite that, his expensive plans, including shifting the Beehive on rails to a less central spot, were scrapped.

Bill English is the latest occupant of the prime minister’s office. Photo/David White

Felt-tip repairs

By 1998, as the lifts failed, the air conditioners roared and carpets became threadbare,  Black was writing that the building was “little short of a national embarrassment”. PM Jenny Shipley, discreetly confirming that a patched part of the brown carpet in her office was coloured in with a felt pen, agreed. In the end, Helen Clark’s Labour administration decided on an upgrade, the first since 1977.

First in line were the faulty lifts and the deafening air conditioning. Floor-by-floor refurbishment of the offices followed. Construction noise became the new Beehive gripe as staff went home early. Defence Minister Mark Burton even complained that the banging under the floor made his desk jump up and down.

Then came installation of 21st-century anti-terrorism safeguards, including squads of extra staff. As the eight-year, $65 million refit concluded in 2006, Clark was almost kind about the “tired” building, calling the work a huge improvement.

She joined the critics, however, when its emergency generator failed during a power cut, plunging Parliament into darkness, including the bunker used for national civil defence co-ordination. The so-called National Crisis Management Centre proved more effective in the wake of the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes.

So will the concrete dome born on a lunch napkin remain an orphan building, our architectural black sheep? Can it do anything right? Perhaps there are problems yet to be revealed. During the last upgrade, contractors who had quoted for work in a building they’d assumed was a perfect circle found to their amazement that the Beehive is not even round.  

This article was first published in the March 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


Funny Girls gets serious about suffrage in new comedy special
96571 2018-09-20 00:00:00Z Television

Funny Girls gets serious about suffrage in new com…

by Russell Brown

A comedy special with the Funny Girls sheds light on New Zealand women’s historic winning of the right to vote.

Read more
How to ease symptoms of IBS and endometriosis with the right diet
96373 2018-09-20 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to ease symptoms of IBS and endometriosis with…

by Jennifer Bowden

Diets low in fodmaps are a saviour for people with irritable bowel syndrome and endometriosis, helping to manage the gastrointestinal symptoms.

Read more
The web browsers’ war on user tracking
96529 2018-09-19 13:01:40Z Tech

The web browsers’ war on user tracking

by Peter Griffin

The reach of tech giants Facebook and Google goes well beyond their own websites to capture your web browsing. So how can you stop them tracking you?

Read more
Emails between Clare Curran and Derek Handley to be revealed
96499 2018-09-19 08:04:02Z Politics

Emails between Clare Curran and Derek Handley to b…

by Gia Garrick

Copies of former minister Clare Curran's personal emails to tech entrepreneur Derek Handley are expected to be released to Parliament this afternoon.

Read more
Suffrage 125th: We're not there yet, but with each generation we get closer
96160 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

Suffrage 125th: We're not there yet, but with each…

by Genevieve O’Halloran

It's 125 years since women got the vote, but full equality eludes us. The motherhood penalty curtails careers and the gender pay gap remains.

Read more
How gender barriers blighted the career of a Kiwi psychiatry pioneer
96491 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

How gender barriers blighted the career of a Kiwi …

by Robert Kaplan

Mary Barkas' significant achievements in psychiatry in the early 20th century made little difference to her career prospects.

Read more
Did your ancestors help win women the vote in NZ?
96082 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

Did your ancestors help win women the vote in NZ?

by Sharon Stephenson

A new exhibition recognises the some 32,000 NZ women who signed the Suffrage Petition 125 years ago, paving the way for women to be able to vote.

Read more
How NZ women won the right to vote first: The original disruptors & spiteful MPs
96463 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The orig…

by Vomle Springford

Is it right that while the loafer, the gambler, the drunkard, and even the wife-beater has a vote, earnest, educated and refined women are denied it?

Read more