A brief history of the 'third-ugliest building in the world'by Redmer Yska
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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