Frank Lloyd Wright, often described as the greatest American architect of the 20th century, never completed a degree in architecture. Playing with a set of wooden Froebel blocks as a child was formative, helping to develop his interest in built form and space, and on leaving school he learnt the role of architect by working in established architectural practices, in a manner not unlike serving an apprenticeship.
What people often overlook in telling this story is that the apprenticeship model – pupillage, as it was called – was actually the way by which most architects of Wright’s generation trained. A small number of architecture schools opened in Britain and the United States in the 19th century, but a university education in the discipline only became the norm as the twentieth century progressed.
Auckland University College, as the University of Auckland was formerly known, opened a School of Architecture in 1917, one of the first in Australasia. Initially the school offered part-time lectures to support the pupils who were working in practices. It employed its first Professor of Architecture, Cyril Knight, in 1925. Knight soon upped the ante, launching a programme of full-time study in 1926. He was always interested in town planning too, and established a Department of Town Planning in 1957.
The school has now reached its centenary and is celebrating with a new book and a major exhibition on its history, both titled The Auckland School: 100 Years of Architecture and Planning.
The book reveals the formative moments and experiences of many of New Zealand’s best-known architects: in 1946, for example, students who would go on to form Group Architects crystallised their views on architecture by writing and publishing a manifesto and a magazine; a few years later, a visit to the Group’s early houses had a real impact on the young Miles Warren. For David Mitchell, a radio talk by British art historian and critic Nikolaus Pevsner encouraged him to enrol at the school, while for Ian Athfield it was a lecture by visiting Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck that struck a chord and helped him to advance his own thinking about designing not only buildings, but the spaces between them.
The school’s centennial exhibition shows at the Gus Fisher Gallery from September 9 to November 4. It has a particular focus on drawings produced by architecture students during the 100-year period. These are fascinating for demonstrating changes in the buildings being designed by students as well as changes in drawing materials, technologies and techniques over time. Classical buildings gave way to modernism in the 1940s. The use of pen, ink and watercolour continued but the drawings became looser and more expressive.
From the late 1960s, the counter-culture provided a significant challenge to the discipline, as self-sufficiency extended to self-building using second-hand and demolition materials. Then came postmodernism, computers and sustainable design; at the Auckland School an ongoing fascination with drawing provided an important point of difference.
In addition to architecture, the book traces the development of the School’s town planning programmes, from their initial focus on urban issues such as zoning, building heights and traffic planning to more active engagement with public policy, resource management and the emergent discipline of urban design.
It was the 1970s before other New Zealand universities offered degrees in architecture or planning. The Auckland School therefore underpins the development of both disciplines in this country while also responding to the challenges and demands of today – from urban growth management and infrastructure planning needs, for example, to an architecture industry suddenly demanding more graduates versed in tikanga Māori and Te Aranga Māori design principles to work on iwi-led development projects.
Complementing the centennial history project, the School is exhibiting current student design work in Design Studio in Action from September 8 to 13 (closed on the Sunday).