Monday, August 01, 2011

A centre on the edge: the building

The Govett-Brewster in New Plymouth has just released plans for its new Len Lye Centre (you can see them here). This major project costing an estimated $10 million will demolish the 1997 extension and add around 25 percent of new space to the total Govett-Brewster footprint. Estimated annual running costs of the Len Lye Centre will be $311,000. So what do the people of New Plymouth (and by proxy the rest of us) get? 

First up, the space that the G-B currently uses for Len Lye and more general G-B exhibitions (it’s where the Fiona Pardington exhibit is currently on display) will be almost doubled. It will continue to be shared by the Len Lye Centre and the Govett-Brewster, so no loss of display space for the G-B. All good there then. There will also be a new space created specifically for Len Lye exhibitions and a research lounge along with replacements for the current theatre and education spaces that will be lost in the new build.

The addition will occupy the space presently taken by the little deco building on the corner of Queen and King Streets. Some NPers are not too pleased to see it demolished and they will probably be even more disappointed by the computer driven façade designed by Auckland architect Andrew Patterson. They have some reason to be so as it feels about ten years out of date as far as international architecture fashions go (the Guggenheim Bilbao was opened in 1997). 

The Len Lye committee chairman Lance Girling-Butcher told the Taranaki Daily News that 'this building will inspire people in the way that perhaps the idea of a Len Lye Centre was not able to.' That's a lot of weight to put on a façade which, while it does echo Lye’s love of shiny things, is basically an imported idea when the objectives could have been authenticity and local identity. The new visitor centre at Waitomo Caves makes a telling contrast.

You get the feeling that even Patterson is a bit nervous about the effect of imposing this Frank Gehry lookalike on New Plymouth, talking up stainless steel as a “local material” and claiming, “It’s sort of like using the local stone.” But isn't all the stainless steel used in New Zealand imported, much of it from China?

Another effect of the Patterson façade will be to physically diminish the original Govett-Brewster building. It will now, thanks to the loss of its own ’97 extension via the new build, be visually squeezed between the Len Lye Centre development and the café.

The good news is that it’s only a façade, a structural form dear to Patterson. The internal spaces look reasonably straightforward and, cross fingers, architectural flourishes will be restricted to the exterior. In plan you can see a couple of large areas that could be adjusted to suit different shows and accommodate the Len Lye Foundation's determination to create bigger and bigger versions of the work. A whopper version of Fountain is planned for the opening. 

Thursday on OTN we'll look at the Len Lye Centre's audience projections.

Images: Top, the proposed Patterson design for the Len Lye Centre c. 2013. Bottom, Frank Ghery’s Rheinhafen centre of arts and the media in Duesseldorf 1998