Breaking New Ground In Dunedin

With Pip Bowron

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to travel to Dunedin for the first time in far too many years.

My perception of Dunedin has always been heavily centred on its architecture. The name Dunedin conjures images of big, courageous architecture. The famous Town Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral, Knox Church and First Church of Otago, the Fortune Theatre and of course the grand renaissance style Dunedin Railway Station.

Recent additions include the University of Otago’s Mellor Laboratories - a $56 million redevelopment of the university’s chemistry building turning it into “super lab” for students; and the Forsyth Barr Stadium, with real grass and a transparent roof, it’s the biggest enclosed event space in New Zealand housing up to 30,000 fans whatever the weather.

For me, the scale and ambition of these buildings speak to the nature of Dunedin’s people.

Dunedin is increasingly being recognised for this ambitious nature, in its innovative educational facilities and ground breaking tech businesses. Its university has long been an exemplar for the country in terms of research and teaching, and now companies such as NHNZ – a global production house that started life as TVNZ’s natural history unit – are going from strength to strength in proving that distance to market is not a barrier for good quality, global content and Animation Research Limited is top of its field with its merging of science and animation to produce leading-edge graphics for yacht racing, motor racing and golf spectators all over the world.

The ambition and daring of Dunedin past city leaders and architects is mirrored in its entrepreneurs today.

What surprised me most recently however, was that its architects (or at least the one that I saw) are still quietly operating with the same, or even more, vision and drive so evident in their built cityscape.

My friend Ian Taylor took me for a sneaky look at the Architect Van Brandenburg studios and what I saw there took my breath away. The Van Brandenburg building designs are spectacular, ambitious and inspiring.

Marisfrolg Headquarters 1

Source: Architect Van Brandenburg

Spread through the studios are stunning 3D models of the Marisfrolg Headquarters – a 120,000 m2 complex currently under construction in Shenzhen, China. The studio model above is a 1:100 scale, but the images below show the construction to actual size.

Marisfrolg Headquarters 2

Source: Architect Van Brandenburg

To give an idea of scale it’s nearly three times the size of Wellington’s Westpac Stadium. So it’s big, but even more notably, it is beautiful.The design style is inspired by Gaudi, in particular his use of form derived from nature and his attention to geometry to guide buildable ‘curvilinear’ forms.

To quote Architect Van Brandenburg:

“The Marisfrolg Headquarters is a series of interconnecting curvilinear structures representing a bird in flight, symbolic of the client's desire to move gracefully into their future. The building appears to be light and soaring but at the same time grounded by the use of materials, a combination of stone, brick and broken tiles.”

Now, I’m not an architect and I know very little about architecture, but the creative vision and courage to work at this scale is truly inspiring. It makes me want to learn about architecture, about the people commissioning the work and the area it is being built in.

It seems to me that big, courageous buildings are mostly a thing of our past. We travel the world and marvel at the wondrous structures built by previous generations, but our newer structures in my possibly biased opinion, seem often to be a little bland. I think it might be because we do more things by committee and a sad outcome of listening to everyone’s view is that edges of courageous creativity tend to get rounded off.

I hold out hope that Dunedin, with its ability to build a fully enclosed stadium despite the controversy, its willingness to take on the world with gutsy, big technology companies and with it being reminded every day by its cityscape of the legacy beautiful buildings provide might lead us all in being braver in the scope of our creativity.  Especially with architecture.

Dunedin’s architecture has always reflected the innovation and strength of the region, and this is ever more apparent in the organisations I’m lucky enough to engage with in my travels around the country. I just found out I’m heading back to Dunedin in the next few weeks, this time I’m going to stay a few days to enjoy its wonderful buildings and catch up with more innovators breaking new ground.