Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment
russellstreet: National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand, 2009 (CC)
by Oscar Mardell
I: The Importance of Being Furnished
In a 2014 study conducted by the Universities of Harvard and Virginia, students were sat in empty rooms and given nothing to do but to think – that, or to administer themselves with mild electric shocks. Of the eighteen male participants, twelve chose the shocks; of the twenty-four female, six. ‘Most people’ concluded the study, ‘seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.’
The errors here are manifold. Eighteen of forty-two university students hardly qualifies as ‘most people’ (particularly when only a third of that eighteen is female). And the very presence of a stun-gun in an otherwise bare laboratory is suggestive, to say the very least. But most erroneous of all is the presumption that a mild electric shock is, without exception, ‘negative’ – the presumption, doubtless, of researchers who’ve never been truly bored or known the acute suffering that a poorly furnished space can inflict upon its inhabitants.
I learnt that suffering in Auckland City during the mid-2000s – at the complex comprising the ‘Atrium’ at 21-25 Elliott Street and the ‘Tower’ at 120 Albert Street. My father rented an office on the eleventh floor of the latter, where I would wait out the hours between the end of my schoolday and of his workday. My companions were hessian screens, pleather couches, wood veneer and ‘world’ photography. Herman Melville’s diagnosis of corporate design in the Nineteenth Century remained painfully apt: ‘deficient in what landscape painters call “life.”’
The ‘Atrium’ offered no contrast. It was the perfect Customer Trap (you couldn’t cross it without passing by, or through, nearly every one of its shops), for which reason it was always void of customers and half those shops were vacant. The complex didn’t simply offer you ‘nothing’ to do; it robbed you of the feeling that anything, including thought, was worth doing at all. It was a place to wait and to be emptied of all desire, except, that is, for the end of desire – which is to say, for death. It was a graveyard of commerce, a mausoleum with escalators.
I didn’t have a stun-gun; I had Punk Rock. But to dismiss Punk as a ‘negative’ experience, as simply aural pain, is to miss the point. Punk, foremost, is popular culture’s most exhaustive chronicle of ennui. Take even a cursory glance through some of its titles: The Sex Pistols’ ‘No Fun’; The Clash’s ‘I’m So Bored With The USA’; the Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’; The Slits’ ‘A Boring Life’; The Advert’s ‘Bored Teenagers’; ‘X-Ray Spex’s ‘I Am A Cliché’. Punk is a shock, the sonic equivalent of a stun-gun; but crucially, it’s a shock that’s experienced as boredom’s cure – not as some ‘negative’ distraction from thought, but as the defibrillation that jolts thought back to life. In the tedious circles of that numbing complex, I became addicted.
II: Monsters of The Antipodes
I also had the National Army Museum in Waiouru. My aunt worked in the giftshop and whenever we were nearby, we’d visit. The debt which Brutalism owes to military architecture is often downplayed: the resemblance, say, between L’Église Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay and the German batteries on the Atlantikwall, or between the Wotrubakirche and the Wehrmacht barracks that it replaced. But the Army Museum makes that debt explicit: it is bunker, castle and cenotaph; heavy roofs and narrow windows, impenetrable walls and flanks of turrets, austere geometries and cold, heavy stone; it even has a moat. It’s both a chronicle of the tedium of modern warfare – mechanical, monochromatic and spartan – and the battle-cry which pierces it – grave, bloodcurdling and awe-inducing. It doesn’t just look Towards A New Architecture; it exhumes ancient ones. And it affected me as only Punk Rock ever had: as shock-therapy. It’s not a place to wait for death – it’s a stronghold that keeps it at bay. And it remains one of the most life-affirming edifices that I’ve ever attended.
The Army Museum isn’t New Zealand’s best example of Brutalism, but it’s certainly its most accepted. True, it was maimed in 2017 by the addition of an ‘inviting’ glass entranceway, but no ‘thinkpiece’ has ever called it an ‘eyesore’ or a ‘waste of public expenditure’. This is probably due to the obvious relationship between function and form: the Museum exhibits soldierly life to the public and it’s a fortress in civvies. But the same acceptance has not been extended to New Zealand’s other Brutalist structures, which continue to be misread, derided, neglected and demolished.
In many ways, New Zealand’s distaste for Brutalism is hard to reconcile: the country has some of the most sublime and vertigo-inducing geography in the world; it also has an innovative legacy of concrete construction dating back to the 1850s. But when the two are combined – when the concrete environment attempts to impress upon its inhabitants the awe they locate so readily within the natural one – this, apparently, runs contrary to popular taste, which would prefer that its cities looked like Hobbiton.
Few of New Zealand’s Brutalist structures have been so widely misinterpreted, or so fiercely lampooned, as the Executive Wing of Parliament designed by Sir Basil Spence (of Coventry Cathedral fame). ‘The Beehive’ is a cross between pyramid and dome cast in reinforced concrete: it is Teotihuacan, the Pantheon and Boston City Hall in a single monument; an awesome expression of state authority, but one which the prevailing consensus holds to be ‘the third ugliest building in the world’.
Naturally, Punk was a subtler critic. The definitive reading of ‘The Beehive’ was provided by Iggy Pop, who filmed the New Zealand video for ‘I’m Bored’ there. Pop performs inside the chambers before a nonchalant audience. He attempts to amuse it, and himself, by throwing his leathery body around, but this only makes the spectacle more dull. Eventually, he starts picking fights with individual spectators – upon which, they finally show some interest. The implication is deafening: the ‘Beehive’ isn’t simply ‘ugly’, it’s boring – so aggressively boring that it’s fascinating, awe-inducing. It is the purest embodiment of the sublime tedium via which government bureaucracy impresses its power: repetitive, circular, labyrinthine, tiered and unnegotiable. It is, in other words, the Franz Kafka of New Zealand architecture and calling it ‘ugly’ is about as insightful as complaining that The Castle lacks a happy ending.
The best example of Brutalism in New Zealand is Bill Toomath’s Teachers’ College at 26 Donaldson Street in Karori: a concrete ensemble comprised of specialist classrooms, lecture theatres, administrative offices, playing fields, cafeteria and common rooms, a gym, a marae, a dance studio, an assembly hall, a library and stack rooms – all linked by gardens, plazas and elevated walkways. Like the Beehive, it’s an awesome expression of state authority – particularly, of a state authority which treated the teaching profession with seriousness and gravity. Like the Army Museum, it’s a fortress in civvies – bunkers, batteries, barricades and battlements – a bastion of learning, an infallible defence against ignorance and apathy.
It’s often called the ‘Barbican of the South’, partly because, like the Barbican, it’s a rare example of a Brutalist Gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art, whose whole effect far exceeds the sum of its parts. But also because the Barbican is near-universally liked: its supporters range from Elizabeth II – who called it ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’ – to Skepta and Dua Lipa, both of whom have filmed music videos on its courts. The hope is that the College might one day receive the same accolades.
It’d more accurate to describe the Barbican as the Wellington Teachers’ College of the North. Not only does the College predate the Barbican, its architecture is, in many ways, more daring: at once, more uncompromising – you couldn’t set the platitudes of Dua Lipa against its staunch, corduroy concrete – and more familiar – the sky-bridge rests on Gothic groin vaults, the wall-and-window units mimic the chiaroscuro façades of Venetian palazzi, the cafeteria courtyard adheres to the exact proportions of the Piazetta in Capri. It isn’t a place which aims to appease, but one whose every turn jolts thought back to life. It is Learning Incarnate, An Education in Concrete.
I’ve visited many times, and, in truth, nothing is preventing me from returning – nothing except for a ‘Keep Out’ sign and some wire fencing. But if I do return, I won’t find Toomath’s Teacher’s College – at least, not the total work. At the end of 2017, Victoria University sold the complex to Ryman Healthcare who are converting it into a retirement village. Ryman have demolished the Waghorn Block and the Gray Library; they intend to extend the same treatment to the gymnasium, the theatre, the Panckhurst building, the Malcolm building, the Oldershaw building and the marae. Ryman’s engineers have declared the place structurally unsafe, but, in truth, Toomath ensured that the entire complex met every section of the seismic code: the only earthquake that it can’t withstand occurs once every 2,500 years. Ryman’s intent is all too transparent: they want another place to wait for death, a mausoleum with Stannah stairlifts.
 This list might also have included: ‘Bored Teenagers’ by The Adverts; ‘Chairman of the Bored’ by Crass ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Do Nothing’ by The Specials; ‘Bored’ by Destroy All Monsters; ‘I am a Cliché’ by X-Ray Spex; ‘I’m So Bored’ by The Damned; and, closer to home, ‘I’m Not Bored, I’m Dead’ by The Enemy.
 For fuck’s sake, how many bunkers have you seen with glass entrances?
 Geoffrey Thornton described this legacy in Cast in Concrete: Concrete Construction in New Zealand 1850-1939 – an important title, and shamefully out of print since 1996.
 The moniker was assigned by the (now-defunct) website virtualtourist.com.
About the Author
Oscar Mardell lives in Auckland, New Zealand, where he teaches English, French and Classical Studies. His poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, 3:AM Magazine, PopMatters, DIAGRAM and Terse. He is the author of Rex Tremendae from Greying Ghost and Housing Haunted Housing from Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers.
Taken from Iggy Pop’s ‘I’m Bored’ music video (New Zealand version).