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Claude Megson

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Beethoven, Schubert and Danzi all died about 1825, well into the Industrial Revolution. Invention was now valued in this new thing called industry, and increasingly so with music. Dainty Mozart wigs were out and tempestuous Beethoven hair was in. As the 18th century bore on, there was increasing pressure on artists and musicians to invent not just novel works of art but a fitting persona to go with the marketing, a task that came naturally to many of the painters of the period. (Paul Gaugain’s Paris agent told him to stay in Tahiti as he would sell more.) Music had its tortured artists and its temperamental geniuses and it was a matter of time before the Late Romantic era demanded Architecture supply an equivalent.

“Comparing oneself to others is the cause of all human misery.” Buddha

Cecil Corwin would agree. Timothy Brittan-Catlin, early on in his book Bleak Houses – an interesting book full of ideas and stories on the theme of disappointment and failure in architecture – recounts the story of how Cecil Corwin was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first friend in the big city and helped Wright get his first job. Corwin was architect of record for some of the bootleg houses and joined Wright when he set up for himself. Soon after, however, Corwin “had become so crushed by Wright’s genius that he had no heart left for designing anything himself.” [p30] He told Wright “I’ve found out there’s no joy in architecture for me except as I see you do it. It bores me when I try to do it myself. There’s the truth for you. You are the thing you do. I’m not and I never will be. I’m no architect. I know it now.”

The author terms Çorwin a loser architect and proposes that an alternative way of understanding architecture can be found by studying the careers and buildings of these architects that never received any recognition in their lifetimes nor were remembered after. There’s a lot to be said for such an approach since most of our built environment is the product of undistinguished architects and unremarkable careers. We might find a new understanding and sympathy for this 99.99%+ and begin to question the real worth of whatever the fraction is that remains.

However. Is every non-success really a failure? Might not the problem be with us framing everything in terms of success and failure? Everyone doesn’t have to win a prize. We can’t stigmatize non-success. It’s clear we’re not used to discussing disappointment and failure in architecture because we don’t have the language to do so and this itself is a reflection of our culture. It’s not as if our language has forty words to describe different types and degrees of disappointment and failure in architecture. All we have is “success” or “failure”, actual success or failure don’t count, and we ignore the failures anyway. Myself, I have difficulties with the term loser architect even though the author does say there are many reasons why an architect may be a loser architect, “and lack of talent or drive is merely one of them.” p21

“Gifted, hardworking architects can lose battles about style, or politics; they can choose a path which is unpopular or unfashionable, and as a result be pretty much forgotten. They can be a person who recoils from the overwhelmingly macho nature of most architectural criticism, or from the small cliques that influence or even decide what is fashionable.” p22

“A bad temper has been the undoing of many good designers.” p35

“Yet being nice is not always an asset, and too much money can also be a problem, as, no doubt, can laziness.” p36

“At the same time, being too sophisticated, or too demanding, or too unclassifiable, or too difficult to grasp, can be a problem for architects.” p37

I think my problem with the term loser architect is simply that it implies winners, and for every talented architect who enjoys a well-deserved recognition there’s probably a dozen “winners” who simply had a better nose for self-promotion, a stronger stomach for compromise, a more relaxed attitude towards authorship, and were untroubled by principles when it came to accepting commissions. It would be a different book, but I’d like to see more scrutiny of what being a winner actually means, as well as of what it actually entails. [c.f. Architecture Myths #25: The Creative Spark] Such a book would probably require a loser author to write it and a loser publisher to publish it. As in music, architecture, writing, YouTube and Instagram, winning seems correlated with providing content the moment is eager to consume.

Claude Megson

So then, what to make of New Zealand architect Claude Megson (1936–1994)? Along with teaching at the University of Auckland, he ran a practice and produced about 120 projects, yet he’s little known outside New Zealand. By all accounts, Megson’s temperament was “uncompromising” – which is usually a euphemism for short-tempered if not authoritarian. It’s true Megson was called “New Zealand’s Wright” but maybe not always for the reasons we assume. These are the only two photographs of him I could find.

Megson was undeniably talented. His houses are spatially spectacular and frequently daring. It’s clear he knew what he was doing. He seems to have thought about houses as multiple interconnected volumes rather than as the sequences of spaces Edwin Lutyens for example did.

The houses are complex externally as well as internally. A house is often divided up into many functional modules of different sizes that are then connected and interconnected as if the house wanted to be a miniature hill town. This is in line with this quote I found.

The architect, Megson told a generation of New Zealand architects, is not merely creating an object, but “a whole universe for ourselves to inhabit – we are not building buildings, we are building ritual, building occasion, building life itself.”

This one-bedroom apartment was designed in 1969. The materials have that soft Modern feel the Scandinavians were known for at the time. We may have called it Scandinavian Modern but what it really was was something that in retrospect I’d call Scandinavian Humanism interpreted as whitewashed bagged brickwork and local timber.

My university lecturers’ houses all looked like this. Somewhere would be a Paul Klee or Josef Albers print. Never Johannes Itten.

At 33 Broadway, a block and a bit from the Architecture department was a Scandinavian modern furniture and furnishings store called Habitat, designed by my final year master, Julius Elischer.

33 Broadway, Nedlands. Original Architect Julius Elischer, restoration and refurbishment Bernard Seeber. owner Royal Australian Institute of Architects

It was where you’d go to get Marimekko fabric, Georg Jensen candelabras, Orrefors vases, and chairs that this one wants to be. Now it is home to the Western Australian chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. And, much as I loved the store, I think it’s right it should be.


Those same university lecturers would have been thrilled if we could have produced sketches like this one of Megson’s.

Or any drawing that even aspired to any of the following. I confess I can’t look at these drawings without feeling some nostalgia along with envy.

At one time, Megson and four other architects were identified as New Zealand’s New Romantics, architects who might have lead New Zealand architecture into some new post-modern era but it didn’t turn out that way in New Zealand. Or anywhere else.

Liveable, pleasant and humane spaces influenced by Scandinavian humanism and expressive of nothing other than the materials and processes responsible for their construction weren’t the order of the day.

Instead of an acceptable reality, past and present combined into a new new that was neither.

There were also other environmental factors. From 1984, deregulation of the construction industry in New Zealand led to lower standards for materials and labour, and the usual sorry story of lower quality and higher profits. Craft of any kind became a dirty word. Thoughtfully designed houses using quality materials weren’t to be the future and, to be honest, they weren’t going to be the future for many anywhere anyway.

The practice of architecture was also changing. Not for much longer was the image of the architect going to be that of an artist caring over a join or a material, or the direction of light, or a view along the corridor. It was approaching the end of the line for the private house as the primary vehicle for the expression of architectural skill. Getting a house designed, built and published and getting a new commission off the back of that, repeatedly, until it snowballed was no longer the shortest or fastest route to architectural fame, if not renown. Sole practitioners, even those running permanent teaching jobs on the side, were not to be the face of this new architecture.

• • • 

For years I’ve wondered what to make of Claude Megson. He deserves more than a career case study but simply being not remembered isn’t enough to make him a Misfit Architect for misfit architects usually have a concern greater than their own oeuvre. For this same reason, I wouldn’t say Kazuo Shinohara is a misfit architect either. They both wanted to be more famous than circumstances permitted. It shows in Megson’s quotable quote about the architect not merely creating an object but a whole universe for ourselves to inhabit. Fine. But to go on to say we are not building buildings, we are building ritual, building occasion, building life itself is a grand statement that’s not only questionable but not even meant to be even questioned. Q: Is an architect really building life or just choreographing it? Representing the choreography of it? Or possibly choreographing the representation of it? To claim one is building life risks overstatement while claiming one’s just choreographing it risks mistaking a representation for the real thing. In the end it didn’t matter. Post modernism was to do both with brutal efficiency, a far greater economy of means, and with much much more noise. The modern era quickly became the more modern world we recognize today.

Megson was prepared for greater recognition and, to this end, had all his houses comprehensively photographed and recorded. That his archive was destroyed in a fire soon after his death is unfortunate, but bad luck like that doesn’t make him one of history’s losers either. Like Franz Danzi, he left a body of work that is unquestionably accomplished and not diminished in any way by being of its time and place.

FURTHER READING:

How the brilliant architecture of Claude Megson disappeared from view, a 2017 article by Giles Reid http://megson.blogspot.com A blog tribute to the work of Claude Megson
An incredible treetop home by Architect Claude Megson is gently restored article on homestolove.co.nz
Claude Megson Collection, announcement by the University of Auckland

https://misfitsarchitecture.com/2019/05/26/architecture-myths-25-the-creative-spark/

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Comments

  • Thank you Graham. As always refreshing, clear and concise.

    I know nothing of Megson’s training, early post graduate working experience and life experience in general, but a perceived link in the education and influence paths between Elischer and he is a curious ponder. It did not require the emigration of Seidler to bring a open, light and contemporary architecture to Australia, nor likely to New Zealand. It was already here, and perhaps doing better without the pomposity.

    In comment on the drawings, I seem to recall that including a north point was a requirement in Architecture 10.

  • Thank you for another interesting article about an interesting architect I knew nothing about.
    I have a slightly related question: I’d like to learn more about what you refer to as ‘Scandinavian humanism’. Do you have any books on the subject you might recommend?

    • says:

      Thanks Daniel,

      I just coined the term Scandinavian Humanism myself. We never thought of it as such at the time, but it represented an ideal to aspire to. Today, if such thinking were permitted, we might think of it as the architecture of social democracy. Alvaar Aalto was widely respected and admired at the time. We were taught that’s what architects were meant to be. On the level of housing, I was taught to think that integrity of construction and the exquisite selection of materials were important, that rooms must be thoughtfully lit, and space used economically yet effectively. It was intended as an aesthetic of the everyday, but it never turned out that way. At the end of the Knud Peter Harboe post I mention a book on Danish Modernism. Many of the houses in that hold similar ideals. There was the belief that good housing should be available to all, and there was a government system to encourage it. Many of the finer examples were built within this system. And then it ended. Some fine buildings were still built but they fell victim to what the author (or some architect – I forget who, possibly Harboe) called “the cult of craft”. This was undeniably beautiful and awesome but it was nevertheless the decadent display of process. Vestiges of this ideal still remain in IKEA’s flatpack houses, and the ease in the Swedish people accepted them.

      Regards and thanks again,
      Graham