Barry Dacombe pays tribute to Sir Miles Warren
19 August 2022
Sir Miles Warren ONZ, KBE, FNZIA 1929 - 2022 Kia Ora. Tena Koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa. Hello everyone and a warm greetings to you all. Sir Miles was born in Christchurch on the 10th of May 1929 the second son of Maurice Ballantyne Warren and his wife Jean.
Miles was educated at Medbury Preparatory School and entered Christ’s College as a Soames Scholar.
He decided, against his father’s wishes, that he wanted to be an architect. His father considered there was no financial future in the profession of architecture and being a product of the Great Depression I suppose that was a natural concern back then.
But, notwithstanding, he arranged for Miles to be articled (apprenticed) to an architect he knew – Cecil Wood.
Here he learned the craft of architecture, draughtsmanship and water colour rendering and commenced the old Professional Architecture course at the Christchurch Atelia, then on to Auckland School of Architecture where he graduated with a Diploma in Architecture and then overseas on an OE.
He was extremely fortunate to arrive in London working at the London County Council at the dawning of the new modernist style – New Brutalism – a movement concerned with the functional principles of Modernism and the expressive qualities of raw building materials.
He worked with young architects on iconic projects like Roehampton multi story housing. He always had a good eye for what he called the “main chance”.
He returned to New Zealand in the early 1950’s to put these new learnings into practice and there it all began.
His father’s cautious financial ways were a strong influence on Miles as his abstemious monetary habits were often, erroneously, a criticism he often endured. I will talk more about this shortly.
On his return to Christchurch, Miles joined the architectural practice of Gordon Lucas. Lucas was an aging practitioner seeking a younger partner to ease the load and eventually allow him to progress into retirement. Such a familiar story these days.
Lucas had some very good clients like Ballantynes and Whitcombe and Toombs, now Whitcoulls. Miles with his good eye for the main chance no doubt saw this as having excellent potential for the future. They are still valued clients of Warren and Mahoney.
Early new projects however began to define the practice’s potential. Dorset Street flats (1956) which Miles and Michael Weston, of Weston Ward and Lascelles, Barristers and Solicitors, were part owners and occupants, hit the architectural pop charts.
Hailed at the time as the ugliest buildings in Christchurch by tour bus drivers, Dorset Street Flats, under that accolade, were the best advert ever for a break-through young architect to get noticed.
This project also involved Lyall Holmes, a talented structural engineer, pioneering load bearing concrete block used, not as infill panels, but as earthquake resisting shear walls. Not only was a new vernacular typology unearthed, but an enduring professional relationship was born.
That exploitation and celebration of the truth of raw materials, the essence of New Brutalism, had begun.
Brian Wood, now from Sydney, and Russell Poole who became partners of Lyall’s practice, Holmes Wood Poole and Johnstone, (now Holmes Group) are here today to celebrate Miles’ life. Both became long time close friends and professional collegues of the Warren and Mahoney practice.
Then there was the Dental Nurses Training School. The Government Architect at the time, was seeking an architect for this project and recalled a young architect (Miles Warren) showing photographic slides of a new architecture at an architect’s conference in Queenstown. In a bold move for a Government Architect, Miles was commissioned.
It pays to get noticed!
The complexity of this project required Miles to bring into the Lucas and Warren practice young Maurice Mahoney an exquisite architect draughtsman with a keen technical ability.
Lucas retired and Warren and Mahoney was born.
I first met Miles when I commenced the same Professional Architecture course at the Christchurch Atelia in 1959. The Professional Architecture course was not an easy road to becoming and architect as it took a minimum of 12 years to qualify. The Atelia was Christchurch’s “after working hours” studio where students worked away most evenings into the small hours. Miles dropped in on occasions to assist in the training of young architects to be.
The Professional course involved, inter alia, preparing testimonies of study comprising construction drawings and architectural compositions encompassing rendered drawings of architectural elements - pediments, columns, column capitals stylobates and the like all assembled in a balanced order. They were drawn in pen and ink on a handmade paper (Watmans) which was stretched over a drawing board and then water colour rendered in colours like ultramarine and burnt sienna washes. If one was bold cobalt blue could be introduced! Oh so classical!
One evening he spied my composition and decided it did not meet the standard of a Christchurch submission. You couldn’t rub it out so the decision was made to deploy the dreaded sponge!
This was a process where a sponge was soaked in clean water and then squeezed over the water colour washing it from the Watmans sheet. Hours of brushwork was washed away but the ink drawing remained.
It was start again. I was devastated.
That evening Miles and I left the studio together and ended up in a somewhat acrimonious discussion outside in the frosty evening on Worcester Street which led on to a discussion as to where I was employed.
I told him I was employed at the Ministry of Works and so a discussion ensued on the merits of private versus public employment.
In those days public employment paid eight pounds a week whereas private offices paid only four pounds.
I was offered a job at equal pay and so our relationship began.
I left Christchurch soon after to attend the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture, returning during university breaks to work in the office.
These were extraordinary days as exciting commissions rolled in and the architectural style of the Warren and Mahoney office developed from the experiences Miles enjoyed in London and various trips to Northern Europe.
These European influences led to the development of the ubiquitous 45-degree gable end houses that became a hallmark of the practice and were probably the genesis of the term “The Christchurch Style” which was applied to much of Christchurch architecture in the 60’s.
The Ballantynes’ houses and of course, Miles’ parents’ house in Queens Ave, were classics in this regard.
In addition the influence of Northern Europe from Alvar Alto’s work in Scandinavia is seen in early Warren and Mahoney classics such as the Harewood Crematorium and Christchurch College (now College House) and perhaps also the evolution into Miles’ House and Office at 65 Cambridge Tce.
Time for a story.
The first Warren and Mahoney office was in the Pyne Gould Guinness building in Cashel Street and was a little cramped for 5 people, so Miles decided to build a new office and acquired an old house at 65 Cambridge Terrace. He consulted his father who thought it was an unwise move and cautioned Miles against it. In defiance, he bought the house for more than he considered paying for it and rustled up the courage to inform his father.
His father’s response was to say “Miles, you asked for my advice, I gave it to you and you ignored it. Never ask for my advice again!”
Then there was the demolition party!
Some of you may remember this. Invites to the party included respected members of various professions and some might say it got out of hand.
One of my architect collegues and I found an old bath up in a bathroom on the upper floor and proceeded to beat the lead waste into the plug hole to make it watertight. We rolled it downstairs, across Cambridge Terrace and out into the Avon River whereupon Miles was invited to step aboard.
It got about a metre downstream and turned upside down. Miles waded ashore covered in river weed and crossed the road to be met by the local constabulary.
“Are you the owner of this property?” They enquired.
“Yes Osiffer”, Miles replied in inebriated speak standing there with dripping soxs in one hand and waterlogged shoes in the other.
“Is this party beginning or ending?” They asked.
“It's proceeding Osiffer” Miles replied.
The next morning the Christchurch Press reported the shenanigans, and the story was out.
It didn’t end there though. Miles’ father called that morning to remind Miles that he had not informed the mortgagee that he had destroyed their asset! Father was very cross – I understand Pyne Gould Guinness, for which Miles’ father was a director, were the mortgagees.
Working with Miles was an incredibly rich experience full of vicissitudes as Miles’ moods moved from the excitement of challenging commissions to, at times, the lows of missing out on them. His moods could certainly be challenging as he raged around the studio draughting room, berating individuals for not meeting the high standards he had set. No one was spared.
I don’t know how he did it, but Maurice Mahoney seemed to be the only one who simply worked away at what he was doing, seemingly oblivious to the bedlam that went on around him. He was the perfect foil.
Often people who had experienced these displays of temper would be really distressed by them and there was an impression among the cognoscente that the office was run like a Victorian schoolhouse with Miles welding the cane.
Not really so. No sooner had the outburst occurred, it was over, and Miles would return to his chatty pleasant self.
One day we had a young graduate working in the office and Miles discovered some error he had committed, and the bomb went off.
Not once but three times Miles approached his drawing board and berated him. He then ordered him into his office.
The silence was deafening until we heard a solid thud that shook the building. The poor chap had fainted under Miles’ tirade and lay prone on the parquet floor.
I think Miles was more distressed by the experience than the poor graduate was.
More exciting commissions continued to roll into the office and Miles and Maurice became more and more overloaded. It was time to rethink and devise a future strategy.
One evening back in 1974, Miles approached Bill Fox and me and informed us that Maurice and he had decided to downsize the office to about 15 which they considered was as large a practice that they felt they could control. Bill and I were taken by surprised and responded by asking where our future lay. Surprisingly, Miles had uncharacteristically, not thought it through and the next day invited us into the practice as partners.
Growth and shared responsibility became the solution and Miles became particularly relieved and excited at the prospect. As the office expanded into Wellington and Auckland more of our valued senior staff became partners including Roy Wilson, Bren Morrison, Steve McCracken (who has joined us today from the Gold Coast), Gary Duncan, Kerry Mason, Thom Craig, Andrew Barclay, John Coop and now many more with a staff of over 300 in studio offices in Wellington, Auckland, Queenstown, Tauranga, Sydney and Melbourne.
I just want to pick up on an earlier comment I made regarding Miles’ apparent abstemious disposition. That he was careful with money is undeniable. That he was not a generous person is strenuously denied.
An example of the former is that he and I, and sometimes Brian and Russell, would usually lunch together at a local eatery in the city. Often at Leon Langley’s Landing which some of you will remember above Herberts Shoe Store in Cashel Street but more regularly at 124 on Oxford Tce or Horatio and Michelle’s Italian eatery in the Shades.
Lunch required that you brought certain important equipment with you – a pen or pencil and a scale rule. All designs of the day were interrogated over lunch and sketched and altered by drawing on the paper table napkins! So drawing and sketching took place amid the spaghetti bolognaise. The Landing was problematic at times because they only had linen table napkins and ink drawings on them was not that appropriate.
After lunch and design development had concluded, it was time to pay.
Miles was an expert at the Ausie haka.
He would say “Oh damn, I’ve left my wallet behind” and a promise that he would shout lunch tomorrow.
The dichotomy on the other hand was that Miles was an extremely generous person.
In 2006, with a desire to give back to the profession which had been so rewarding to him, he established the Warren Architects’ Education Charitable Trust which I currently chair for him. This trust, which comprises Sarah Smith (Miles’ niece), Richard McGowan, Patrick Clifford and Garth Moore, distributes the income after expenses from two Cambridge Terrace office buildings he gifted to the trust towards the education of architects and the public in the art of architecture.
To date sums in excess of two million dollars have been directed to this cause and as part of this same legacy the local branch of Te Kahui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects are provided at substantially subsidised rent, rooms in the gallery space in the garden at 65 Cambridge Terrace.
His generosity extended to projects of community benefit including the Chairmanship of Beautiful New Zealand Advisory Committee, Chairman of the Canterbury Society of Arts, Chairman of the local branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, an NZIA Councillor and Chairman of the Architects Education and Registration Board.
He was a Foundation Member of the Theatre Royal Trust that acquired and refurbished the grand old theatre here in Christchurch. It is fair to say that, without his devotion and assistance over more than 35 years, this wonderful old theatre would have been lost.
His legacy is recorded by the Sir Miles Warren Royal Box in the theatre.
A further example of his generosity, is, of course, his gift to the nation of his house and garden at Ohinetahi at Governors Bay which Sarah has mentioned in her eulogy.
In 1987 Miles was awarded a KBE for services to architecture followed by the Order of New Zealand together with the New Zealand Institute of Architects Award of Honour and in 2000 the Institutes’ Gold Medal.
Canterbury University awarded Miles an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1992 and he was further awarded an Honorary Batchelor of Architecture by UNITEC University of Technology followed by an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Auckland – his alma-mater.
A final story.
Miles and I were invited to Auckland to attend an interview by the full board of Television New Zealand to contend for the commission to design their new network centre on Victoria Street Auckland. This was a significant project for them as it involved the bringing together of the disparate groups of departments at TVNZ responsible for, among other things, bringing the nightly TV news to air.
Their studios and departments were spread all over Auckland and couriers used to bring the typewritten news to the news studio and clamber over knee deep layers of spaghetti like cables, handing it to the various presenters. It was miraculous that the news ever got to air.
What was required was a building that could bring all this together to enable a culture among people who did not know or had met each other to establish and flourish. The project budget was $60 million plus a further $60 million of complex technical equipment.
We had recently completed the Rotoura District Council Civic Offices which was the first district council to amalgamate and centralise its activities. Its design was the model and was regarded a great success.
After we had presented the chairman asked us to leave the room for a few minutes. Miles went into his down mode.
“Barry, I despair we have lost this one!” he said to me.
We were called back in a few minutes later and the chairman asked us how we as a Christchurch based practice could possibly look after such a complex commission.
Miles was back in “main chance” mode.
“Oh, didn’t you know. We are opening an office here in Auckland” He replied.
I must have looked like a startled hare as the chairman replied, “It looks like your partner didn’t know either!”
“You have the job.”
Elated by the decision Miles and I walked out of the interview and walked past the Queen Street Theatre Complex where the film Amadeus was screening.
“Barry” he said, “Let’s go to the matinee?”
We waked into the foyer and bumped into Pat Hanley (the artist author of the Christchurch Town Hall mural that surrounds the upper foyer) who we ended up sitting with.
We had an ice cream together at interval!
With typical frugality that was the way Miles celebrated the winning of a $60 Million commission.
It says it all.
His contribution over his lifetime has been huge. It has been both an honour and a privilege to have been asked by him to present his eulogy.
He was certainly a giant among men.
Farewell dear partner and friend it has been a real buzz to have worked alongside you these past 60 years.
By Barry Dacombe FNZIA