Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, February 2012
The spin on this exhibition which you can find on the Aratoi website here is that We Are All Transistors revisits Modernism, with Centrepoint, designed by Roger Walker and erected in Masterton’s shopping centre, its centre point.
As some of the photographs printed in the Wairarapa Times Age at the time of its construction attest, Walker with his long curling hair and youthful countenance was the “l’enfant terrible” of the New Zealand architectural scene.
And it’s true, Centrepoint was constructed at the tail end of the Modernist movement which was still making its presence felt in New Zealand.
But here’s the funny thing. Centrepoint really strikes me as more Postmodern than Modern. Architectural Modernism was all about truth to materials, simplicity, a repudiation of all historical precedents etc.
The architectural plans for Centrepoint (which are presented in the show as an installation in themselves, reminiscent of the hieroglyphics of an Egyptian tomb) reveal a design more akin to the Romanesque, with peaked tower, cluster of “cottages,” exposed wooden beams and white columns.
In my memory, there were two Centrepoints – the one that was opened while the Wairarapa, along with the rest of New Zealand, was experiencing one of the most prosperous periods in its history.
“According to government statistics Masterton one of the nation’s top retail towns per head of population, and per annum spending amongst the highest in New Zealand,” the exhibition quotes.
The other was the down-in-the-dumps Centrepoint, suffering along with the rest of the town the recession of the early 1980s which was felt particularly hard in provincial regions like the Wairarapa.
I have to say that I associate Centrepoint more with the latter. Indeed, I can remember regularly walking through when barely three or four of its 21 shops were leased, one of them being the town’s record store.
The 75 metre tower had been closed to the public for many years by then, after being a magnet for misbehaviour such as urination.
The decline of Centrepoint is accidently mirrored in the photographs in the exhibition – the warm orange tinged Kodak colours of the early 1970s replaced by the cooler blue tinged Agfa colours of the early 1980s.
This was certainly not the vision developers Brierly–Jones Investments (NZ) Ltd had in mind when Walker was given virtually carte blanche to come up with his design, the only specific request being that there should be an arcade.
As far as the directors were concerned, it was “a desirable investment with excellent prospects of capital appreciation and consequent increase in income.”
Of course, Masterton being a conservative town, Centrepoint had its critics, with the noticeable absence of the town’s mayor and councillors at the official opening.
And the truth is, the town never really took the building to its heart. Even when Centrepoint was demolished in 1997, there were few tears and definitely no outcry as had regularly accompanied the destruction of other historic buildings in Masterton’s CBD (all of the protests, I should point out, failed to stop a single demolition).
In fact, one small portion of Centrepoint still stands, home to a jewellery shop after the tenant, whom I suspect had a long term lease, refused to cave in.
We Are All Transistors is one half historical recollection and one half re-interpretation, the latter referencing the past for fresh perspective which does make it all the more stimulating and original, although the link between Centrepoint, Modernism and socio-political thought is paper-thin at times.
I enjoy the quirky juxtaposition of such elements as a bust of Carl Marx, a rude approximation of the capsule of Apollo 11, and references to Dresden and Hiroshima.
But I don’t sense any of those qualities which the artists rightfully claim underpinned Modernism – its inherent utopianism and optimism – which was also informed the spirit of the 1960s counter-culture generation of which Walker was a part.
Instead I feel the show has more of an affinity with the mood of Centrepoint in the 1980s – the post party downer when the conservative movement checked (but have not yet checkmated) the counter revolution as the dominant ideology.
All the artists involved in this collaboration seem to be channelling the 1980s more than the 1970s, as exemplified by the Dresden Café installation with its rubber pot plant that to my mind dates more to the early 1980s, as does the container pot it sits in.
It’s not that the artists don’t attempt to acknowledge the Modernist ethos. It’s just that they can’t recapture its spirit, probably due to being members of either Generation X or Y.
Centrepoint’s replacement, a rather pathetic building housing a bank, is not aligned to any movement or spirit whatsoever, and it shows. Its only attempt at visual appeal being a sad toupee of an embellishment in the top corner of the building.
Whatever one’s views on Centrepoint, it was at least memorable. Where it failed had probably little to do with how it looked, and more to do with the generic failure of arcades with shopping off the main street.