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2002 Gold Medal: Edward John (Ted) McCoy

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Tim Heath and Elizabeth Kerr reflect on the career of influential Otago architect – and 2002 NZIA Gold Medal recipient – Ted McCoy.

The New Zealand Institute of Architects has awarded a Gold Medal, its highest honour, to Dunedin architect Edward John (Ted) McCoy. The award recognises McCoy’s outstanding contribution to the practice of architecture during his substantial career.

After graduating from the Auckland University School of Architecture Ted McCoy began practice in Dunedin with a large work, Aquinas Hall and Chapel for the Dominican Order, designed in 1950.

Drawn up on the dining room table, this substantial building complex remains a prominent Dunedin landmark.

Thereafter, McCoy was never short of projects or challenges. His work includes supermarkets, churches, primary, secondary and tertiary educational, healthcare and residential buildings.

McCoy was joined in practice by Peter Wixon in 1968. “I was very lucky to get Peter,” McCoy says. “He had an office procedure background with Stephenson and Turner, and before that the Ministry of Works Architects Department. Peter has a good architectural sense too, not just managerial.”

The firm of McCoy and Wixon went on to produce award-winning houses, educational buildings and churches of national pre-eminence. In all, the practice has won eight NZIA National (now Supreme New Zealand) awards. In 2000, the NZIA recognised the completion of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, with a 25 Year Award. The most recent award to the practice is this year’s New Zealand Award for the University of Otago St David Theatre.

McCoy is a past president of the NZIA [1979-80], and past chairman of the NZIA’s Otago branch. He is also former chairman of the Otago regional committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. In 1990, he was appointed to the national board of the trust and served for three years.

With Gary Blackman, McCoy authored Victorian City of New Zealand [John McIndoe, 1968], a study of Victorian architecture in Dunedin. He also contributed to Historic Buildings of New Zealand: South Island [ed. Francis Porter, Methuen, 1983], a publication of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

McCoy’s major architectural works are cultural landmarks; they form part of our collective memory of place.

“Architecture comes from where you are,” McCoy says. “It is significant that some of the finest architecture being produced today is found in the smaller countries – countries of great natural beauty, similar in many ways to our own.”

The completion of St Paul’s Cathedral [NZIA National Award, 1973] was an early approach to contextual design. The McCoy solution is an affordable modern chancel that is a respectful, light-filled interpretation of the existing late neo-Gothic cathedral, with its traditional braced form and uplifting interior. McCoy’s forays into designing chapels and small churches, including the highly successful chapel at Orokonui hospital [1967], had earlier demonstrated a discerning appreciation of light play and texture. Outside, the building form is simply styled; inside, overhead light is diffused to wash the wall surfaces and furnishings.

For McCoy, architecture – talking about it, reading about it, doing it – is basic. It is a matter of getting the fundamentals right. “We were doing small-scale work, then we hit the larger projects, knowing they're going to be there for a long time, enduring,” McCoy says.

“It’s the challenge of doing a major structure...you can’t think of it as an abstract artistic exercise; it's always related to the ultimate user.”

A tremendous amount of effort went into the houses McCoy designed. Very few were without owner input. The Blackman House [1965] and the Shacklock House [National Award 1975], in particular, have strong appearance without ostentation. The architect’s choice of simple forms, the sensitive detailing and local materials signal a continuity with tradition. The houses continue to “enlarge the experience” of their occupants.

McCoy’s significant resume of educational buildings includes several repeat clients. One of his favourite projects is Kavanagh College, formerly St Paul’s High School [National Award, 1965]. It represents sustained quality and sequential development over a long period of time. Another highly regarded project was the redevelopment of Otago Boys’ High School [National Award, 1985]. Here, the architect was not only instrumental in saving the historic tower block, he also produced new buildings which, by close attention to the plan organisation, massing, pedestrian circulation and use of materials, successfully embraced sweeping changes in educational theory.

Some of McCoy’s most well-known and respected university buildings employed concrete technology and engineering design skills that were advanced for their time. They include University College, or Unicol [1969] and the Hocken Building [1972-1980, National Award 1983]. “Unicol was the forerunner to the Hocken,” McCoy says. “It’s pretty early, apart from the balcony changes, but they haven't altered the building in a sense – apart from lightening it up a bit.”

Originally, the Unicol building had a female tower and a male tower with common rooms on each floor, and common dining and living rooms at ground level. McCoy says he is “always conscious of the sun, the sun always dominates any building that involves people”. In the Unicol building, “the east, north and west rooms all get the sun. This articulated the mass, the exterior – on the south side there are no windows, no rooms”.

A virtuoso essay, the National award-winning Hocken Building is the tallest building on the Dunedin campus. The scale achieved went beyond the initial brief. McCoy was first impelled to organise and articulate the bulk by separating the three basic structures – the main block (slab) and two end towers. He then followed with the “architecture” (the detailing), specifying a texture that related to Maxwell Bury’s neo-Gothic buildings, using pre-cast panels patterned to catch the light.

“It changes as the sun moves round. I wanted to show the material it is built of – basic concrete,” McCoy says. Heavily modulated, the building has depth to all its elevations. The architect has ingeniously pulled out facade elements to avoid any sense of “sheer wall” vertigo.

McCoy has always had a strong sense of place. “We have in Otago almost unlimited resources of some of the finest aggregates and sands in the world, and we produce our own cement. It would appear the development of a concrete technology should logically form the background of our future architectural development.”

McCoy’s work expresses an architectural vision equally at ease in historic and contemporary urban contexts. His buildings are characterised by the use of simple, articulated forms and a considered use of natural light. He uses locally available materials – stone, concrete, timber, brick and tile. From the organisation of these emerge the special architectural qualities of integrity, resonance and endurance that define his work.

The NZIA Gold Medal is recognition of Ted McCoy as an elder statesman of this country’s architecture and of the important contribution he has made to the built environment and our cultural landscape.

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