St Joseph’s Morrinsville
This essay by Matthew Grant was highly commended in the open category of of the 2017 Warren trust Awards for Architectural Writing.
“Our approach to modernism was through new forms of structure,” architect John Griffiths once told me. “We didn’t succumb to modernist clichés, and we never pursued the modernist aesthetic for its own sake. Doug Angus would never design a round window just because the client asked for one.”
St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Morrinsville was built in 1964 to a design by Hamilton architects Angus and Flood (later to become Angus, Flood and Griffiths). I met John Griffiths perhaps half a dozen times as part of a research project. The last time I spoke with him was in March 2014. By the end of
that month, St Joseph’s Church had been demolished, and by May of that year, John had passed away.
Once rumours spread that demolition was imminent, the church leaders refused to comment to the media on the fate of the building or on what it might be replaced with. The 2-metre-high chain link fence that went up around the church in March 2014 confirmed everyone’s fears. Nobody protested at the church’s demolition; nobody chained themselves to iron railings. There was a resigned acceptance that the outcome was inevitable.
The real tragedy, though, is that through the reluctance of the church to acknowledge the building’s importance and have it recorded or assessed, there is very little evidence it existed at all. St Joseph’s was unpublished in architectural magazines and doesn’t appear in any surveys of New Zealand architecture. When the building was demolished, it disappeared from all view.
St Joseph’s was impressive. My son called it the upside-down bathtub – an accurate, if not very flattering, description. The building’s shape was derived from its structure: huge parabolic ribs of steel-reinforced concrete, which supported a concrete outer skin. Unlike medieval churches where buttressing was thrown outward, this church’s structural support was expressed internally. Expressed too much, it would later turn out. To occupy the church was to inhabit the cavernous interior of an enormous whale. The structure contained nine pairs of concrete ribs in all. They commenced at the flat wall facing the
street and moved towards the curved wall at the front of the church, where they culminated in a keystone placed 12 metres above the alter. The masterful engineer was Thomas Flood, a former Fulbright Scholar.
Newspapers at the time called St Joseph’s ‘striking’ and ‘unusual’. The concrete ribs that supported the outer shell stopped short about 3 metres above the ground. From there, the buttressing, true to its Gothic inspiration, flew free then anchored to the ground. Despite the ribs’ weighty proportions,
people feared they would snap in an earthquake.
The congregation, for the most part, disliked the building. It failed terribly to provide suitable acoustic performance, thermal comfort or weather tightness. However, it was its radical structural form that led eventually to its demise; the building couldn’t meet modern earthquake expectations. The external appearance of St Joseph’s Church was similar to a traditional Samoan fale. If you wanted to, you could argue that this was an early Pacific approach to ecclesiastic architecture, but you would be wrong. Doug Angus designed St Joseph’s as a strictly modern church. He was a modern architect in the same way that Rita Angus, his sister, was a modern painter. They were both more interested in their personal artistic identities than finding a national style or subscribing to one. “We were supposed to be in awe of The Group Architects,” John told me, but I had the distinct impression that he and his practice really weren’t.
Inside the church, Angus continued to challenge prevailing traditions of church architecture. The floor dropped 600 millimetres in a gradual ramp from front entry to sanctuary. (The concept was to have the priest face the congregation as he said mass, and to ensure an unobstructed view of the altar from the pews.) The original parish priest, Reverend J. O’Connor, wanted the altar brought towards the people and not pushed back against the rear wall. The inverted altar sat on a table of Milan marble nearly 3.5 metres wide and was placed to give correct proportion to the rest of the church. To make the altar a focal point, it was set in the middle of the predella, the platform on which an altar stands, with steps descending on each side.
Given the size of the large internal space, acoustics were problematic from the beginning. After consulting with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Development in Auckland, the architects designed speakers to be placed in suspended panels. However, a new parish priest had all the speakers and panels removed. Subsequent solutions were presented, but were all rejected; eventually, nothing alleviated the failing.
In a similar way, thermal comfort was also hampered by the insatiable demand of the enormous internal space for heating and cooling energy. Electric heaters were inadequate, given the internal height; even when suspended, the heaters failed to comfort the hardiest of church members braving the
chill of winter sermons. Years later, the church’s outer shell was painted white to mitigate against solar heat gain, but the paint prevented the concrete from breathing and the church interior went from cool in summer to stifling; it was now uncomfortable all year round.
The original design called for a weatherproof coating on the roof, but there was no money available for this purpose. Later, the congregation elected to use a cheaper alternative, which failed. When the leaks arrived, so did a decision: the church needed to go.
Near the top of the church’s large flat wall facing the street were five irregularly shaped fenestrations that mimicked those in Le Corbusier’s famous chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp in France. The glass was designed and made by Dutch artist Martin Roestenburg, a graduate of the Academy
of Fine Arts in Munich, who is best known for his 14-metre-high statue of Our Lady of Lourdes at Paraparaumu on the Kapiti Coast. Pieces of these windows were among the items I salvaged from the demolished St Joseph’s Church.
In their original location these small windows were about 5 metres above the ground. But the now-broken pieces I held revealed the delicate overlapping pattern that Roestenburg had created. There was a selection of flat coloured glass and ‘slump’ glass, held together with a combination of epoxy
adhesive, white cement and very fine sand. Most of the very bright colours were resins laid over glass. Although only the size of my hand, the salvaged pieces of glass are beautiful.
For me, St Joseph’s Church was a modernist masterpiece. Like all great work, it pushed the boundaries of materiality, and while it gave a nod to traditional forms of ecclesiastic architecture, it wasn’t a slave to them. Although the church failed to provide the comfort expected, that wasn’t the
building’s fault, well, not entirely.
The church summed up the uncompromising attitude of a thoroughly modern architect. Its demise, however, demonstrates the fragile existence of even monumental work.