Happy 40th anniversary to the Archway Lecture Theatres! With classes about to get underway for the first semester, this seems a good time to recall the beginnings of one of Otago’s large lecture venues, which first opened for business in 1974. In 1972 construction began on this new teaching complex, designed to help cope with the rapidly growing student population, which had doubled in the previous decade. The arts faculty grew from 761 students in 1962 to 1712 students in 1972 and the theatres were intended primarily for them, although they were also available to other faculties and became a popular venue for public lectures. Two of the rooms could seat 120 people, one catered for 180, and the largest could accommodate 260. The new building featured the latest in technology, with air conditioning and wiring for television.
The building was squeezed onto a small site on the corner of Union and Leith streets, previously laid out as a netball court. Architect Ted McCoy’s ultra-modern design presented a stark contrast with the stone Home Science Building (now known as the Consumer and Applied Sciences Building) right next to it and the old Archway Building opposite, from which the new building took its pragmatic name. The Home Science Building – designed by Edmund Anscombe and opened in 1920 – was then in line for demolition, which explains why the Archway Lecture Theatres design paid little regard to the position of the older building. But some people realised the heritage value of the old home science complex; it was reprieved from demolition, listed as an historic place in 1988 and extensively refitted in the 1990s.
One feature of the new building was the graphic designs painted on the exterior of the boxes projecting from the back of each lecture theatre. These have faded somewhat over the years, but seemed particularly bright and striking when they first appeared in 1974. Ted McCoy explained to the Otago Daily Times that he aimed to introduce “a bit of colour” onto the campus. “There has been criticism that many university buildings are grey and forbidding. We have tried to liven this one up with strong primary colours and graphics – to inject a little playfulness in the building.” The designs had no particular meaning, stated McCoy: people could “interpret them in any way they liked”.
The striking geometric shape of the building itself is not obvious to passersby or to anybody inside. I found the design of the building bewildering until I saw an aerial photograph of the campus, which revealed its cruciform shape, placed diagonally on the site (it features on the left side of the aerial photograph in this earlier blog post). McCoy selected this design to make the most of the tight site and provide an open courtyard at each of the four entrances. It has now been confusing students for forty years. In 2013 Loulou Callister-Baker wrote an entertaining article for Critic about some of the architecture around the University of Otago. The Archway Lecture Theatres received special mention for their “barely comprehensible” design. She wonders if the architects “were specifically employed to stimulate critical thinking” and thinks the “four arrow graphics are waiting for a Da Vinci code assessment”.
Have you ever been lost in and around the Archway Lecture Theatres? What are your thoughts on their design?