“We hope to give the people of Dunedin an arts building they can be proud of,” commented vice-chancellor Arthur Beacham in 1964. Fifty years later, that building is listed for replacement as part of the university’s 15-year building development plan. A new arts building – indeed a whole new humanities precinct – is planned, with construction scheduled to commence late in 2019. It seems timely, then, to look back to the beginnings of the original Arts Building.
Beacham made his 1964 comment as he welcomed the news that the government had granted approval for the University of Otago to obtain sketch plans for a new building to house some of the Faculty of Arts. This was a period of strong central government control over university development. The national University Grants Committee juggled requests for new buildings from the various institutions and made recommendations, which were then approved and funded by the government.
Otago arts student numbers were growing steadily, having doubled to reach nearly 1000 over a decade; they were predicted – fairly accurately as it turned out – to double again by the early 1980s. “Students are being taught in every basement, attic and old house we can bring into use,” noted Beacham. The English department was based in Cameron House, a grand old house which would later make way for Unicol; it also shared space in Lower Studholme, a neighbouring house, with the geography and education departments. Education, one of the largest university departments, also used Marama Hall, while geography had space in Mellor House. Political science and history occupied St Anne’s, yet another old house, once part of Studholme Hall’s accommodation, which would be demolished to create the Unicol site. Classics and modern languages had their home in the old professorial houses, while music, economics and philosophy were in the houses at 403, 411 and 421 Castle Street. Some classes took place in the revealingly named “arts hut”.
A new library was under construction and would open in 1965. Plans were for this to house some of the arts departments – political science, English and geography – until the library expanded to fill the whole building. The new Arts Building would supply teaching space and offices for most of the remaining arts departments. Its site, which had been set aside for a proposed building by the university council as early as 1960, expanded the campus in a new direction.
The new building was designed by J.O. Aimers of old Dunedin architectural firm Mason and Wales. His design report of 1964 noted that the long narrow building of six floors would allow for future developments nearby while providing well for “Staff Studies, Seminar Rooms and Research Rooms requiring good daylighting and aspect”. Larger lecture rooms would take up the ground floor space: “This avoids problems in vertical circulation.” Seminar rooms for smaller classes and tutorials were located at the centre portion of each floor, meaning staff offices were in “quiet cul-de-sacs which are desirable in a Faculty of Arts.” Those “cul-de-sacs” would not always be as quiet as the architect anticipated. Ninian Smart, a distinguished religious studies scholar who visited Otago in 1971, recalled “the former dean of arts, reprimanded by the registrar for playing cricket on the matted corridors of the new arts building” (please tell me if you know who that was!). The long corridors would prove a temptation to cricketers of later generations as well – I recall corridor cricket taking place in the history department early in the 21st century.
Building, noted the Otago Daily Times, was “dogged by Government delays at each stage of planning,” but in 1966 the university received the good news that cabinet had approved a tender from Dunedin firm Mitchell Brothers Ltd for construction of the new building. The total cost, when equipped, would be around £550,000. Occupation was scheduled for 1969, but in September 1968 the builders made an “all-out effort” over two weeks to complete two of the larger ground floor lecture theatres so they could be used by the Dunedin Teachers College. The college’s buildings were destroyed by a large fire on 3 September 1968 and the university – then a separate institution – offered this, along with some other accommodation, as “rescue aid.”
The Minister of Education, Arthur Kinsella, formally opened the Arts Building on 5 March 1969. He noted that the building “was a particularly fine one. The planning had been done economically, and he felt it was good value for money.” These comments were presumably a reaction to the criticism of Prof Eric Herd, dean of the arts faculty, who informed him that the building was “already too small …. Surely it is less expensive in the long run to design a building which will last for 20 years instead of three.” In 1972 the government approved preliminary planning of another larger “arts-library block” – the future Hocken/Richardson Building – which would house several arts departments, allowing others to expand within the 1969 Arts Building.
People sometimes refer to the Arts Building as the Burns Building, as its larger teaching areas are known as the Burns lecture theatres. I was asked recently if these are named after Reverend Thomas Burns, the spiritual leader of the Otago colony and first chancellor of the university, or his nephew Robbie Burns, the poet. I haven’t managed to find the answer yet, but either – or both! – would be appropriate for a building which is now home to the Department of English and the Robert Burns Fellow as well as the Department of Theology and Religion. Others who call the Arts Building home at present are the Departments of Politics, Classics, Languages and Cultures, History and Art History, and the administrative staff of the Division of Humanities.
Like all parts of the university, the Arts Building has seen many interesting people come and go through its history. Though few of its current occupants seem to regret its planned future replacement, it does hold many memories. Do you have any to share?