Page 1: Biography
Beaven, Peter Jamieson
This biography, written by Ian J. Lochhead, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
From the late 1950s through to the first decade of the twenty-first century, Peter Beaven was one of the most prominent figures in New Zealand architecture, both as the designer of instantly recognisable buildings and as a commentator on architecture and urban design. He played a key role, along with Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney, in defining the architectural movement known as the Christchurch School, a regional response to post-war Modernism recognised by contemporaries as ‘the renaissance of New Zealand architecture’.1 His buildings were characterised by an expressive use of form, precise geometries, direct use of materials and a responsiveness, unusual among architects of his generation, to the architectural traditions of the place where he worked. For Beaven, the architecture of the past was a source of ongoing inspiration throughout his long career.
Peter Jamieson Beaven was born in Christchurch on 13 August 1925, the eldest child of Eric Tamate Beaven, an agricultural engineer, and his wife, Joan Maria Scott Jamieson. Peter’s maternal grandfather, William Jamieson, was, with his brother James, one of Christchurch’s most successful building contractors. Their major projects included the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (1899–1905) and the former Government Buildings (1910–13). His paternal grandfather, Arthur Ward Beaven, was a principal in the Christchurch agricultural engineering firm, Andrews and Beaven. Peter felt a strong affinity for both his grandfathers all his life.
Education and war service
After Elmwood Primary School, Beaven attended Christ’s College from 1938 to 1942. The college included buildings designed by the Gothic Revivalist architect Benjamin Mountfort, and these and the wider cityscape of Victorian and Edwardian Christchurch were formative influences in his evolving architectural consciousness. He attended Auckland University College’s School of Architecture in 1943. War service as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal New Zealand Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1944–45 interrupted his study, but encounters with buildings in the United Kingdom, India and Singapore while in the navy broadened his architectural horizons. Three further years of architectural study in Auckland from 1946 completed his formal education. He was registered as an associate of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) in 1951 and as an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1959. The University of Auckland awarded him a Diploma of Architecture in 1965. He was elected a Fellow of the NZIA in 1966.
On completing his studies, Beaven returned to Christchurch, where he gained practical experience in the office of the architect G. W. Griffiths and the Public Works Department, and taught architecture students in the evenings. In 1951 he spent four months in Japan, where he discovered a traditional Pacific-rim architecture founded on timber construction and a culture in which aesthetics permeated every aspect of life. These influences helped shape his architectural philosophy. Returning to New Zealand, he married speech therapist Anne Mary (Mary) Beaglehole on 25 January 1952. They were to have two daughters and a son.
In 1952 the couple moved to Timaru, where Beaven set up an architectural partnership with Robert Heaney. Along with domestic buildings, he designed wool stores throughout New Zealand for stock and station agents Wright Stephenson. Dramatically scaled details and bold graphics gave these utilitarian structures unexpected architectural interest and signalled Beaven’s ability to discover poetry in unpromising commissions. He returned to Christchurch in 1957 and commenced practice on his own.
Beaven quickly established himself as a leading figure in Christchurch’s new generation of post-war architects through his readiness to engage in the architectural debates of the day and his refusal to be constrained by Modernist orthodoxy. His 1961 design for Canterbury Court at the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association's showgrounds in Addington transformed a utilitarian exhibition pavilion into an elegant, light-filled space. In the same year, with construction already under way, he assumed responsibility for the Canterbury Terminating Building Society’s Manchester Street offices. Through the addition of imaginative details and a penthouse with hovering roof planes, he brought drama and fantasy to an initially routine project.
In October 1961 Beaven received a career-defining commission for the Lyttelton Road Tunnel Authority Administration Building, built in conjunction with the tunnel between Heathcote and Lyttelton then under construction. Positioned close to the tunnel’s northern portal and adjacent to its access road, the building transcended expectations of modern New Zealand architecture. It was constructed of exposed reinforced concrete columns supporting paired beams, and its upper level was clad with sloping concrete panels, giving it a boat-like appearance. An open concrete stair reflected the building’s status as a dramatic gateway between port and city. Beaven described the building as a ‘fifth ship’, an irreverent allusion to the social prestige claimed by Cantabrians whose forebears had arrived in the province aboard the Canterbury Association’s ‘First Four Ships’ in 1850. The sculptural vigour of his design was influenced by recent works by the Swiss French architect Le Corbusier, but Beaven made this Modernist language his own, imbuing it with a symbolic dimension. Beaven designed or selected every building component, a rare instance of total design in modern New Zealand architecture. Completed in 1964, it was awarded the NZIA’s Gold Medal in 1966. It was demolished, not without protest, in 2013 following the 2010–11 Canterbury earthquakes.
In 1963 Beaven made a study tour to Europe, pausing in India to visit Le Corbusier’s new government buildings in Chandigarh and Edwin Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House in New Delhi. In Europe he visited Modernist buildings in Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and England.
On his return to Christchurch Beaven designed the Manchester Unity Building, an eight-storey office block on Manchester and Worcester Streets. He rejected Modernist glass curtain walls for a clearly expressed structure and, through the use of projecting floor slabs and pre-cast mullions, gave sculptural depth to the north and west facades. The building’s pitched slate roof and the copper and glass-clad pavilion roof of the lift tower were further rejections of Modernist conventions. Completed in 1967, the building responded to the muscular Gothic of Mountfort’s Trinity Congregational Church (1875) opposite. Along with the Tunnel Building, Manchester Unity helped to define the regional response to Modernism that characterised Christchurch architecture of the 1960s.
In Auckland he designed Canterbury Arcade, built between 1965 and 1968. A complex weaving together of new and existing buildings on differing levels, it created a pedestrian route between Queen and High Streets with office space above. This skilful marriage of new and old demonstrated Beaven’s desire to recreate the kind of organic growth and respect for the past that characterised European cities, putting him at odds with the pervasive Modernist desire to make everything new. When it was threatened with demolition in 1988, Canterbury Arcade was described in Metro magazine as a ‘little bit of Paris’ that should be preserved.2 The building still stands although it has suffered incremental changes over time.
From 1967 to 1973 Beaven worked in partnership with architect Burwell Hunt. In 1968 he attended a postgraduate course in urban design at the Architectural Association in London, an experience which bore fruit over the next 40 years in numerous multi-unit housing developments. The earliest, Pitarua Court (1972) in Thorndon, Wellington, clustered 11 apartments on multiple levels across a sloping site. Each apartment was unique, yet the whole was given a unified character through the use of a consistent vocabulary of forms, materials and colours. The development's success resulted in Beaven designing additional units for Pitarua Court and a further extension, Thorndon Mews, in 1976. Tonbridge Mews, Christchurch (1974) developed these ideas around a sequence of courtyards inspired by Mountfort’s Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings (1858–65).
Mountfort’s influence also informed Beaven’s unsuccessful entry in the 1966 Christchurch Town Hall competition. His celebrated design merges influences from Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and German architect Hans Scharoun with Beaven’s own sensitivity to local traditions and landscapes in a sculptural and richly allusive composition. The Queen Elizabeth II Park Covered Pools and Athletics Stadium, constructed for the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games, gave Beaven the opportunity to work on an expansive scale. Designed in conjunction with engineer W. J. (Bill) Lovell-Smith, the grandstand and pools were placed adjacent to one another and shared a vast roof that appeared to float above them. Exposed structure and building services, bright colours and bold graphics created a festive air that captured the celebratory atmosphere of the games and anticipated similar features in architecture internationally. The pool and stadium complex was damaged in the 2011 Canterbury earthquake and demolished.
The aptly named Chateau on the Park, Christchurch, was inspired by the Gothic Revival Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings. Completed in 1975, it was more like a medieval manor than a conventional hotel. Its plan was organised around an internal ‘moat’ and a forest of timber columns, made from peeled tree trunks, supported dramatic, open timber roofs. Rather than detailing every element, design solutions were worked out on site, an approach more akin to vernacular building methods than modern architectural practice. The Chateau rejected the bland uniformity of international hotels, replacing it with a unique experience rooted in Christchurch’s architectural past.
Following completion of the Queen Elizabeth II stadium, Beaven confronted the dilemma of either continuing to direct what had now become a large architectural practice or downsizing and regaining the direct design control of projects that he valued. His solution was to close his Christchurch office and relocate to London in 1975. While intellectually stimulating, this period produced relatively little new work. His most substantial project was the Tile Kiln Lane housing, Highgate (1981), built on a redundant sliver of land adjacent to a main road. Drawing on his previous experience, Beaven created a varied composition of advancing and receding planes with a roofscape of differing heights and pitches. British commentators acknowledged the individuality and freshness of his approach.
In 1984 Beaven returned to Christchurch, where he re-established his practice, eventually occupying a tiny upstairs office in the 1858 wing of the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings. He mainly worked on his own or with a single assistant. His first major commission, the United Building Society Southern Region Administration Office, was his fourth project for the renamed Canterbury Building Society. This 13-storey building, completed in 1989, incorporated a colonnaded banking chamber at ground level, a shaft of uniform office floors and a faceted, copper-clad, pavilion roof across two levels. A larger and bolder reinterpretation of the design for the Manchester Unity Building of 15 years earlier, the UBS building was also a more overt tribute to the towers of Mountfort’s Provincial Buildings.
Throughout his career Beaven designed detached houses for individual clients, including four houses at Arrowtown for the Spary family, the first in 1969 and the last in 2003. The second Spary house of 1987, with its enveloping verandas, bold roof forms, axial vistas and top-lit spaces, received a National Award from the NZIA in 1988. It was the first of an impressive sequence of late houses, each with its own distinctive character, that continued until 2012.
His exploration of high-density housing continued with Merivale Mews, Christchurch (1989), a picturesque cluster of gabled houses around a small lake combined with a commercial development that incorporated a pub. Retention of an existing open space as amenity for the wider community was integral to this development. At St Mary’s Apartments (1999), through skilful planning, Beaven inserted 70 apartments on four levels around two quadrangles inspired by those of the former Canterbury College. Privacy coexists with shared communal space.
Beaven’s capacity to discover resonances in almost any project is illustrated by Longbeach School (1999) in Mid-Canterbury, where three rural schools were amalgamated at the existing Willowby site. Beaven’s additions included a drum-shaped library wrapped in corrugated steel. It references the grain silos of the rural landscape while simultaneously evoking the European tradition of circular libraries.
Following his divorce from Mary, he married filmmaker Jocelyn Maberly Allison on 16 November 1984. In 1997, his marriage to Jocelyn was dissolved and he married Lesley Jessie Collingwood on 16 October 1997.
Architectural writing and advocacy
For Beaven architecture involved more than designing buildings; he was a passionate advocate for architecture as an art form, for urban design and for the retention of heritage. He was a founding member of the Christchurch Civic Trust in 1965 and helped establish the Akaroa Civic Trust in 1969. His 1967 essay, ‘South Island Architecture’, identified the regional variant of Modernism that emerged in southern New Zealand during the 1960s. In 1972 he co-authored, with John Stacpoole, the first history of New Zealand architecture. New Zealand art: architecture 1820–1970 established a canon of buildings that remains relevant today. A regular contributor to the magazine Architecture New Zealand, he provided incisive and provocative commentaries that stimulated debate about the direction of contemporary architecture. Above all, he believed that the architecture of the past should inform that of the present and the future. He derived great satisfaction from the location of his office, from 1995 until 2011, in Mountfort’s Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings.
Peter Beaven was a tall man of striking appearance and considerable charisma. He retained his physical vigour into his eighties. A fluent and engaging speaker, he was an eloquent lecturer on architecture and urban design. He had a lifelong love of boats and the sea, and he was an enthusiastic owner and sailor of yachts.
Although he received the New Zealand Institute of Architect’s Gold Medal for his lifetime contribution to architecture in 2003, and many awards for individual buildings throughout his 60-year career, wider national recognition proved elusive. His built legacy, along with much of the rich fabric of the city he loved, was cruelly reduced as a result of the 2010–11 Canterbury earthquakes. Following the earthquakes, and in declining health, he moved to Blenheim with Lesley. Unbowed, he continued to design buildings and promote urban design values until his death. He died in Blenheim on 4 June 2012, aged 86. His funeral was held in the chapel of his old school, Christ’s College, a week later.
Not long before his death he completed an account of his architectural career, published in 2016 as Peter Beaven: architect. The unique qualities of Peter Beaven’s buildings, his readiness to challenge the architectural orthodoxies of his time, the singularity of his architectural philosophy and his example of a life dedicated to architecture – all contribute to his enduring legacy.