Architect Bill Toomath: Liberating Everyday Life

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Media Release: January, 2010.

Iconic New Zealand architect Bill Toomath at City Gallery Wellington

Without the impact of Bill Toomath, Wellington would be a very different place. His architectural thinking has left its signature on the city, while as educator and mentor he continues to influence many young architects and students. City Gallery Wellington is celebrating his 60 year career with Architect Bill Toomath: Liberating Everyday Life, 29 January – 14 March 2010.

A pioneer of modernist architecture in New Zealand, Toomath’s impact on Wellington’s architecture can be seen in projects such as the Wellington Teachers' College, Wool House and Toomath House. Behind the scenes his practice has been equally far-reaching. A life member of the Wellington Architectural Centre, Toomath has been a vital advocate for several heritage buildings, stopping the demolition of the Old Town Hall, and campaigning to save Old St Pauls. As Head of Wellington Polytechnic’s School of Design from 1979-1989 he helped shape a generation of New Zealand architects and designers.

“This exhibition pivots on Bill’s very personal take on key modernist ideas – primarily open planning. Audiences are encouraged to re-visit modernism for its relevance to our built environment now,” says Hirschfeld Gallery curator Abby Cunnane. Modernism is often associated with a distinct moral code, as its principles were frequently combined with the social and political conviction that architecture can, and should, transform society for the better.

Determined to make modern architecture a livable reality for New Zealanders, Toomath’s designs opened out the tightly compartmentalised houses of the pre-1950s. He created continuous spaces which allowed for a more informal style of family living. Committed to using local materials, and to new industrially available resources such as concrete, he developed buildings in which innovation and economy are equally important.

Architect Bill Toomath: Liberating Everyday Life focuses on three major projects. These are the 1949 design for a National Art Gallery on the waterfront (Bill’s thesis project), Toomath Senior House (1950), and the St Jerome’s study project (2007). The floorplan of the exhibition draws from Bill’s design for his parent’s house – coincidentally the dimensions of the Hirschfeld Gallery match very closely to that design. Temporary walls in the space will align with the original Toomath House floorplan, while the windows of the building will be subtly marked on the walls with tape.

A newly developed interactive programme explores one of Bill’s most recent works, the study he built onto his Roseneath house, following an exact design from a 15th century painting by Antonello, St Jerome in his Study. This project has been documented in the film Antonello and the Architect, which will be screening in the reading room during the exhibition. Tony Hiles’ documentary has been adapted into a touchscreen programme by Click Suite, enabling viewers to ‘enter’ into the painting and the study itself, hearing audio about its details and construction.

Toomath studied architecture at Auckland University from 1945-49, and was a founding member of the Architectural Group 1946. He spent a year motorcycling around Europe before a Fulbright Graduate Award in 1952 enabled him to complete a Masters in Architecture at Harvard, where he was taught by I.M. Pei. He briefly worked with Walter Gropius at the Architects' Collaborative and then with I. M. Pei before returning to New Zealand in 1954 to set up his own practice.