Designed and constructed between 1964 and 1967, the UCSU was the first complex multi-function building project taken on by the partnership of Warren and Mahoney, then just 6 years old. It spans a moment in time between Miles Warren’s earlier domestic scale buildings of a more pure modernist style (such as the 1956-57 Dorset Street Flats), and the the more hard-edged brutalist style of the late 1960s and 1970s, and indeed displays elements of both of these in its design. It is a contemporary of the pinnacles at both ends of this scale: College House (1964-67) for the former, the Christchurch Town Hall (1966-72) for the latter.
Built of fairface concrete, concrete block and Malayan meranti timber (a W&M favourite), the four main spaces - entrance foyer, 450-seat theatre, cafeteria and common room - are laid out in a central two-storey block, with the floor of the theatre sloping over the entrance, and the main common room stacked on top of the cafeteria. The smaller rooms and offices are located in narrow rows either side of the central block.
Warren described the construction in his 2008 autobiography:
“By now we had been in practice for six years, working all this time with the brilliant engineer Lyall Holmes. We had mastered the techniques and vocabulary of load-bearing reinforced concrete block and fairface concrete. We had used pre-cast concrete elements in office blocks and the Christchurch Wool Exchange. Now it was time to display our structural and technical skills. We elected to cradle the student union in a framework of closely spaced pre-cast concrete and pre-stressed, post-tensioned beams and columns. Every carefully designed junction and every cable-termination block, was displayed inside and out, making a construction tour de force.”
Built at a cost of $635,468, it opened in 1967, with the chairman of the Grants Committee, Professor Alan Danks, describing it aptly as “a skeletal encrustation”.
In 1971, work began on designing a westward extension to the building, and by 1974, the newly opened wing, containing function rooms and outdoor amphitheatre seating, had almost doubled the size of the original.
In the 2000s however, a series of extremely poorly executed additions and alterations had resulted in a major defacing of the carefully crafted interior and exterior. With the earthquake of February 2011, the building, on what proved to be its unstable riverside location, suffered major damage, with the three main sections of the complex splitting apart, and the building sliding northwards towards the river.
The UCSA was the first of three student unions designed by the partnership: University of Auckland (1965-69) and Massey University (1967-68).
Photographs shared from www.warrenandmahoney.com