A child has many well-worn firsts: first tooth, first step, first word. I don’t remember those firsts, so well charted by parents. What I do remember is my first time being inside a modernist building.
Living in a rural part of New Zealand which had experienced great wealth in the 1860’s and little since, I grew up inside of other architectures: Victorian banks turned into gift shops, weatherboard school blocks, workers’ cottages with sash windows, and humble seaside batches. Even though I was born in 1993, architecturally speaking, I did not grow up in the nineties.
But when I needed some extensive dental work done as a child, my family traveled to the nearest city and visited a dental school attached to a university.
This dental school was to be my first modernist building. Square and inornate, with bold poster-paint colours. Everything held its machine-like quality openly, enjoying – not disguising – its purpose. There were large open spaces, windows that sunk to the floor and reached to the sky, and instructions in a circular font pasted onto glass and steel.
It is a strange thing to feel fondness for a building in which the sole purpose of stepping inside was to have three baby teeth pulled from my poor tiny mouth. I don’t remember any pain, any blood. Perhaps my lasting fondness is a testament to strength and novelty of the architecture.
I have grown now. I have all my adult teeth. I have left my rural beginnings, lived in different cities, and now returned to Dunedin – to the city with the modernist dental school. When I saw the dental school was hiring, I forgot all rationality and applied. I am an Arts educated writer; the role was for a minimum wage sterilising assistant (cleaning the trainee dentists’ tools). I suspect my application was driven purely from my early love of the building; childhood seems a fertile source of adult irrationalities. The interview was a nightmare; although, not due to any failing on my part – I remembered my words and gave interesting examples to demonstrate my talents. It was my beloved building that let the interview down.
It was a warm February day, myself and the panel of three, sat inside a small closet-like room. The man doing most of the interviewing was a representative of the University, he wore a three-piece suit and sweated aggressively. Everyone on the on the panel had damp hair and stained pits. I would have felt self-conscious of my own growing heat, had we not all been suffering this situation together. An electric fan blasted occasional puffs of a tepid coolness in my direction.
As I left the interview room for a tour of the overheated building, I joked with the woman giving the tour that the building’s warmth must be nice during Dunedin’s cooler months. She laughed, and told me that in the winter the building is as icy as the air outside.
Like so many modernist buildings inspired by Le Corbusier’s ‘machine’s for living’, this machine turned out to be unlivable. I didn’t get job; regardless, I wouldn’t have taken it. To alternate between a sweating body and frozen one is not worth the curious joy of the circular light fittings.
The University of Otago Dental School is currently being redeveloped, you can read more about the project here.