Walsh Building Modernism

dental school b-w
Walsh Building, Great King Street Dunedin

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.







Stumps. Trees that provide a commons.

The first: a popular piece of public art in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Children and their families play on Peter Pan and Wendy.

Not quite like the false 60s harmony of the above image – its a bit more multicultural and sometimes play is mediated by iphone photographs – but it is still well loved, communally.

The second: I flat in a 1910 villa on Buccleugh St which overlooks the Botanical Gardens; from the kitchen I can see proud Peter Pan being climbed all over.

The properties Auckland-based landlords cut down all of the established trees. The wood lay on our banks like thickly cut home-made bread across a table.

Such an offering drew neighbors with wheel-boroughs and bags, coming to collect slices of fire wood in the long evening sun. We exchanged names and house numbers and generally befriended one another.




An artist, Noriko Nakamura, had become angry at life’s boundaries. Frustrated at the divisions they create, she cut a clean circular hole through an art gallery’s internal wall. It was suppose to be an act of careful poetic defiance. However, in the process of doing so she revealed that inside the wall there was actually already another wall. […]


An artist, Noriko Nakamura, had become angry at life’s boundaries. Frustrated at the divisions they create, she cut a clean circular hole through an art gallery’s internal wall.

It was suppose to be an act of careful poetic defiance.

However, in the process of doing so she revealed that inside the wall there was actually already another wall.

A wall within a wall.

Nakamura writes that upon seeing this second wall she thought, “the boundary will always be a boundary.” She then “got frustrated and started hammering the inside wall.”

No more clean lines.

A second (more violent?) act.

Gillian Rose, a philosopher, warns against the destruction of boundaries. She writes a reply to Nakamura, 3 decades before Nakamura cuts the gallery’s wall:

“A soul which is not bound is as mad as one with cemented boundaries. To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds.”

Rose warns not to make boundaries concrete, but not to make boundaries vanish either.


Little obsessions



We drove down the South Island

with all our possessions.

Three of us, taking turns at sitting in the back seat

where toasters fell onto my lap occasionally

and provincial views were obscured by tramping packs.

In the back seat, I slowly became a luggage.

I even empathised with the suitcases.


We visited my mum

who was painting.

Three of us, undercoating the bedroom walls

where white paint ran onto stained wood widows

and old bedding lay across old carpet to keep it safe.

In that bedroom, my mum had slowly become a paint brush.

We all understood that.


We began writing CVs and Cover Letters

full of mostly accurate accounts of ourselves.

Two of us, proof-reading each others half-truths

where marginal ability became proficiency

and a passing hobby snuck its way into my Interests section.

At my laptop, I slowly become a Cover Letter.

Able only to speak in short and enthusiastic sentence structures.

You have to break up being a Cover Letter some how. We did this by watching Werner Herzog films, letting other peoples obsessions distract us from the mundane-ness of our own.













Christmas x2


Yesterday it rained. I sat inside and wrapped Christmas presents for my family.

Just me and my Aunt’s house, with a nativity scene knitted by my Great Grandmother to keep me company.

To pass the time I listened to people much wiser than myself explain things I can’t yet understand: Rage and Donald Trump.

First I listened to Eugene Peterson here and here.

Then I listen to Judith Butler here.

Butler talked about how Trump had been able to give a voice to the rage that some people in some parts of America quite legitimately felt; people who were unemployed or underemployed or underpaid. Trump’s campaign provided a way for the rage that can accompany economic dissatisfaction to speak.

He gave it a language.

A hateful language that channelled legitimate rage towards illegitimate targets: Immigrants, women, ethnic minorities.

But a language nonetheless.

Butler pointed out that the Democrats didn’t give any alternative way for that rage to speak. Instead they moved to emphasis love over hate.

This was sort of my response too.

The day of the American election I cleaned a stranger’s house in suburban Dunedin.

My Aunt knew the owners and wanted to, as an act of altruism, help prepare their house for an upcoming birthday.

She gave me the job of cleaning the toilets.

And so as Trump was elected I was scrubbing a stranger’s shit off his toilet.

A stranger who seemed happy with Trumps win.

And at the time I thought: Maybe that’s all that’s left – small acts of altruism that we can freely give one another in the face of a hateful political situation.

Love over hate.

Being Christmas and all, that felt very Christian too.

But Butler and Eugene reminded me that that isn’t really enough.

Rage remains a part of human experience. To live is to encounter both love and hate. One cannot pretend away the existence of the less pleasant half of the relation; to do so is surely to send it underground.

To overemphasis love and positivity is to abandon the task of giving our inevitable rage a healthy expression.

To abandon the task of expression is to allow it to be monopolised by those like Trump who can provide only a twisted language of hate.

For Eugene Peterson the Psalms provide an adequate language of rage, of anger, of frustration.

The Psalms is a book in the Bible that has at once both beautiful poetry celebrating the joy of life and incredibly violent imagery. Many passages move quickly between both extremes making it difficult to pick out just the ‘good’ bits.

It is a book of both ‘From Mount Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines in glorious radiance’ and ‘How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.’

For Peterson this is the gift of the Psalms, they offer figurative imagery to express deep rage.

Such expression allows one to live honestly through all the terrifying and delightful emotions life.

While the Psalms might not be the most appropriate language for everybody, Peterson and Butler taken together point to the necessity of some language, and Trump shows that not all languages for expressing anger are equal.

They also point to a task beyond acts of altruism and affirmations of love, which is not necessarily any less Christian, but requires much more than the Christmas nativity scene alone can offer.