Noel Bierre-Architect

Born 24th Dec 1924. Palmerston North.

Like many young men born in the 1920’s Noel was a recipient of a rapidly changing education system in a rapidly changing world, which although not ideal, enabled him to attend university unlike his father who had left school at age 11 to work as a telegram delivery boy for the Post and Telegraph division of the Government.

Noel, as the son of a Government employee was thus to gain his primary and secondary schooling in a variety of centers across the North Island ( Whakatane, Wanganui, Auckland) between 1930 and 1941 ending up at Wellington College where he gained ‘matriculation’, or entry to ‘higher education’ as university was sometimes called.

With New Zealand heavily involved in the Second World War and just 16, Noel applied and gained a Architectural Cadetship with the Government’s Ministry of Works Department, working in what was called the ‘Glass House’ on Lambton Quay. The New Zealand Institute of Architects study course included a series of drawings based on the classical “Orders of Architecture” still in vogue at the time – and these constituted a major part of the “Testimonies of Study” .! Luckily the Department had recently come under the influence of Gordon F Wilson as the Chief Architect, and here Noel gained invaluable experience as a draughtsman on Government projects.
Sent to Harewood in Christchurch for basic military training after applying to join the Air Force (before his 18th birthday) he became involved in the ‘war effort’ as labour for local farmers harvesting wheat, using massive steam powered traction machines. He was also seconded near the end of the war to the architectural division the Air Force to document buildings constructed on aerodromes throughout the country without proper planning..
Released from military service as the War ended Noel was transferred to the Ministry of Works Auckland office, where his parents had also moved during the war. In 1946 he returned to study at the Auckland University College’s School of Architecture, then mostly leftover prefab buildings sited at the top of Anzac Ave although some classes were held in the Lippencott designed Arts Building on Princess Street. Here Noel would mix with the nascent Group members, Bill Wilson being particularly memorable for his warmth of manner and intellect; as well as many other of what would become New Zealand’s leading architects of the post-war era – most strongly modernist leaning.

Transplanted Liverpudlian Vernon Brown, and Canadian born Dick Toy were influential lecturers of these times and actively engaged their students in debate while the heads of the School, especially Prof Light was seen as a barrier to the new credo; resulting in an infamous incident were identical projects were handed in by students..!
Noel’s interest was not political, like Dick Hobin and some of the Group camp, and sought his own version of an indigenous architecture based on planning for the basic needs and absolute shelter in a strongly sympathetic and humane environment. “Form follows function” was the modernist mantra, further informed by controversial figures like Aldo van Eyck and Team X. Van Eyck and the ideology of his ‘Space has no Room’ would permeate much of Noels ongoing approach.

For a young architectural student with these leanings, the Ministry of Works may not have been the ideal situation – and as such Noel sort work with the Auckland City Council, under recently appointed Chief Architect; Tibor Donner.

Donner’s influence and the ability of his team would become something almost legendary in the narrative of modern architecture in New Zealand.

The Council Architects offices were an exciting and enriching incubator for many of the young architects, some still essentially students at the time. Here Noel became involved with many of the offices projects including the Parnell Baths, Coyle Park Baths, the City Town Centre and the City Works buildings in Nelson Street, for which Noel prepared the basic sketch plan under George Kenny, another quietly brilliant architect whose own house at 9 Shera Road (now massively altered) would later win him a bronze from the NZIA. Many others like Sandy Mill would become long time friends.

Outside of work, Noel enjoyed the social clubs that proliferated at the university, and took up tramping and skiing. For this, he made his own skis and equipment, New Zealand being at that time still in the grips of import control and material restrictions. The Ruapehu Ski Club had two very basic corrugated iron clad buildings on the mountain and were considering the need for a larger hut, to cope with the growing membership. Jim McCormish president of the club set about getting plans on paper with Noels input, and that of his engineering colleagues from the Ministry of Works. This was the beginning of a long association with the RSC – Noel eventually preparing and designing many of the plans for a number of buildings that are still in use on the mountain today.

Teaming up with Englishman Ralph Wilkinson, Noel decided to set off for Europe via Australia and visiting a number of interesting ports on the journey. Disembarking from the Lloyds ‘Neptunia’ in Naples, Ralph and Noel traveled across Europe by train arriving in London where, at the time architectural jobs were readily available but at low wages. This was offset by an interesting social life and cheap travel around England and occasionally parts of Europe, especially in the Scandinavian countries. During his travels he purchased a 8mm Bolex movie camera – which was inspired by his time in Australia with uncle Eric Bierre, a professional cameraman for Fox Movietone.
He also met Annette Judd, the daughter of acquaintances from the Ruapehu Ski Club, and after a short engagement they were married at the magnificent Norman church of St Bartholomew in London, 11 Feb 1956.
Upon their return to Auckland later in 1956, Noel began to work for himself from an office in Haddon Hall, off Karangahape Rd.

Not long after he was recommended to the local IHC (Intellectually Handicapped )Society by an engineer from the Devonport Council who was the father of a friend. This began a long association (until late 1970’s) with the society, and as a result the practice began to flourish. Much of the IHC work was day care centers, workshops and accommodation, all of which required very high design and building standards. Notable from this time was the Elsie Kearney Hostel in Fraser Ave, Northcote.

Other commissions for private clients began to come in through a variety of avenues, the first house he designed in 1957 was for the Tilsley’s in Merani Street in Belmont (job # 5). Although no longer extant, the house was a compact and practical modern split-level design with brick and weatherboard cladding and large north facing full length glass windows and doors. Several other house would follow that year including the magnificent Harry Seidler inspired ‘Day house’ (#22) in Te Atatu.

Still in almost original condition, the ‘Day house’ sits on a large back section with views towards Point Chevalier and the central city. Engineer/surveyor/developer Ron Day had approached Noel to design a modern practical family home – to which Noel responded with a plan inspired by the works of Brueur, Gropius and in particular Harry Seidler whose ‘Rose house’ had won the Sulman architectural prize in Australia a few years prior. Ron then built a large part of the house himself, being a man of drive, and many skills -although he did employ the skills of master craftsmen, as can be noted in in the detailing and subtle decorative work (which if one looks carefully is not all what it seems to be…)

Entry is via a double height vestibule with central stairway leading to the light filled bedrooms and living areas. And as quoted in W Lester’s ‘Home & Building’ article (Dec 1952) on the Rose Seidler house “the long lounge-dining area, broken only by a massive fireplace and chimney” was also central to the Day’s house, but unlike the Australian icon, native ply paneling was used to add a golden warmth in most of the family areas.

Only a few years later the house was bought by the Chilcott’s, and remained the family home for most of Gavin and Grant’s early years. Originally painted in tones of brown and off white, the Chilcott’s being a family of artists implemented a new bold and colorful scheme with the various panels of the front being painted in tones of blue/green, white and yellow, giving the house a much lighter and modern look.

Interestingly, Noel didn’t get to see the completed building until recently, when it was advertised in the real estate pages. The house is still a stunning amalgam of practical design and elevated box – and sits easily next to the works of Vlad Cacala, Peter Mark Brown or Ken Albert’s similar works of the era.

Noel used some innovative construction systems on many of the buildings he designed, his window joinery being unique in that the frames were designed to be fixed not between the framing of the openings, but over the face of the framing studs. This resulted in a deep reveal to the windows, similar to the admired Georgian buildings of the past and also provided plenty of room for flashings to joinery and cladding. Long stretches of windows on the North facing walls were constructed as window walls, the window frames contributing to the support system.

The ‘Kendall house’ in Ridge Rd was a design which from the outset was unique and something of a classic, the mercurial Eric Kendall being interested in a vernacular interpretation of an early Corbusian/modernist ideology; a structurally rigorous white box with large areas of glass, flat roof, and views across the landscape.

As owners of ‘Temperature Control Ltd’, a successful commercial client of Noels, the house was well appointed and constructed on the north facing ridge overlooking the Manukau flatlands, still mostly farmland and market gardens with distant pockets of domestic and commercial growth.

Early photos taken by Noel show the large flat roof held in place as the builders prepare to construct the walls which would form the original exterior. The crisp, rectangular white box with structural glass-block walls and projecting beams, like those early Corb images, stands out as light years ahead of the vehicle parked in front. Within a short period the Kendall house had been extended with two wings and further landscaping, a pool and curving driveway with a child’s swing positioned on grass island turning area. Stone walls, mature foliage and further large glass windows indicate a prosperous yet secluded life above the growing county.

After offices in Haddon Hall and Greys Avenue with Tony Greenough and Colin Couch, Noel moved into the Gillespie building at 100 Anzac Ave, sharing an office with fellow architect Frank O Jones. This arrangement would last for a good number of years while Noel had regular work for the IHC.
Through this period Noel also designed a number of commercial premise including the GNK building in Otahuhu, Electrix building in Saleyards Rd, a redesign of Winston’s flagship shop in Queen Street and the Bailey Motel in Whitianga.

Another major project for Noel was the design of Orakei Marae. This came about through Noel and Annette’s involvement with a community program helping local family’s in supervising the children’s homework. Noel was asked if, as an architect he could help get a proposed marae development under way.This led to several years and many hundreds of hours of meetings, planning committees and drawings for the community. Noel was assisted in part of this by a recently arrived young architect from the Netherlands, Maarten van Rossum who had studied under Aldo van Eyck.

The project began in 1971 and over the next five years Noel, with advice from Harry Dansey and many others including artists and Kaumata would design the various buildings and amenities required, as well as supervising construction of the Education Centre and other buildings.

Since the mid 1950’s Noel had been involved with cinematography and made a number of small films, and in 1970 he and Ron Bannister came up with the idea of running a Film School, which began at the Auckland University in October of that year. This was a prelude to another venture Noel and Annette embarked on, deciding to open a gallery a few years after. He had become a member of the Auckland Arts Society and enjoyed the painting medium, which was far less involved than the production of film.

“Gallery Pacific” opened in Tyler St, by the old Post Office, now Britomart Station and showed the work of mainly young, often student artists including Gregory O’Brien. The gallery would occupy much of the couples time, and although reasonably successful initially, the long hours and amount of organization, in conjunction with running a architectural practice began to pall.

With the lose of the IHC work in 1980, due to the societies decision to buy houses in the community Noel decided to work from home at 37 Hawera Rd in Kohimarama.

Noel had designed the house in 1959 and it is still a warm and generous home and displays many of his concepts about living in a humane and sympathetic environment. He and Annette then bought a section for which Noel designed a small number of town houses. This enabled them over time to have a modicum of financial security and support their growing family, as well as buffer against the ebb and flow of being an independent practice.
By the mid 1970’s Noels workbook shows nearly 300 jobs, many of which are for house designs and extensions to these properties. Many are houses which, like his own, are open plan, have low pitch roofs with wide eaves for protection from the rain and sun, timber construction with generous amounts of glass and easy flow from house to garden and outside.

Others like the Day or the Kendall house are also represented, those these are not as abundant, but were designed with the same exacting detail and each is distinctly of its place, and fits supremely well in the environment.

One of his favorite designs is for the Church of the Holy Family in Murray’s Bay which never passed the model stage. The drawings and model convey not only the sense of the dynamic that the church would have produced in the real but also the inspiration and ability that Noel has always bought to his work.

Gregory J Smith
September 2011

This is small selective sample of Noels history and most of his notes and plans are now at the University of Auckland Architecture Archive.

Any further information or corrections please contact me via the contact page.

Many thanks to Noel and Annette for their time and patience.

If you have any information about this architect, please get in touch via the  contacts page.