Fifty years ago, from May 18 to 23, 1971, the Australasian Architecture Students Association Congress took over the Wilson Cement Works ruins in Warkworth. Over 300 participants, including musicians, came north after two days of proceedings in Auckland.
They brought materials to build temporary shelters and communal structures. Architect Graeme North, Warkworth resident for 28 years, attended the congress as a second-year student. It was his introduction to the town. I talked to Graeme about the congress …
“There was a lot of buzz about it. People were making prefab stuff for structures and things they could take to install there. There was talk about the speakers who were coming out. [Architect] Sim van der Ryn was from California and right in the thick of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations going on. There had been riots and the cops had tear-gassed the whole university, and it had got into the air conditioning system. All sorts of dramas. But his big message was that the secret to life and happiness was to grow a veggie garden. So he came to spread this great message, and he hadn’t been in Auckland very long when he realised that’s actually what Kiwis did. So this great enlightenment was cut out from under him, and he had to think of other things to say. My overriding memory is of rain and mud. It was spectacularly wet. Most people spent a few hours trying to avoid stepping in mud and in puddles, and in the end just gave up, and started to slosh through it.”
Graeme thought the site was chosen for its romantic nature, as a spectacular ruin that felt remote, but was quite close to Auckland, and was very practical as an empty open site.
Cardboard was much used for shelters. Talks were given in a saddle-shaped hyperbolic paraboloid structure, which was floodlit at night.
“It illuminated incredibly well at night. It was magnificent. I think Keir Volkerling did the lights. He had flares and all sorts of things going around the old structures. It was a fantastic backdrop, beside the river.”
Catering was well-planned with pre-prepared frozen meals reheated in a borrowed Mercer high-speed 12-kilowatt convection oven. Fresh bread from a Warkworth baker was a highlight of the week. In the mornings, Graeme’s vinyl LP of Bach’s Brandenberg concertos played over the sound system to wake people gently, but it was the smell of Joe
Noyer’s cottage loaves that got people heading to the breakfast tent. From a bakery that usually baked 350 loaves a week, organisers started buying 80 loaves a day, and progressed to 200 for the last day.
The Electropu toilet system, converting waste to drinkable water, started well, but stopped after a power cut.
“Everyone was fascinated, using it then immediately running around to see what the output was.”
When I asked what else Graeme recalled of the congress, he laughed and said he didn’t remember terribly well. “I mean, it was the seventies!”
Kerry Allen, Warkworth & District Museum