Nelson School of Music

Irving Smith Architects with Ian Bowman Architect and Conservator
New Zealand

Despite having Category-1 Heritage status and being designed in 1895 by New Zealand’s first architect, Frederich de Jersey Clere, the Nelson School of Music remains better known overseas than in New Zealand. The world’s best string players travel solely to play in this small auditorium in the provincial centre of Nelson due to its internationally renowned chamber-music acoustics.

But de Jersey Clere’s auditorium is also important locally and has remained a teaching auditorium and part of a music school since conception. However, through seismic anxiety and evasive alterations, the auditorium was no longer the grand four-sided building it once was in its residential community; an entry infilled its facade, its baubles were removed. After the 2011 Christchurch Earthquakes, the building couldn’t be used; the fit to the community was lost.

The brief was simply: keep an important building and school alive in its local, national and international communities. The design process involved identifying and cataloguing authenticity, repairs, seismic anxieties and needs – be they structural, material or personal. By understanding how the building had changed over its life, work could begin to allow the auditorium and its community to once again contribute.

The auditorium is not just seismically strengthened, it is re-acknowledged and re-fitted back to its community with the practice, recording, stage, audience spaces and servicing that a modern music school and performance venue requires. Other finishes are secondary and placed within an open-space framework to capture light from the original brick facade.

The new interior is an exterior, with lobby and movement spaces strung between existing buildings under a verandah-type waterfall roof that opens high to the grandeur of the auditorium and low to the residential neighbours. The back opens to the front and the front to the back, each viewed against the auditorium. Stage left, in the middle, is simply glazed and curtained for performance.

Irving Smith and Ian Bowman’s heritage conservation and addition work received an Award of Distinction at the 2019 UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage. Further generations may now again look to the auditorium for inspiration before learning in the same greenrooms, practice and stage spaces as their musical heroes.

Photography: Patrick Reynolds