The Eyes and Times of Frank and Lyn Corner

Frank Lyn Corner New Zealand Art Collection Art+Object

This essay was published in the catalogue of The Collection of Frank and Lyn Corner by Art + Object. My grandparents’ significant collection of New Zealand art was presented to the market on Sunday 18th March 2018.


Growing up with Frank and Lyn as parents and grandparents meant growing roots firmly in New Zealand, no matter where in the world we happened to be. Our eyes became tuned, through the art, books and conversation that surrounded us, to see New Zealand as a firm part of the modern international world, holding its own from the bottom of the South Pacific.

But this view of New Zealand’s place in the world wasn’t always so clear for Frank and Lyn. Their backgrounds—in 1920s and 30s Napier for Frank, and Hamilton, Masterton, and Whanganui for Lyn—were happy but not remarkable ones, apart from a very memorable earthquake and considerable academic self-discipline. Frank always maintained that “Life, for me, began when I came to Wellington.”

It has even been said that, in the 1940s—when Frank and Lyn came to Wellington, met, and started discovering art together—New Zealand didn’t exist yet: “it remains to be created—should I say invented—–by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help”, went Curnow’s cry in 1945. That period between when New Zealand “didn’t exist yet”, and now, when New Zealand seems to stand upright here and when we can travel abroad, to Venice, to see our emissaries, is the period of Frank and Lyn’s lives.

When we stand amidst Frank and Lyn’s lifelong collection of artworks, in their lifelong home, we view a record of that invention of New Zealand, a visual and a personal history of New Zealand’s declaration of intellectual independence.

It is not the only record, and nor is it the largest; Frank and Lyn certainly never set out to create a survey collection, and in fact they long resisted entirely the idea that they were “collectors”. But theirs is a unique collection, and a significant one, because of the two sets of eyes that created it—and, as Frank and Lyn would be the first to point out, because of the sheer good fortune of the times that they happened to live in. Through this collection, and in the lives of Frank and Lyn, we see the abundance of New Zealand life.

— — — —

First, the eyes. Frank and Lyn always spoke of “having [their] eyes opened” to the world, and to art, during their years studying at Victoria University. From the time they met in 1941, at the Easter Tournament, theirs was a partnership of minds and of eyes. In their library one can see the intellectual efforts of their university years and of those afterwards. Frank was studying history, and Lyn French; but their books show little of this, so widely did they read. They studied the classics, but seemingly in equal measure would pick up all the latest books that arrived in Wellington from overseas (Forster’s What I Believe, for instance, they found as soon as it arrived, and his case for “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” seems to define Frank and Lyn’s outlook).

The great good fortune of Frank and Lyn’s university years was the intellectual stimulation provided by John Beaglehole and the circle of faculty and students he surrounded himself with. Their first invitation to the Beaglehole house in Messines Road, Karori, was also the occasion of their awakening to art. There, Lyn later recounted, “He [Beaglehole] had art hanging on the walls—including some of the very early breakthrough artists like John Weeks, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. This was different from the tame drawing-room landscapes we’d seen before, and excited us.” It seems important to remember in this context, however, that art was always just a part of Frank and Lyn’s education and of their lives. Frank describes the kind of discussion they would have at the Beagleholes’ house:

“On some occasions he would play Bach’s preludes and fugues, share his delight in newly acquired paintings of John Weeks or Woollaston, or pewter plates, or great examples of typography, or would introduce us to the works of E. M. Forster, or Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set.”

The Beaglehole influence extended through the full range of culture that Curnow described as necessary for the invention of New Zealand, down to architects, and even politicians. Frank and Lyn were later to copy the Beagleholes in their commissioning architect Cedric Firth to design modern cabinetry for their 1930s house; and it was likely in Messines Road that they first heard of the arrival of a distinguished Austrian architect, Ernst Plischke, to Wellington. Frank was intrigued; he arranged for Plishke to give a series of public talks, and they got to know one another. Plischke would later design the modernist pavilion across the garden from the Gray Young-designed, Cedric Firth-renovated house that Frank and Lyn lived in for the best part of their lives.

The Beagleholes and the Corners remained lifelong friends, but after graduating from Victoria in 1942 and joining the fledgling Department of External Affairs in 1943 Frank soon began travelling, and the couple continued their informal education overseas. Frank was one of the first to visit postwar Japan in late 1945, and Frank and Lyn both worked in Paris for several months in 1946 during the Peace Conference. Postings took them to Washington D.C. twice, to London and New York. They read widely and kept everything. In their attic are boxes of gallery catalogues, many in French, that they collected while haunting the galleries during their travels.

— — — —

And then there were the times they lived in—times so full of activity and excitement, in both art and world affairs, that from the perspective of grandchildren in 2018 they seemed always to be in the very middle of history in the making. They were in London for the Queen’s coronation, the same day Edmund Hillary summited Mount Everest; they were in New York during the fraught days of the Cuban Missile Crisis; they were in Washington D.C. when Lyndon Johnson visited New Zealand, with Frank overseeing the visit. Yet this was work and everyday life for this diplomatic couple, however thrilling it all may seem from a perspective half a century later.

The upheavals going on in the world of art were almost as grand and exciting as those happening in world affairs, so much so that Lyn later described art during this period being an “automatic, easy addiction.” They certainly appreciated their good fortune to live in London, New York and Washington during these formative decades. While Frank was busy at the United Nations, Lyn would head to the galleries, often with two young children in tow. In London, it was during a brief lunch break that Frank dropped by the Redfern Gallery and returned with Frances Hodgkins’ Pleasure Boat.

As with their eyes, for which art was just one of many great passions, the times they lived in seem to have blurred the boundaries between work and other parts of life. The eyes and the times are one and the same, in the end: so that social and political changes are reflected in the art they bought, and the art they bought influenced diplomatic and political advances. When Lyn was once asked if they had consciously bought artworks that would serve to represent New Zealand well abroad, she rejected any such idea: “We simply purchased the irresistible.” We have to take that statement at face value; and yet Frank and Lyn knew that the art they bought would be the backdrop to so many diplomatic functions, and that art has a unique power to represent and to find commonality. We have always thought of Lyn’s comment as a sign of how inseparable their lives were from the times they lived in, the work they did for New Zealand, and their passion for art, books, music and architecture. What was irresistible to Frank and Lyn Corner, a couple who spent their lives serving New Zealand abroad, was precisely the kind of art that represented the modern, confident and vibrant country they represented and spoke about to countless dignitaries every day.

So when Frank wrote in 1962 that “…for the greater part of the first half of the twentieth-century NZ turned its eyes away from the Pacific”, this was at once a statement of foreign policy and of national and personal outlook. He went on: “Has not a country become in some way unbalanced when it knows little and cares less about its own geographic environment?” He argued over many years, after New Zealand’s two great twentieth century crises—the fall of Singapore, and Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community—that our future lay in this part of the world, in the Pacific. He made this argument formally for New Zealand’s foreign policy; but it was the argument that increasingly our writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers, and, yes, even our politicians, were formulating in their own realms. For Frank Corner, the search for national security was also a part of the search for national and cultural identity.

— — — —

In the minds of diplomats one’s country can paradoxically seem closer while living in a foreign capital, for it is while there that your everyday experience is marked entirely by your nationality. You are only in Washington, London or New York by virtue of being a New Zealander; you only meet people as a New Zealander. In many ways you live through your country’s identity, and are forced to understand on a deep level what it is that you are representing. This seems different from the expatriate’s experience: he or she goes abroad by their own volition, and for the duration that they are away from home they are more or less cut off from home. They are expatrias. The point is the great extent to which Frank and Lyn’s life experiences were marked by being New Zealanders and, in turn, how their vision for New Zealand affected their art collecting.

To Frank and Lyn Corner New Zealand was a modern, vibrant, educated Pacific nation. Naturally, their art collection—much of which was bought while they were living overseas (including, notably, McCahon’s Landscape Theme and Variations, I and Angus’ Storm, Hawkes Bay)—should be informed by such a view. Now we today inhabit the New Zealand that was created and invented during their lifetimes. To look at the individual works in this collection is to see a New Zealand coming to its modernity, coming to terms with its geography, and coming to understand its identity. But to look at this collection as a whole: well, that is to see the modern, vibrant, educated Pacific New Zealand that we now know. To look at this collection is to see the abundance of New Zealand life.

Design and Living: Architect Ernst Plischke’s Manifesto for Housing in New Zealand

Unnoticed by most New Zealanders in May 1939 was the arrival in Wellington of an architect of international stature. Racism, xenophobia and war were driving some of the best minds of Europe to (very) distant shores, and one can only imagine the reaction Ernst Anton Plischke had when he arrived in Wellington with his wife and children. A highly sophisticated and well-educated Austrian, Plischke grew up in Vienna and moved in prominent circles with names across the arts. After graduating from his studies he was immediately recruited by Peter Behrens (who had earlier recruited others central to the Modernist movement like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier); Plischke later joined Josef Frank’s studio, then moved to New York to work for Ely Jacques Kahn (architect of many of the city’s skyscrapers). While in New York he met Frank Lloyd Wright. This is the man—urbane, sophisticated, with a prominent career looking increasingly assured—who, as a Jew aligned to the socialists, fled to Wellington, New Zealand, following the reunification of Austria and Germany.

We do know that life in New Zealand wasn’t the easiest for Plischke. For instance, while working for the Department for Housing Construction—a quickly conceived government plan to cope with looming housing shortages following the anticipated end of the war—Plischke designed the Dixon Street Flats in Wellington. A few years later, his boss Gordon Wilson won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Gold Award for precisely those buildings. It seems that many who he worked with were envious of his talent and whenever possible appropriated aspects of his designs; and as a final insult, his Austrian qualifications were deemed insufficient for him to join the New Zealand Institute of Architects. So, when Plischke finally left his government job, he went into private partnership with a fully qualified New Zealander, Cedric Firth.

Ernst Plischke architect New Zealand Design and Living book During his time in New Zealand (he left twenty four years after arriving to return to Vienna) Plischke designed numerous public buildings, social houses and private dwellings. These certainly set an example. But Plischke also wanted other architects and the public to understand the philosophy behind his buildings—to see Modernism as not just sleek lines and lots of glass, but as a philosophy of living. To this end, in 1947 he published a pamphlet book called Design and Living. It is a remarkable publication, filled with drawings, acting as an architectural primer, a philosophy of modern design, and a portfolio of key Plischke works. For a country facing once again a housing crisis—just as we were when Plischke wrote the book—it presents lessons we appear still to need to digest.

A house is a framework for living

Plischke's Corner Flat in Wellington, completed 1959/60
Plischke’s Corner Flat in Wellington, completed 1959/60

In New Zealand architectural history Plischke is usually presented as one of a band of International Style-ists opposed to any attempt to find a ‘vernacular’—i.e., a ’New Zealand style’—of architecture. Plischke’s kind of modernism has been criticised for being wilfully ignorant of local conditions or culture, for enforcing a supposed rational uniformity on all inhabitants of a building no matter where in a country or even where in the world they reside. This is the same criticism of Le Corbusier’s dictum that “a building is a machine for living in”. People are organic beings, not machines, is the protest.

But in reading Plischke’s own Design and Living one is struck by how far he himself seemed to have moved beyond this kind of international-vernacular debate entirely. In one important section he nods to all the different philosophies of housing, from an ascetic/simple living view, to the Corbusian ‘machine’ philosophy, and even a kind of post-modern ‘home as self-expression’ view. And he then moves beyond them:

“There is the person who says that a house should be essentially a shelter against wind and rain and cold; that any structure which effectively keeps out those elements is a good house. There is the person who wants, besides shelter, something he describes as a snug, cosy home. The man who imagines himself up to the moment will probably oppose that idea and demand that a house should function like a motor-car, or, rather, like an ocean liner: a machine that makes life as efficiently comfortable as possible. Then, we know the person who wants to impress his friends with his success and his worth as a citizen. And we know what his house usually looks like. But there are people who dislike the idea of display, who think that a house should be something more than a shelter or a snuggery or a machine. They realise that a house is a framework in which our lives are lived, and that life does not entirely consist of working, eating, and sleeping. They want a richer and fuller life, and they know that the house they live in can play an active part in attaining it.”

Plischke’s philosophy is far more complex than those other views, but also, in a way, far more simple. Here’s where I think his own origins play a role in having shaped his philosophy. Having grown up in a cultural centre, somewhere where art and culture being discussed at the coffee house was a central part of existence, Plischke sees the buildings in which we live and converse as existing to help bring out those heights of human achievement and accomplishment. Elsewhere he expands on this view:

“Earlier I said that houses make a framework for richer and fuller living: this goes far beyond the materialistic idea that a house should be merely a shelter. A rich and full life can be called a civilised life. And we who belong to a young country just beginning to build should remind ourselves that history does not judge a civilisation by its material and economic organisation alone, but rather by the thoughts and arts that it inspired.”

This is no architect concerned with building monuments to a nation or monuments to himself. It’s almost a modest view—that the best an architect can do is get out of the way and let artists, scientists and workers get on with their lives.

New Zealand housing in crisis

Plischke wrote his book as New Zealand was still in the midst, though emerging gradually, from a housing crisis. The cost of housing was rising; there weren’t enough houses to go around; and government housing programmes weren’t being built fast enough. He had for years been working on social housing developments, and was very sensitive to the charge that as a modernist architect he was elitist, and his homes unaffordable. At various points in Design and Living Plischke responds to that criticism, providing costings for his houses and showing that they fit below the government grant provided for affordable housing.

Though he didn’t put it as simply as this, Plischke seems almost to have a three-point plan for solving New Zealand’s housing woes:

  1. Adjust expectations
  2. Build smaller, but more efficiently
  3. Think at the family, town and city level, not in terms of number of houses built

Way back in 1947 Plischke seemed to take for granted that the way we were building wasn’t sustainable, and that at a certain point we would have to change our expectations about a quarter-acre patch. As he wrote simply,

“The first and most important step towards getting good design and good value would be that we ourselves should revise our taste and our ideas about what we think is good building and good furniture.”

Note that it wasn’t “change the dream of home ownership”, but just that in owning our homes we might need to change our views about the kind of homes we would be living in. This then led on to his view that multi-units were the way to go, and had been unfairly tarnished in the public eye by early failed projects:

“No doubt dissatisfaction can be and has been caused by multi-units when, because of the house shortage, families have had to put up with houses not designed for their needs; but this is rather like having to wear shoes that don’t fit you. The multi-unit proposal is one well worth discussion.”

Plischke thought we could build smaller houses, but not have the impression that we were living in smaller houses. Everywhere in Design and Living he makes suggestions for how to make a small home seem more spacious: use beds that fold-up into a cavity in the wall so that during the day the space can double as a living room; build-in all storage and furniture; put mirrors on the inside of wardrobes so that they don’t need to stand alone, for instance.

And, last, Plischke was adamant that government was using the wrong metrics to talk about housing:

“To many people a housing programme simply means a certain number of houses to be built on a certain area. But a housing programme can also mean the settlement of a certain number of families. You will notice the change of emphasis. The distinction becomes clearer if we think in terms of new suburbs or even of new townships…”

At a time when parties still propose building x or y number of houses, his change of emphasis to the family unit and to suburbs and towns is a good reminder about what is eventually at stake in the building of houses.

— — — —

It is ironic that Plischke’s legacy is still larger in Austria than in New Zealand despite the fact that he spent his most productive years here. Everywhere in Wellington you can see his buildings, from sleek residential buildings popping up over hillsides in suburbs, to his large tower on Lambton Quay. Plischke’s status in the public mind was solidified with a 2004 exhibition at the City Gallery in Wellington put on by the NZ Institute of Architects (the brochure of which I’ve included below).

Plischke’s book Design and Living still seems fresh with ideas, and it’s also fascinating to see how so many aspects of house design that we now take for granted were at one point controversial and revolutionary. It is disappointing that the book is so hard to find—the copy I read was practically falling apart in my hands. Now seems a good time for a re-print, if a local publisher could manage it.

Plischke Architect Wellington City Gallery Brochure 2004Plischke Architect Wellington City Gallery Brochure 2004