Victoria University’s conflicts on Snelling’s NZ merits

Dr Christine McCarthy of Victoria University, Wellington.

Victoria University in Wellington is the most logical academic custodian for New Zealand understandings of Douglas Snelling's international achievements.

Although he never attended a university, Snelling is a person of note to future architecture and design historians because he helped to lead the westward spread of California modern style and technology innovations across the Pacific into Asia. He was one of the most talented exponents of organic architecture and what's now called the 'Polynesian Pop' and 'Tiki' style movements. But so far he has been noted only scantily in NZ books on its 20th century architects and designers.

Wellington is where eight-year-old Douglas arrived in NZ in 1926, played above his parents' confectionery shop on Tinakori Road in the late 1920s, and where he communicated the glamour of Hollywood to Depression-era Kiwis; gaining renown as a magazine columnist, cartoonist, radio broadcaster, public speaker and Warner Bros movie publicist from 1938 to 1940.

Today, Victoria University's Faculty of Architecture and Design has an international reputation for valuable research scholarship and solid teaching of future creative professionals. But its current administrators – particularly Professor Jules Moloney as head of its School of Architecture – seem counter-intuitively cautious in spearheading Douglas Snelling's destiny to be recognised as NZ's most significant expatriate post World War II architect and designer.

Moloney and his VU superiors, including Mike Wilson as Acting Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Design and Pro Vice Chancellor, are paid to represent VU's commercial interests in attracting future students. They have to shepherd its international reputation, government relations, magnetism of funding, performance kudos and supervision (colloquially termed 'cat-herding') of staff, students and stakeholders.

In their laps is a politically sensitive challenge to grasp the significance of Snelling, because one of VU's interior architecture lecturers, Dr Christine McCarthy, who currently holds a respectable role as president of Docomomo New Zealand (the international modernism protection society), has written a systematic rejection of the academic worth of the historical research on Snelling by Auckland-born Sydney writer Davina Jackson (editor of this blog and author of this post).

As the only anonymous (at that time) external examiner of Jackson's PhD thesis with RMIT University, Melbourne, McCarthy caused the Snelling thesis to be wrongly failed. Now Moloney claims that Jackson's objections about McCarthy's performance as a PhD examiner are not a matter for VU (her regular employers) but for RMIT (her contractors in this case).

Because RMIT's first thesis examiner, Peter McNeil (currently Associate Dean Research at the University of Technology Sydney's School of Design Architecture and Building) promptly passed Jackson's work, a third examiner had to be appointed by RMIT to resolve the impasse between McNeil's and McCarthy's contrasting assessments.

Associate Professor Andrew Leach of Griffith University, Brisbane.

Associate Professor Andrew Leach of Griffith University, Brisbane.

RMIT's third examiner of Jackson's thesis, Dr Andrew Leach, also was educated at VU for his B.Arch and M.Arch degrees. Employed at the University of Queensland's Faculty of Architecture when he examined the first version of the thesis in 2008, Leach later joined Griffith University in Brisbane. Claiming to be an expert in the 'historiography' (conjectures on history-related concepts) of architecture, he has firmed his career as a leader of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand (SAHANZ).

Is it a co-incidence – or collusion? – that while McNeil (an Australian scholar then working in Scandinavia) passed the thesis as a solid compilation of historical facts and analysis, both of the Wellington-educated academics, McCarthy and Leach, failed it because Jackson did not cloak her factual information within a theoretical framework.

McCarthy and Leach – who have never worked as publishing industry professionals – both claimed that Jackson's writing was not good enough to publish in an academic context. Their views contradicted those of experienced editors at the Miegunyah imprint of the University of Melbourne Press, UNSW Press in Sydney and Thames and Hudson in London, which all accepted the thesis for publication, subject to profitable budgeting. At the time of the thesis examination, Jackson also was being internationally promoted by prestigious New York and London publishers Phaidon as one of the world's top 10 architecture thought-leaders, along with Deyan Sudjic, Zaha Hadid, Kurt Forster and others, in its 10 x 10_2 global architecture survey (2005). She now is an associate editor for the arts music architecture section of a European science publisher, where she selects academic theses for peer reviewed publishing.

Another senior staff member with VU's School of Architecture, Dr Robin Skinner, was president of SAHANZ when RMIT announced the thesis failure. He denied to Jackson that there was any possibility of collusive sabotage of her work by SAHANZ members. Did he know then the identity of Jackson's examiners? Skinner was (and is) working with both McCarthy (at VU) and Leach (in SAHANZ). When Leach recommended failing the Snelling thesis, he and Skinner were co-operating on the same book: Shifting Views: Selected essays on the architectural history of Australia and New Zealand (Leach, Andrew, Antony Moulis and Nicole Sully; University of Queensland Press, 2008). This anthology, and Skinner's essay, 'Larrikins Abroad' could have benefitted from fresh information on Snelling, but he was not mentioned.

As clarified in another post on this blog, McCarthy's and Leach's rejections of the Snelling PhD research (commissioned by RMIT Professor Harriet Edquist in 2003), triggered a 'crisis of governance' at RMIT around 2010, which led to its Chancellery contradicting and cancelling the findings of its own School of Architecture and Design, and its own Appeals Committee, that the thesis was wrongly failed.

That appeal cancellation process, secretly organised by RMIT's Deputy Vice Chancellor Research Professor Daine Alcorn with formal support from its three (incompletely briefed) Portfolio Deans, is now the subject of corruption allegations against Alcorn, recorded with the Victorian Government's Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC), the Victorian Ombudsman and the Australian Research Integrity Committee. They are not expected to change RMIT's final decision.

Professor Jules Moloney, Head of the School of Arcitecture at Victoria University.

Professor Jules Moloney, Head of the School of Arcitecture at Victoria University.

Is Moloney right or wrong in claiming that Victoria University and his School of Architecture have no relevance to McCarthy's performance in examining the Snelling thesis? Despite wanting RMIT to protect her anonymity as one of Jackson's examiners (which universities now warn is not always possible under Freedom of Information legislation and public demands for transparency of official processes), McCarthy has recorded her examiner role as one of her performance indicators as a VU staff member.

Is Moloney personally conflicted in this matter? He is a former academic with the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning, where his senior colleagues have been driving an international campaign to sabotage Jackson's credibility and career potentials in academic and architecture circles since she was editor of Architecture Australia during the 1990s. Moloney has told Jackson that he interpreted this campaign as being 'really just about egos'.

Moloney has said that he supports promotion of Snelling 'in principle' and has offered free use of the large atrium/foyer in the architecture building at VU's Te Aro Street campus for a possible future exhibition. But who could organise such a display, following Jackson's expulsions from ANZ academia? The most obvious choice would be a promising young VU architecture academic, Michael Dudding, who is finishing his own PhD, coincidentally surveying Kiwi expatriate modernist architects. Until he met Jackson last year, he had no knowledge of Douglas Snelling, apart from his late 1940s chair designs.

Dudding's thesis must include Douglas Snelling as NZ's most significant expatriate architect from the 1930s to the 1970s. But his colleagues' mistreatment of Jackson's research (which he must reference) could infect Dudding's ability to write a clinical analysis of Snelling's significance. Certainly it will make it difficult for his supervisors to find ANZ examiners whose views are entirely trustworthy.

Anti-Douglas and Davina politics includes some staff in the School of Architecture at Auckland University who are also members of SAHANZ and Docomomo NZ. Their resistance to a possible Snelling exhibition at Auckland University's Gus Fisher Gallery might need to be mediated by another recent VU staff academic, Professor Diane Brand, in her new role as Dean of Auckland's National Institute for Creative Arts and Industries (including the architecture school and Fisher gallery).

Jackson suggests that the most respectable ultimate arbiters of Snelling's positioning in pan-Pacific and ANZ modern architecture are three expert modernism historians on the east coast of the United States: Professors Kenneth Frampton and Mark Wigley (a former Auckland scholar) at Columbia University and Mark Jarzombek at MIT.