Miles Warren was born in Christchurch on May 10, 1929, the second son of Maurice Ballantyne Warren, a sharebroker, and his wife Jean. A bright, active boy he was unusually visually perceptive, a trait disclosed in an early talent for drawing.
After attending Medbury School, he entered Christ's College as a Soames Scholar, excelling academically. From school he joined the architectural practice of Cecil Wood as an apprentice draftsman, attending evening instruction from the Auckland University School of Architecture's professional qualifications.
Miles entered the School of Architecture as a full-time student in 1949, gaining the Auckland University College Prize for Excellence in Architecture. In 1951 he graduated with a Diploma in Architecture and became an Associate of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.
There followed a formative post-graduate period abroad working for the London County Council. Here he absorbed the lessons contained in what was termed "The New Brutalism", a movement concerned with the functional principles of Modernism and the expressive qualities of building materials. Throughout his career these principles would be the hallmark of his work.
In 1955 Miles Warren designed a block of flats in Christchurch that established what would become known as "the Christchurch Style". The highly praised Dorset Street Flats, built with exposed concrete blocks and fairfaced concrete, elegant aesthetics and minimal barriers between indoor and outdoor space, strongly influenced the emerging generation of architects.
A major commission to design a dental school, together with a mounting quantity of work, called for expansion. He invited fellow architect Maurice Mahoney to join him and the practice of Warren and Mahoney was formed. In the following years the firm designed an increasing volume of innovative structures, including Miles' own house and office, followed by College House and the Student Unions of Canterbury, Auckland and Massey Universities.
Among the important buildings conceived in a distinct and recognisable style were the influential Harewood Crematorium and the firm's own premises, incorporating bachelor Miles' Christchurch townhouse. Their crisp white block work allowed innovative massing of spaces, announcing an extended vocabulary of block-built structures. A characteristic of these and many succeeding Warren-designed buildings was the use of wooden trusses supported on concrete walls, enabling a more sophisticated modelling of space and rooflines. The elegant considered detailed of Warren and Mahoney buildings gave them a powerful aesthetic appeal.
A key achievement was the College House Hall of Residence near the University of Canterbury campus. The gleaming, functional forms, disposition of the buildings and innovative use of concrete block construction brought this project international recognition as "classic" mid-20th century architecture.
In 1966 the partnership won the two-stage architectural competition for the Christchurch Town Hall. The success of the design and construction won national recognition for the firm. The landmark structure was opened in 1972, proving so successful that the architect was invited to design the Sir Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington, a building that closely resembled the Christchurch complex.
Miles Warren's involvement in the visual arts continued during his busiest periods. He was President of the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1965–67. In 1968 Miles was made a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. By this time the firm's reputation had spread and it was receiving invitations to design schools, hospitals and administration buildings in Vanuatu and the Solomons. In New Zealand large-scale Warren and Mahony designed structures were rising on the skylines of the main centres. 1974 saw Miles Warren appointed CBE for services to architecture.
It was natural for New Zealand governments to showcase the accomplishment of their leading architectural talents in buildings constructed abroad. Between 1974 and 1979 the design and supervision of the construction of the New Zealand Embassy in Washington D.C. had Miles Warren travelling between Christchurch and the USA. The design of the New Zealand Embassy in New Delhi followed in 1989. Warren and Mahoney also won a limited competition for the strengthening and reordering of Parliament House and the Parliamentary Library. This proved to be the largest and one of the most successful projects undertaken by the firm.
While designing a broad range of projects from domestic dwellings to major commercial and public buildings, Miles Warren was also becoming increasingly committed to projects of community benefit. He became a Foundation Member of the Theatre Royal Trust that acquired and refurbished the historic old Christchurch theatre. He accepted the Chairmanship of the Beautiful New Zealand Advisory Committee, established to encourage local authority and volunteer landscaping alongside the country's highways.
In 1987 he was awarded KBE for services to architecture, followed two years later by the New Zealand Institute of Architects' Award of Honour. In 2000 he was awarded the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal.
The sound judgement that characterised the conduct of his business was recognised when Sir Miles was elected Chairman of Pyne Gould Corporation Limited.
Canterbury University awarded Sir Miles an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1992. He was further awarded an Honorary Bachelor of Architecture from the Unitech Institute of Technology, followed by an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Auckland.
In 1994, at 64, Sir Miles formally retired, though continued to design structural work at Christ's College.
A portion of his time was occupied with the upkeep and development of Ohinetahi, the historic homestead in Governors Bay, Banks Peninsula, acquired and restored with his sister Pauline and brother-in-law John Trengrove in 1975. The property, now solely owned by Sir Miles, is today one of New Zealand’s most renowned estates. Its formal gardens, notable sculptural works, private gallery and art collection attract many visitors. The inventory of artworks includes hundreds of watercolours of architectural subjects made during extensive travels since his retirement as well as his own original watercolour perspectives of his most important buildings.
He was a trustee of a number of charitable trusts, among them the Arts Foundation of New Zealand and the University of Canterbury Foundation. He donated the offices and townhouse formerly occupied by the Warren and Mahony practice to the Warren Architects' Education Trust, directing its income to the education of architects and the public in the art of architecture.
Sir Miles Warren's wide influence and achievement as an architect, in the arts and business, his public service in the larger New Zealand community as well as within Canterbury, his dedication to the art of architecture, his leadership, energy and creativity were recognised in 1995 when he was made a member of the Order of New Zealand, an award limited to only 20 outstanding living individuals at any time.
By John Coley (Copyright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)
John Coley, for many years director of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, has been an art columnist for the Christchurch Press and a well-known Canterbury teacher and artist. He is the author of biographies of the painter Jane Evans and of the legendary Christchurch builder Charles Luney.