Building centre

As a child growing up in Hamilton in the early 1980s, there wasn’t a lot to do on weekends, so it happened that one weekend fun activity was visiting the Building Centre, a showroom of the latest fittings and fixtures for the modern home builder or renovator.

Highlights included:

  • A fountain made of kitchen and bathroom taps
  • A sauna with a red lightbulb emulating the hot sauna effect
  • A display of insulation, showing a cross section of an insulated ceiling
  • The Fanta machine

I had pretty much filed this away as a quirk of my childhood (other kids played sports, yeah), prepared to let it belong to the past. But then Maurice came along with a bombshell.

In the Shell Guide to New Zealand, Maurice Shadbolt makes the following recommendation under “museums and exhibitions” in Auckland:

Building Centre. Victoria Street West, central city. Comprehensive displays of building materials. Monday to Thursday 9-5; Friday 9-9; Saturday 9-11.30.

That’s right. Alongside the Museum, Art Gallery and Museum of Transport and Technology is a recommendation for the Building Centre. He’s actually recommending that tourists might enjoy spending a morning browsing the Building Centre.

Now, I can understand the appeal of the Building Centre for a small bored girl in Hamilton in the early ’80s. But Auckland City in 1968? Surely there was more to recommend to visitors. Or is a building centre actually worth a trip for general leisure? I had to investigate.

The Home Ideas Centre in Petone promised to be a modern equivalent of the old Building Centre. 30 years later, people still want to tutū with their whares.

The centre occupies the two bottom floors of a softened brutalist office building near the Petone foreshore. After making my way past the lady at the front desk (“circle the numbers you’re interested in and then pick up the brochures on the way out”), I entered the labyrinth of home improvement.


You know what’s big? Baths are. Giant, stand-alone baths, with thick and flat top edges providing a good area to place your tealight candles while engaging in an indulgent ritual bath to soak away all the pressures of modern life, or at least the ones wine and Valium can’t reach. And baths with plugs in the middle, so you and your special friend can share a bath without one of you having the plug violating your arse.

I viewed the baths suspiciously, as if to partake in the Bath of Ritual Indulgence would trick me into living a life of suburban servitude, perpetually bent over with Jif and a Scotch-Brite.

It reminded me of a scene from Desperately Seeking Susan, where free-spirit Susan is looking around the home of uptight jacuzzi salesman Gary. She climbs in his fancy brown spa bath.

Susan: Nice tub.
Gary: You like it? That’s one of our most popular items. You can install it in any bathroom and it increases the resale value of your house or condominium.
Susan: I didn’t say I wanted to buy one.

I felt like the Home Ideas Centre too was pitching to me based on the resale value of my condo and/or the cult of ritual indulgence, forgetting that I just wanted to get clean; that I didn’t even own a bathroom, let alone a bath.

The Popular Colour Range

One display stand presented “the popular colour range” – a rainbow of creams, beiges and greys. It was at pains to point out that while these were the popular colours, more variety was available on request. It seemed like they’d given up on making colourful samples, but still held out for the day someone would order a fire-engine red kitchen.

Another display showed ways of hiding a television in the kitchen or bedroom, able to disappear out of sight with the flick of a switch. It’s built around the idea that having a telly in the kitchen or bedroom is entirely wrong and shameful, and when it is not being watched, a telly should be hidden from view.

Actually, would there be a market for switches that might hide other embarassing household objects? With a flick, the motor whirrs and there disappears the Jack Vettriano print, the overstuffed black vinyl couch and the latest edition of the New Zealand Fitness magazine.

Things at the Home Ideas Depot were a little crazy in places, but nothing was as extravagant as the tap fountain or faux sauna of my chilldhood. There’s no time to consider a sauna when there are all those shades of beige to choose from.

Wife and kid

I came across a few couples wandering around the centre. They all seemed to be shuffling around in a bit of a daze, with the occasional comment on a product. “That’s nice.” “We could do that in the spare room.” “That would look quite good outside.” But there never seemed to be any sparks of inspiration.

If you own a house, you’re free to renovate. The responsibility lies totally with you. So when you go home to the kitchen with the chipped wood-grain cupboards, it’s all your fault for not replacing them with stylish new kitchen storage solutions.

But if you’re renting, then your kitchen is what it is. If the cupboards are a bit old and ugly, well, there’s nothing you can do beyond Blu-Tacking up some vintage porn postcards to disguise the wear. The life of a renter is free of the burden of home improvement.

I was free to wander around the Home Idea Centre, mentally planning my giant mansion (The formal living room will have nine hidden televisions, all set to the Living Channel. My imaginary husband and I will sit on the couch all day eating Toblerone and watching programmes about creating sponge effects on wallpaper.)

The Home Ideas centres twists around two levels of the building. It’s exactly the sort of maze-like space that enthralled me as a child. There are intriguing dead ends, doors that open to reveal a wall, wardrobes with no space to hang clothes, hidden speakers that perpetually play a radio broadcast from 2009.

If you’re not in the market for building ideas, the Building Idea Centre instead becomes like visiting the surrealistic abode of an insane millionaire. Check out the hall of the 12 toilets! Behold the slalom course of luxury baths! Open the door to nowhere!

Now I understand why Maurice recommended the Building Centre to tourists. It might not be as glamorous as cultural tourist attrations, but such building centres are interesting spaces to be in. For the visitor not needing or wanting to renovate or build, the building centre is at least as much fun to explore as a museum, art gallery or science museum.

Desperado and Hippie Green

5 thoughts on “Building centre”

  1. A substantial part of my early childhood was spent with my family at the local homeware/hardware store, a massive complex called Trago Mills which had its own model railway. Trago Mills! Even now, the name conjures up magic and a small tightly-held fistful of brochures: the free paint colour charts! the light switches you could turn on and off! the shower boxes you could hide inside! I note that my own children seem to have inherited this fascination for home and building supply outlets. (The highlight of the trip, of course, is always to lift the lid and sit on the display toilet while the assistant’s back’s turned. “Hey Mum! Where’s the PAPER? Heh heh heh.”)

  2. Whenever I enter a shop specializing in home renovation implements and consumables, the smell and sawdusty aura of the place instantly makes my animus sit up, peer about and say to me, “Eh, mate, here’s a chance to do some tinkering of the type your old Dad used to be so fond of, not that you’ll ever be quite as unabashedly manly as him.” It’s a daunting and charming feeling.

  3. A friend and I used head to the Building Centre after school each day to hang out in pretend bedrooms and bathrooms. Fond memories.

  4. I discovered Ikea in Bletchley when I moved here. One must proceed through the store in strict order, there could be giant revolving knives before the bathroom display but people obediantly stick to the path from which to contemplate their perfect nordic lives as if it were some form of manifest destiny.

    Everything is made of MDF and designed to separate out the weaker, unintelligent children in your brood, by toppling on them if they even think of going within ten feet of them

    They don’t let single people in and if you don’t have kids you must compensate by being doubly aggressive. Armed only with those little Ikea pencils, you must attack fellow customers relentlessly before progressing to the next level, downstairs where you are then given a massive trolley to wield.

    The Swedish meatballs are heinous btw. Don’t eat them. No matter how pretty they make them look in the picture.

  5. I used to love the Building Centre, I too would visit it on my own, The faux-sauna was always my favourite part, I like the wood for some reason.
    Ikea is definately the tupperware Building Centre.
    Fangs for the memories

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