Sir Michael was the city’s 28th Mayor and held office from 1974 till 1983. He was known for his vitality, gregarious nature and wit but was also a committed Modernist and reformer.
Mayor Andy Foster says Sir Michael left a lasting legacy in Wellington. “He was a colourful character who had a big impact on the Capital during his time as Mayor. His name is immortalised through the Michael Fowler Centre, which was one of his passion projects.
“I used to bump into Sir Michael every now and then and we always stopped for a chat. He will be missed by many people but especially his family and friends. My thoughts and condolences are with them at this sad time.”
According to Wellington: Biography of a City by Redmer Yska, Sir Michael was probably best-known for tackling the seismic vulnerability of the central city and fundamentally changing the face of the Golden Mile – this dramatic programme of demolition, in which almost 100 Victorian-era buildings were bowled and replaced with modern steel-and glass high-rise structures, was memorably chronicled in a documentary called Home Town Boom Town – you can watch it here.
Michael Fowler was born on 19 December 1929 in Marton. He was educated at Manchester Street School in Feilding and Christ’s College in Christchurch and completed a Master of Architecture at Auckland University. In 1953 he married Barbara Hamilton Hall (died 2009).
Sir Michael started his architectural career in 1954 at the London office of Ove Arup and Partners. In 1957 he returned to New Zealand where he worked in his own practice: Calder, Fowler, Styles and Turner in Wellington.
In the early 1960s, he designed Wellington's Overseas Passenger Terminal, which was to have served international passenger ships, but never saw its intended use due to the rising popularity of air travel. In an interview many years later, he said that he "was party to the design of the biggest white elephant that Wellington ever built". He was a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and an accomplished artist and book illustrator.
Sir Michael was first elected to the Wellington City Council in 1968. Four years later he stood for the parliamentary seat of Hutt in the 1972 general election for the National Party where he lost in the Labour landslide.
He was elected Mayor in 1974 after a tight race with long serving incumbent Sir Frank Kitts. His 1977 re-election campaign pitted him against Sir Frank and transgender entertainer Carmen, who ran with the support of local businessman Bob Jones and a platform of legalising brothels and homosexuality. Sir Michael won comfortably.
Wellington's concert performance hall, the Michael Fowler Centre, opened in 1983, was named in his honour – principally due to his unstinting and often-controversial efforts to raise money for the building. This included a round-the-world trip in 1977 in which Sir Michael door knocked the likes of billionaire Nelson Rockefeller and Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi in a bid to raise funds.
According to Wellington: Biography of a City, Sir Michael blew the cobwebs off a sleepy public-service town in the mid-1970s. When a reporter told him that Wellington Zoo lacked any lions, Sir Michael quipped that the last ones had “died of boredom”.
In late 1975 he held a reception for Dame Whina Cooper and other leaders of the famous Māori Land March – setting the tone for his Mayoralty.
He was also known for:
- His weekly late-night talkback programme on Radio Windy and his popularity with journalists – possibly because of his habit of plying them with gin and tonics before Council meetings.
- Starting city forums where citizens were invited to air their concerns about the city’s problems.
- Refusing to wear the Mayoral ‘plumage’ during routine City Council meetings.
- Pressuring the Government to continue building the inner-city bypass.
- Introducing the differential rating system.
- Continuing the construction of the Council’s social housing portfolio.
- Introducing Council work initiatives, including tree planting programmes, to soak up unemployment in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
- Helping to start the long-running campaign to build the Moa Point sewage treatment plant – which was eventually completed in 1998.
- Banning the 1981 Springbok rugby team from using Council grounds, facilities or buses.
- Helping to kick-start the Wellington movie industry by opening the city streets for the filming of Goodbye Pork Pie.
He was appointed a Knight Bachelor in the 1981 Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sir Michael retired from the Mayoralty before the 1983 local elections.