There's been a lot of publicity, most
of it negative
, about the planned "Bowen Integrated Campus". There hasn't been much to go on, apart from this one rendering, but even so it seems hard to reconcile some of the statements about it with the plans.
For a start, some people have referred to the development as "an office block" or "a building", when in fact it's a complex plan that involves refurbishing two existing buildings, replacing another, adding to some, building a new block and then joining some of them with a large atrium
. Whatever its aesthetic merits (which I'll discuss later), this development cannot be described, as the Dominion Post did
, as a "monolithic building". If anything, it's the opposite of monolithic, since it consists of several varied masses rather than a single large one.
The main objector to this has been Parliament and its lawyers. Among other things, they have called it "an insult to heritage", though it's not clear what heritage they're talking about. The Bowen State Building and Charles Fergusson Tower will be directly affected, since they will be re-clad and added to, and while they were significant in their time and I'm generally in favour of seeing modern buildings as part of our heritage
, I think all but the most ardent aficionados of Ministry of Works functionalism would agree that they could probably do with a bit of a revamp. The objectors seem more intent on preserving the "dignity" of Parliament itself, though, and claimed that the development will "get in Parliament's face". Given that Parliament faces the other way, and that the extensions will take the complex only about 10m or so closer to Parliament across a wide space, this could perhaps more accurately be described as "creeping slightly closer to Parliament's arse".
One of Parliament's other objections was that this would be 'a "de facto appropriation" of public land for private purposes'. Here are some images of the high-quality public land that will be cruelly sacrificed if this development goes ahead:
These are not verdant swathes of parkland or bustling town squares, but exactly the sort of windswept, leftover, car-dominated spaces that the high-modernist "towers in a plaza" typology so often inflicted upon cities. The irony of this complaint becomes complete when you read
that part of Parliament's objection is because "it is concerned at ... its potential to limit growth of the parliamentary complex, including expansion into the temporary sculpture park". Their outrage at the threat to the sculpture park by building closer to it is put into context by their presumed intention to build on the park itself
at some stage.
So, from a straightforward urbanist perspective, I don't really have a problem with this plan. It turns a depressing chunk of Milton Keynes into something resembling a proper city block, comprised of multiple adjacent buildings built to the street edge. If the shops and cafés planned for the atrium also open onto Bowen St itself, the resulting active edge could be much more pleasant to walk beside than the existing carpark. Seen from the context of nearby Lambton Quay and the Terrace, the scale and massing are not at all overwhelming or dominating, but an extension of the urban scale of the high city.
However, the rendering is not exactly encouraging from an architectural point of view. In particular, the new building along Bowen St shows the same lack of imagination as recent and current developments elsewhere in Thorndon (the Defence building and Vogel Integrated Campus spring to mind). Even those designs that looked staid and conventional among the Kumutoto competition
would look like works of subtle genius in this company, and while I'm not usually averse to rectilinear modernism, a bit of curve, colour or variation would not have gone amiss. Perhaps the architects are deferring too much to the area's (brutalist) heritage? Or is the brief just the same old "we don't care if it's drab, just give us lots of cheap floor space"?
Ultimately, I do agree with one thing that Parliament's lawyers have said about this: "New Zealand has only one Parliament. It has only one parliamentary precinct. This precinct is of national and local importance." This precinct demands a more integrated approach than a mere "integrated campus": it should mesh much more with Parliament itself and the Capital district as a whole. We could do without the misinformation, exaggerations and hidden agendas, but we also deserve a measured and far-reaching approach to designing this unique part of the city