Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Urban Eye: Wellington Brewing Company

The best thing to happen to the waterfront in years.

Urbanism +4
The conversion of the former Shed 22 into the Wellington Brewing Company is a fantastic example of an urban mixed-use development. It combines a bar, restaurant, functions room and offices with a working brewery, thus bringing a wide range of activities to the waterfront at different times of the day and night. Retail, entertainment, offices and housing are the commercial activities usually considered part of 'mixed-use', but this goes one step further and includes light industry as well.

Taranaki Wharf is a vital section of the waterfront. Geographically, it acts as a 'hinge' between the predominantly north-south orientation of Jervois Quay and the more east-west orientation of Cable St. It joins Civic Square and the City-to-Sea bridge with Te Papa, making it part of the tourist and cultural trail. It's also on the shortest pedestrian route from the Lambton Quarter to Courtenay Place, and as such attracts a lot of foot traffic at rush hours. But at night it had been dark and uninviting, and even on a pleasant day it was a place to walk through rather than linger.

At last, this conversion has brought life to a waterfront that was almost dead between Queens Wharf and Oriental Bay after dark. Walk past the brewery on a sunny lunchtime or a summer's evening and you'll get a sample of how pleasantly lively the waterfront can become with sensible mixed-use development. Even on a stormy winter's night it's worth the trek across Wakefield and Cable Streets, and once the adjoining Odlins and Free Ambulance Building developments are complete there should be enough critical mass of occupation and activity to make it a fully-fledged part of the city.

So, on the urban criteria of interactivity, diversity, compactness, multifunctionality, and liveliness it deserves high praise. The only real flaw from an urbanist point of view is the treatment of the Cable St or Taranaki St frontages. There is no public activity on these sides, and no verandahs to provide shelter for pedestrians, thus making it less likely that these parts of the street could become enlivened by foot traffic. The lack of verandahs may be partly explained by heritage concerns, though see below for my thoughts on that. At least passers-by can see through to the tanks and pipes in the innards of the brewery, providing more interest than a blank wall would have done. Overall, this is a creative adaptation of an old warehouse that retains the streetscape value of the building while adding vitality and interest.

Aesthetics +2
Shed 22 was a simple but handsome Edwardian warehouse, which provided a reminder of the waterfront's working past, but it required significant work to make it usable and inviting. To my eyes, the result demonstrates the advantages of adaptive reuse over deferential 'preservation'. It's a good example of how old industrial and commercial structures are strong enough to handle a more assertive architectural intervention than would suit a heritage buildings with more traditional detail. In fact, they often need drastic alteration in order to make them useful and accessible, as warehouses and factories were designed with the explicit intention of keeping people out, rather than attracting the public.

This is not such a drastic intervention, but neither does it try to blend in. The crisp steel and glass additions suit the robust materials and proportions of the original building, while opening up what had previously been a mute and inward-looking shed. The metal awnings over the doors, somewhat reminiscent of garage doors, are simultaneously industrial and delicate, providing a welcome contrast to the solidity of the red brick. Some of the internal decoration might seem a little twee, but it's suited to the brewery theme and the populism required to attract a broad clientèle.

Environment +1
There are no obvious environmental measures in the design, but the conversion deserves some recognition for its contribution to urban density and for recycling an old building.

Social +2
While it's not exactly a boutique brewery run by small local business (the owner, Lion Nathan, is one of the largest companies in the country), it does brew unique beers on the premises, adding a sense of place. The fact that it's a working brewery also means that there are people other than white-collar office workers working on the waterfront.

The combination of beer and wine, bar snacks and restaurant food, means that it serves a wider social mix than most of the existing waterfront eateries. It's very child friendly, and the way that it flows out onto the wharf in summer demonstrates how some kinds of commercial enterprise can enhance a public space rather than privatising it. The space between the building is a blend of public and private: you don't have to eat or drink there in order to sit on the nearby benches and enjoy the bands and conversation. On some days, I've seen everyone from backpackers to businessmen, homeless people to ex-mayors, attracted by the hum of human activity. This is exactly what an urban waterfront should be.


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