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

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Urban Eye: Willis Street Village

A quiet (sub)urban village in the CBD.

Urbanism +3
This certainly has diversity (shops, offices, apartments) and a modicum of compactness, and its adaptibility has been proven over the years (at one stage there was a nightclub on the first floor). It's not well connected, as it's essentially a cul-de-sac, with just a small passageway through to a carpark to the north. This is difficult to avoid, though, given that it presses up against a steep bank, with little to connect to.

It's interesting to compare this to the Left Bank, which seems to be an updating of a similar typology. This is much more modest in scale and ambition, and seems to aim at quaint respectability rather than bohemian vitality. Part of this might be inevitable given the location, as it's not going to pull in the foot traffic of a thoroughfare. Instead, it's made a virtue of quietness, and while it's not exactly lively, it has become a well-used little oasis.

I can't recommend this as a model for urban development, as an entire city of these would be too sparse and very boring. However, it makes a nice contrast to the rest of the city, providing a tranquil escape for those who tire of the high-rise bustle of the CBD.

Aesthetics +1
Undeniably charming, but definitely a product of its time. It bears some of Roger Walker's hallmarks from the era (multiple steeply-pitched roofs, quirky window shapes), but is nowhere near as daring as his best work. The scale and pseudo-colonial detailing seem to take the "village" part of the name a little too literally for my taste, and it feels as if it belongs in Kelburn rather than the CBD. Having said that, the human scale and greenery make this a pleasant place to be, and it seems to have settled quite comfortably into a "70's kitsch" feeling.

Environment +1
It looks quite green and pleasant, but manages to do that with very little planting. Apart from its pedestrian-friendliness and mixture of uses, there are few environmental initiatives here.

Social +3
The shops are independent, and the cafés are inexpensive, making this approachable for people on a wide range of incomes. The apartments on the upper floors provide short-let accommodation, which is not conducive to community spirit, but they're not as expensive as others in the city.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Urban Eye: Pacific Jewellers

Stylish urban infill on the smallest of scales.

Urbanism +3
It's hardly a building at all, just an enclosure of space, but this tiny shop has transformed a narrow, unused service alley into useful commercial space, while also repairing a gap in the urban fabric.

Lambton Quay already feels like the densest part of Wellington, but with imagination it has proved possible to find a few such unexploited spaces and make the most of them. It shows that when land is valued highly enough, developers will find creative ways of using that land.

Aesthetics +2
The context could have been problematic here, with the exuberant art deco of the Prudential building on one side and stripped classical on the other. A simple-minded contextualist approach could have been disastrous, producing either a poor imitation of one style or a confused hybrid of the two.

Instead, the architects have chosen another style entirely: crisp high-tech modernism at its most minimal. The shopfront is almost entirely glass, with a barely-there steel frame. This restraint allows the details from the Prudential building to show through, while the dimensions follow the lines of both buildings. The window display is rather cluttered, detracting from the simplicity, but otherwise this is an unassuming but stylish addition to the streetscape.

Environment +1
This has a positive environmental effect because it makes use of otherwise unused space in the central city, rather than taking up new space on the fringes. It also make use of the adjoining structures, meaning that very little new materials were required.

Social 0
If this had taken over useful public space, then the social effects would have been negative. But it had been just a dark service alley, so nothing has been lost.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Urban Eye: Midland Park

A near-perfect example of a small park in the CBD.

Urbanism +4
Midland Park is immensely popular, and whenever the weather is half-decent, lunchtime finds it thronged with inner-city workers and shoppers. Part of this popularity may be by default, as there are few public spaces like this along Lambton Quay, but it seems to do most things right.

It's surrounded by tall buildings on most sides, but they're far enough away on the northern edge for it to be sunny at lunchtime. One side is very active, with a couple of shops and a sidewalk café, and although the other sides are next to streets, the trees and street furniture give it a subtle sense of enclosure. The fountain is a classic example of a multi-functioning urban element, acting simultaneously as sculpture, informal seating and a place for children to play. There's a fine balance of hard and soft surfaces, and a mixture of sun and shelter that gives a variety of microclimates. Above all, it manages to be a place to relax without losing a sense of urban vitality.

It's a great space, and an active space, but not particularly open, given the proximity of so many tall office blocks. This proves that public spaces don't have to be large "open spaces", unarticulated paddocks with low-rise surroundings, in order to be lively and successful. Quite the opposite: the offices provide a large daytime population that generates demand for the park, and its intimacy would be lost if it were twice the size. The designers also knew the attraction of edges. The centres of large open spaces are usually the last to be used, so the surface of the park has been broken up into smaller units, with plenty of ledges as well as seats to sit on.

This could be an exemplar for public spaces in the CBD. For every few blocks of high rise offices, a small park or square of this size (0.15ha, smaller than two suburban sections!) will provide enough relaxation space for workers and shoppers. But only if it's as well designed and situated as Midland Park: dark, windswept plazas in leftover spaces are almost never used, and might as well be built upon. Design for sun and enclosure, with active edges and varied spaces, and you'll have spaces as delightful as this.

Aesthetics +3
While not a masterpiece of landscape design, it's certainly an attractive place. The multiple levels provide variety and articulation, with an informal arrangement that counters the formality of the harder surfaces. The planting is appropriately scaled, and screens the park from some of the less prepossessing buildings outside. The most memorable element is the fountain, which features organic metal shapes reminiscent of both sprouting seedlings and bent human figures.

On the downside, a lot of the furniture is starting to look dated. The "Mobil on the Park" office building that dominates the eastern side is a generally well-mannered example of late postmodernism, but is let down slightly by some cheap façadism on the streets that lead away from the park.

On the whole, Midland Park's attractiveness as a space is more due to its human qualities, and the crowds that are drawn by its intelligent form, than any particular architectural delights.

Environment +1
It's a green space, but more in the literal sense than through any specific environmental measures. Its chief environmental virtue is its compactness and variety of uses: it provides the amenity of a public space for a lot of people without consuming a lot of land.

Social +2
This is very much the suit-and-tie end of town, which explains the luxury goods (Alessi teapots and Wallpaper* magazine) in the shops that border the park. But the park itself is not exclusive. You could pay for a moderately upmarket lunch at Café Astoria, or sit wherever you like and eat your sandwiches. Children are well catered for, with a fountain to clamber over and enough grass to run around on. It's a popular meeting spot and encourages social interaction.