Shops that pass ... forever
One of the shops that kicked off my "Shops that pass in the night" series was this run-down old space at 158 Cuba St. For the last year it's been home to Aotearoa Streetwear, but prior to that it's been a film set, a secondhand bookshop, an anarcho-feminist art space (does anyone remember The Girlies Project?), a craft shop and home to innumerable temporary and sale shops. Short of including a tattoo parlour and a café that sells heroin under the counter, it's as close as one shop can get to being a microcosm of old-school bohemian upper Cuba St.
But not for long. There was a major article on pages E1 and E2 of Saturday's Dominion Post about the fate of buildings that don't meet the new earthquake codes, and it started with a large picture of the 7-storey apartment building that will replace 158 Cuba St. I can understand why some people will be horrified by the very thought of it, but while it's hard to make judgements based upon a single perspective, from an architecural and streetscape point of view I think it's a more than decent replacement (update: thanks to nzman at SkyscraperCity for the picture).
Seven storeys seems awfully tall in the context of mostly low-rise Cuba St, but that's the same as the TAB building (Crombie Lockwood House) a couple of doors down, and just a bit taller than the Watkins building and former "People's Palace" just up the street. In New Zealand, we're used to arty and bohemian quarters being in low-rise neighbourhoods, but that's presumably because any buildings old enough to be cheap and run-down are likely to be from an era when anything above two storeys was rare. In older cities (London, Paris, New York) the equivalents to Cuba St have been in mid-rise districts, so there's nothing inherently wrong with a seven-storey building in such a place. Two to four storeys would seem more fitting here, but given that it's a very narrow building with a 2-3m setback beyond the first floor, and with balconies and plenty of detailing to break up its bulk, it could conceivably be a fine addition to Cuba St.
Stylistically, I have no qualms either. The article quotes the building's architect Karen Krogh about Cuba St: "The last thing we want is for it to be Pleasantville, like Tinakori Rd or Greytown [she could have added Tonks Grove], where everything is ersatz and painted the same colour". I have to agree. Her building is unabashedly contemporary, but I think that the essence of Cuba St is not historical consistency but eclecticism. To this block's current mix of Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, sixties modernist and eighties postmodernist, she will be adding what looks like a pretty good example of early 21st Century modern. The Cuba Quarter's vibe doesn't depend upon highly decorated quaintness: Slow Boat Records is quintessentially Cuba St, yet inhabits a plain box of concrete, steel and glass.
But what of the gentrification effect? There will presumably be retail space in the ground floor, but will the history of weird and wonderful retailers that I've celebrated here be ended by the high rents that a new building makes inevitable. Quite possibly, though it's worth noting that the current tenant has already found another space (in the James Smith Market), and in any case is an offshoot of an Auckland shop. Bringing the building up to the new earthquake standards would have been exorbitantly expensive anyway, and perhaps the proceeds from selling 14 apartments above will mean that the owners don't have to charge quite as high a rent for the shop space. As I noted earlier, the gentrification of Cuba St is happening fairly slowly, and there's a whole lot of retail space coming on the market soon to take some of the heat out of the market. I'll be a bit sad to see another bit of scruffy old Te Aro disappear, but there are some much worse potential losses looming thanks to the earthquake standards.
The biggest potential source of worry is noise complaints, given that it's opposite the San Francisco Bath House. Here's hoping that the building's got proper acoustic insulation, and that the people who move in aren't idiots. Perhaps new residents here should sign a covenant that says "I am aware that my home will be across the road from one of Wellington's noisiest music venues, and I know what I'm getting into. If I don't like it, I will move back to Karori."
My one last quibble with the building is that the model shows a large mural of Che Guevara on the first floor. Granted, the appropriation of revolutionary imagery is hardly new in Cuba St, but what seems natural and acceptable in a café or bar really does seem excrutiatingly silly on a shiny new apartment block. I really hope that it's just a placeholder rather than a serious part of the design.