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

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mystery bar number 57

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I thought that the previous mystery bar would have been fairly obscure, but no: Stephen got in quickly to identify it as the bar at the Hotel Willis Lodge. It's got a bit more character than one might expect from something that on the outside looks like the sort of motel one might find on the outskirts of Palmerston North, presumably because it's family-run. From some of the comments, it sounds like the neighbourhood (at the corner of Te Aro, Aro Valley and Brooklyn) could do with a local pub, but I don't think this will ever be it. It's very much the bar and restaurant of a small hotel, and doesn't seem to attract many non-guests.

Mystery bar #57 - the back roomToday's mystery bar, on the other hand, is roaringly popular. There's a huge drink selection, and a small but intriguing range of food. The décor is stylish and contemporary but mostly predictable, with plenty of exposed concrete, dark wood and visible ductwork. There's a back room that breaks with the faux-industrial look of the main bar, providing a respite from the din with comfy bench seats and curtain-lined walls. Other elements provide a link back to the bar's long past and loyal patrons.

There were also a couple of artworks, and one in particular seemed a little out of place. I rather liked this monochrome and slightly gruesome Bill Hammond piece, but I thought that it might not be to the taste of this bar's presumed target market. On the other hand, they are very serious about connoisseurship in other fields, so why not art?

Mystery bar #57 - art work by Bill Hammond
And among the milling throngs there was one table of youngsters engaged in earnest discussion over a book by Deleuze and Guattari, so based upon some critical responses to Hammond's work, he could be just the right artist for the place. It could make for a whole new take on traditional pub dialogue: "How 'bout them Thousand Plateaus, then?", "Don't get all rhizomatic with me, mate."

Friday, March 30, 2007

Watch the birdie

This morning, the ravaged environment of Ghuznee St finally got a positive addition to the streetscape: the world's largest tui landed on a roof to feed on some equally giant kowhai blossoms. It's part of the eye-catching new signage for the Forest and Bird headquarters.

Giant tui on the Forest & Bird offices in Ghuznee StThe next step, of course, would be to plant some more trees along the street, rather than cannibalising the footpath for carparks, to bring some more real tui back into the city. And it's a pity that the old Forest and Bird building, with the memorable mural, is about to succumb to an apartment development that by all accounts exhibits even more mind-crushing banality than its proposed neighbours in Taranaki St. Still, it's nice to think that some organisations go out of their way to bring a bit of charm to our streets.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


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My blogfolio is expanding. Most of you will know that in addition to WellUrban, I've been writing (on and off) for The Wellingtonista for a while, which led to a slightly messy night out with assorted bloggerati on Saturday. Various reports of the evening can be found on Public Address and Hubris, with some not-terribly-incriminating photos on Jo's Flickr page.

As I mentioned before, I'm now working for ProjectX Technology, and to kick things off (as well as getting stuck into writing proposals, fiddling with projections and all that juicy stuff) I've written them a blog post about WellUrban and what I think it does right. I'll be posting a few more things there soon about some of ZoomIn's shiny new functionality, plus some ideas about different ways of using the site.

I'm also now officially working for Texture as a "contributing editor", which is a rather grand title for a few blog posts a week. So far, I've written a review of the Late Night Sessions at the City Gallery, and a round-up of good lunchtime eats on Cuba St. Many of my nightlife-oriented posts will end up there, but others (including the "drink of the month" series and any mystery bars that are still to be discovered) will still be posted to WellUrban.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Building rumours 11: Serepisos Towers?

The sports pages of the Dominion Post are not the most obvious source of urban development rumours, but there was an interesting titbit tucked away in Saturday's profile of Terry Serepisos, property tycoon, man-about-town and brand new owner of the Wellington Bees/Southerlies/Fever/Whatever. Among the usual breathless enumeration of the clothes, the cars and the parties, there was a reference to his desire to leave a legacy in Wellington, beyond his recent excursions into sports sponsorship. He wants to build Wellington's tallest building.

Now that's going to get the boys (and it is mostly boys) over at SkyscraperCity really drooling! And I'd agree that Wellington could do with a couple of properly tall buildings in the right places, since our density, urbanity and rugged topography almost demand it. But I have to wonder: is Serepisos the developer we want doing this?

The fact that he wants the building to make a statement could be a good thing, since that should translate into a desire to build something truly spectacular, rather than merely delivering as many rental square metres as the planners and engineers will allow. But his track record is more than a little worrying, and the fact that he seriously considers travesties like the Renaissance Apartments (that cheapened the old Te Aro BNZ) and 332 The Quay (that squats drably on the what was once a classic Art Deco mini-skyscraper) to have "chang[ed] the city for the better" would be laughable if it weren't so damned frightening.

Roger Walker/Terry Serepisos development proposal for the corner of Dixon and Victoria StreetsAt least you can't accuse him of developing boring buildings. While the later stages of the Century City development on Tory St and the "explosion in a bling factory" planned for Dixon and Victoria streets may be the visual equivalent of a hyperactive kid force-fed with food colouring and party pills, at least they're not the grey envelope-filling cuboids currently being extruded all over Taranaki St like so many rectilinear turds. I've heard some architects blame him for single-handedly ruining Roger Walker, and as much as I admire some of Walker's work, I don't think his style and design processes scale up well.

In fact, and I hope none of my architect friends take offence at this, I can't really think of any New Zealand architects that I could imagine designing a truly exciting 40-50 storey skyscraper. It's not that there's a lack of talent: it's just that local budgets and a short-sighted development ethos have crushed any flair or daring that might emerge in big projects, and it's hard to name many recent buildings over a few storeys in height that even aspire to anything beyond mediocrity. Studio Pacific are doing some interesting things, it would be intriguing to speculate about what Architecture Workshop could do at that scale, and I'd love to see Ath being given free reign on something really huge. But no-one local has been given a chance to develop a track record of really exciting tall buildings along the lines of Aurora Place or the Gherkin.

I haven't heard of any serious planning going on, and rather than a real project this may be a long-term ambition that may take decades to get going. Nevertheless, it's great that a property developer wants to be remembered for something more than a quick turnaround and perhaps a Master Builders' award. If Serepisos seriously wants to leave a positive legacy in this city, I hope that he bears in mind that a skyscraper is going to be around for a good deal longer than this week's House of Hank shirt.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


The bypass, a couple of hours after completionWell, it's done. The changeover to the southbound leg of the bypass happened without incident at just after 6 this morning, and while it's hard to tell for sure, there don't seem to be any major snarl-ups around town. Tomorrow will be a bigger test, once commuters hit the new layout in force, but we'll still have to wait for a while before we can see whether it achieves what it set out to do. Of course, the original proponents of the project are proactively covering their arses on that point, just in case.

What is already clear is that the claims of an "improved pedestrian environment" in Ghuznee St were misleading to say the least. As I suspected, while there are still some pavement widenings to come, there are some areas where the footpath has been narrowed to an alarming degree. Some of this is indeed to create bus stops (as LX said), but the section that I was most concerned about has been cannibalised to create car parks. There is absolutely no justification for this from a traffic flow point of view: it's just a nasty piece of opportunism. At least now pedestrians know where they stand: in this case, on a narrow, dangerous stretch of asphalt.

Car parks created by narrowing pavements in Ghuznee StAnd while we're at it, now that yet another section of Ghuznee St footpath has been chomped away to provide a turning lane into Victoria St, is there any way to stop Budget Rentals from blocking what's left of it with their big ugly cars?

Footpath blocked by rental cars in Ghuznee St

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Coffee in chains

The good news is that, after a slow summer, there are a lot of new cafés, restaurants and bars about to open. I can think of a dozen that are definitely on the way, with another half dozen or so intriguing rumours. The bad news is that most of the cafés that have opened recently, or are about to open soon, are chain stores.

Starting at the north end of the city, according to an article in today's Dominion Post, a branch of Esquires Coffee is planned for the ground floor of the Holiday Inn. I'd never heard of them before, which just goes to show how little time I spend outside of Wellington city: they're everywhere, and expanding rapidly. They get some brownie points for using locally-roasted organic Fairtrade coffee, but their interiors look bland and mallworthy, so don't expect anything exciting. It's a pity that Holiday Inn, in their quest to shake off their stuffy and generic image, didn't follow the example of their surprisingly good bar and restaurant Plate and look for something with a little more flair.

Then, of course, there's Gloria Jean's in the long-awaited but faintly disappointing Borders bookshop. As I said when Gloria Jean's first central Wellington shop opened, it's pretty much just a smaller version of Starbucks, so even if we're not getting invaded by Starbucks outlets, there are a lot of its little clones running around. Maybe if Borders had chosen a local operator for its in-house café (as well as not putting Te Reo books in the "foreign language" section and realising that no-one here uses the word "Math"), they'd have done a better job of convincing us that they're not just a faceless American chain.

As local café operators go, Mojo is one of the most loved. Sure, they're a chain of sorts, but they're our chain, and the thoughtful fitouts by architect du jour Allistar Cox are varied, welcoming and stylish. That, together with the quality of their coffee, has led to comments like this from the fans that set up the Mojo Coffee ZoomIn group: "I LOVE Mojo-I will marry someone from there and I will bake biscotti and we will have like 6 children and I will name them-Afagato,Latte.Mocha..you get the idea" (caffeine and spelling don't appear to be compatible). Their cartel is set to expand further, with a seventh café planned for one of the refitted spaces in the Hotel Wellington development, just north of the relocated Eyeball Kicks at 225 Cuba St.

Part of 'The Wellington' hotel/apartment development - future site of Caffe ItalianoIn fact, The Kick is about to have its Tiki mugs and Simon Morse posters surrounded by coffee beans, since the shop on the other side is soon to become a Caffé Italiano. From their website, they seem to be an importer and wholesaler of coffee machines, paraphenalia and coffee (from brands such as Serio and Caffé Molinari) rather than café operators, and an older website refers only to a "showroom" in an industrial part of Auckland. However, the logo on their window carries the tagline "caffé - delicatessen - beans & machines", and while the word "caffé" in that phrase is ambiguous, local gossip suggest that it will indeed include a café. Cuba St doesn't exactly suffer from a lack of coffee, but if the delicatessen side of the business is any good, it could be a welcome addition.

Martha's Pantry at the corner of Cuba St and Karo DriveFinally, right at the top of Cuba St at number 276, Martha's Pantry has just opened. Actually, the entrance is just around the corner in Karo Drive, but the proprietors can't bear the name and prefer to keep a Cuba St address. Yes, this is the shop and "tea rooms" that I was so sniffy about back when Karo Drive first opened!

There's certainly a very Thorndon-y tweeness about the place, with its doilies, scented candles, antiques and cupcakes, but I have to say it's very nice if that's your sort of thing. Also, it's a continuation and expansion of Mary McLeod Paintworks, which has been here for several years, and since the Martha in question (not that one) was one of the building's early inhabitants, she's no Tipsy McStagger. It's the first new shop or café to open in the wake of the bypass, and it brings a bit of (slightly prim and proper) life to the "heritage Disneyland" that was once upper Cuba St. Besides, if New York is anything to go by, the fashionable people of Wellington may soon be storming up here in search of cupcakes. And most of all, it's the only new café in Wellington that's not part of a chain.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Building rumours 10: new BNZ at Harbour Quays

I've wondered before about images of the planned new BNZ building at Harbour Quays, and I've just had a pointer from a helpful reader to say that there's now a publication on the CentrePort website (458kB PDF) with a couple of renders. Here's the first, from an angle we haven't seen before (click for a larger version):

Render of new BNZ building from the northI'm inclined to think that this doesn't look too bad: its undeniable bulk is broken down into multiple volumes, and there's quite a variety of surface treatments. There's also intended to be retail on the ground floor, and there's a fair amount of shelter for pedestrians, at least along Waterloo Quay. It's from the south that it all starts to go pear-shaped (at least, if pears were shaped like great big square boxes):

Render of new BNZ building from the southFrom this angle, you can just make out that there is still some attempt to break down the volume, but the boxy outer skin that wraps over the roof and southwest elevation dooms that attempt to failure and it ends up looking monolithic again. That southwest elevation also looks problematic, as it seems rather blank for a six-storey wall that will loom over the much lower Bluebridge building.

The whole thing looks far too imposing for a single building so close to the water's edge, especially when compared to something like the Meridian building not far south of here, which uses curves, setbacks and roof details to decrease its visual impact. In the latter case, it's clear that the public spaces were planned first and the buildings specified to define support them: while there is a masterplan for Harbour Quays, it's hard not to get the impression that the brief was to create as much cheap floor space as possible, and then make some reluctant efforts to fit some spaces around them.

It still seems hard to reconcile these renders with either the published masterplan or the apparent boundaries of the building site, part of which you can make out from the webcam. Those both indicate a footprint resembling a parallelogram, whereas the renders show something much more rectangular. Perhaps there's still hope that these images are slightly inaccurate, or from confusing viewpoints, and the final building will have some more interesting angles. But I wouldn't (ahem) bank on it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Back on track: not so new

Most of you will have noticed the front-page headline in yesterday's Dominion Post: $200m to ease Wellington rail misery. The more observant among you may have noticed that the improvements mentioned in the sidebar (not online) don't quite add up to $200m, but a slightly less impressive $135m. The even more observant (and presumably long-suffering) among you might also have noticed that many of the upgrades sounded very familiar. Is this really news?

As luck would have it, I was giving an oral submission on the Regional Land Transport Strategy (RLTS) that day, so I was able to ask. Terry McDavitt confirmed that most of the figure (I think he mentioned something like 90%) is not for anything that hasn't been mentioned before: all that's new is that some of the projects are taking steps towards securing central government funding. Some of these, such as electrification to Waikanae and doubling the track from Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki, are mentioned in the draft RLTS report (page 123) as “to be confirmed”, although the cost estimates have already been included in the various figures that have been bandied about.

Don't get me wrong: these are all welcome announcements, and although many of them are just catching up on past neglect (such as upgrading signalling and power supplies, replacing tracks and upgrading tunnels), some will actually increase capacity and improve service. That is indeed good news, and will indeed ease some of the irritations felt by current commuters while attracting others (back) to rail. But in the context of road spending, it's still a pittance, and nothing we didn't know about before. I don't really think that the Regional Council is deliberately trying to mislead people about this (it's more a function of the complexity of the various upgrades and funders, together with reporters not cross-referencing with earlier stories), but then again, they don't seem to have gone out of the way to make things clear.

It's interesting to note today's story about Kerry Prendergast saying what a lot of people have been saying: Transmission Gully is unaffordable. Of course, she's not saying that because she wants the money spent on public transport, but because she wants to build a Grenada Village to Hutt Valley link road and put money aside for the Ngauranga to airport corridor. There's always a chance that once the study is finally finished, it will recommend a high-quality light rail link for the latter, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Given the road-mad biases of most of the people involved, it's bound to mean more and wider roads from the Basin to the airport. Oh, and no real money for public transport for a generation.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Bypassing Ghuznee

The moment of truth is nearly here: in less than a week's time, the bypass will be complete. Well, sort of. When the southbound route opens at 6am this Sunday, SH1 traffic will finally have been diverted out of the city streets and onto ... some other city streets. While the primary raison d'être (such as it is) of the bypass will have been achieved, there will still be some roadworks and traffic light phasing adjustments going on until May. All of which means that we're not supposed to be able to judge the success or failure of the project straight away, which could be frustrating or convenient depending upon your point of view.

In fact, the council and Transit are getting so sensitive about continuing complaints of gridlock that they have started daily web updates to keep people informed about traffic flow (or lack thereof) along the route, and to let people know when and where the continuing roadworks are occurring. Much of that work is likely to be along Ghuznee St, which is supposed to be the main beneficiary of traffic reductions once it is bypassed. It will become a two-way street as soon as the southbound route opens, but some of the physical work can't be finished until after that.

It is this work, together with the reduction in traffic itself, that is supposed to be creating a better pedestrian environment along Ghuznee St. There's little detail available online on just what these changes will be, but there is this artist's impression of the Cuba St intersection from the Transit website:

Rendering of Cuba/Ghuznee St intersection after the bypassThis does indeed look like an improvement. Ghuznee Street becomes significantly narrower here, as the pavements bulge out from either side, making for an easier crossing. The hateful red posts and chains on the eastern side are gone, so that finally pedestrians will be able to cross on both sides. Presumably, this means that the phasing of the lights will also change, hopefully towards something with greater priority for pedestrians. Currently, there is a paltry 7 seconds of crossing time across Ghuznee, compared to about 85 seconds with red or flashing signals, creating a major physical and psychological barrier to the continuity of Cuba St.

What's harder to tell from this rendering is what will be going on further along the street: you can just some trees down by Marion St, which hints at an improved environment, but that's about all. I was looking forward to seeing what was planned for this stretch, thinking of the potential for widened pavements now that the traffic is supposed to drop. But now that work has started, there's a rude surprise: the road is being widened at the expense of pedestrians.

Street widening in Ghuznee StTowards the Marion St corner, such a narrowing doesn't have much impact, since the pavement was originally quite wide. But further back, between Scopa and the electrical shop, it was pretty skinny to start with, and has now been reduced to a ridiculous and almost dangerous degree. Along this stretch it looks to be about a mere 1.5m wide, narrower than the verandahs above, and only about twice the width of a sandwich board.

Road widening in Ghuznee StWhile some parts of Ghuznee St are indeed getting wider pavements (a slight widening between Marion and Taranaki streets, and the aforementioned Cuba St intersection), there are at least three areas where the pavements are being narrowed: this stretch, and the intersections with both Victoria and Willis streets. The last two are being eaten into to create turning lanes, which seems fair enough, but there seems no such justification for the Cuba to Marion St leg. The only clue seems to be in the bypass FAQ:
Ghuznee Street is being returned to a two way inner city street with additional parking, loading zones, taxi and bus stops all being added. [my emphasis]
So, part of the "improved pedestrian environment" that was promised for Ghuznee St (as in this statement by the then Minister of Transport in 2003) involves taking space away from pedestrians, leaving a narrow, uncomfortable and hazardous footpath, to create more carparks. I really hope that I'm wrong about this, because the irony would be too much to handle.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Market places

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When I wrote way back in September last year about the search for a suitable location for a weekend crafts market, I mentioned several possible indoor locations and said that I'd "write soon" with some suggested outdoor sites. But I never got around to it, and this post isn't going to help either, since I've just thought of a couple of other indoor spaces that might work.

Thanks to DeepRed for pointing out that Mr Chan's in Wakefield St has closed down, apparently for good this time. It didn't last long in this location, since it moved in in August last year after the old A-mart building was emptied out. It's a pity to see it go, but it creates an opportunity. This site adjoins another empty one-storey shed around the corner at 10 Tory St, and the two of them add up to a space that is large, continuous, vacant and presumably relatively cheap. Until such time as the obvious development potential of this site is realised, it would make a great space for a crafts market.

Vacant retail spaces on Tory and Wakefield Streets - possible market location?However, I think there's an even better use for this site: as a replacement for the food market that will soon have to make way for the Watermark apartments. It's certainly a large enough space, being almost twice the size of the existing food court, and it's in a great location halfway between Courtenay Place and Waitangi Park. I've suggested elsewhere that Wellington could do with "an Asian food market ... open at night and licensed ... somewhere to fill up on steamed pork buns, laksa, takoyaki balls, wontons and/or ramen while on a kuidaore spree." Given its recent history as Mr Chan's, this could be an appropriate location.

atrium in the Exchange Building between Allen and Blair streetsWhich still leaves us without a craft market. But there's another space that I think could be even better: the atrium in the Exchange Building between Allen and Blair streets. This is a semi-public space that runs between and behind all the restaurants and shops, and while in the past it was used for product launches, wine tastings and the like, it's several years since I last recall it being used. It's a slightly awkward shape, but might just be big enough, and if the two upmarket craft galleries (Kura and Ora) can be persuaded to join in, they could count as part of the market space. There's also a bar and serving area at one end, and perhaps some of the adjoining restaurants could set up food stalls beside their back doors.

I think this space could meet all the criteria: it's a sheltered space (with good natural light as well), near public transport and parking, and with good foot traffic. As it's not currently used, it should be available and hopefully affordable. It would complement the existing activities around Courtenay Place by bringing some more daytime visitors, and with the right promotion and signage it could easily get a high profile.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Goodbye Beltway, Hello Silicon Welly

As some of you will already know, I've finished my time in the public sector, and I start full-time on Monday with ProjectX, creators of the ZoomIn mapping site. Those of you who've read my blog for a while will be familiar with ZoomIn, given the number of times I've written about the site or used their maps in my posts. Some of you may even be starting to suspect me of being a paid shill for the company, but no: I've been enthusiastic about their technology since it first appeared in 2005, and finally got cheeky enough to ask them for a job. Those of you who've wondered what on earth I do for a day job can read my introductory post on the ProjectX blog.

While it'll be good to get back to the private sector, I've learned a lot in the last three years working for the government. Among other things, I've learned that the grey cardigan and walkshorts image is now (mostly) a myth. I've speculated before that Wellington's surge in the 20-24 year-old cohort over the last five years may have something to do with the growth of the core public service, and I'd speculate further that the influx of bright and idealistic young graduates has helped fuel the creative energy of the city. Today's civil servants no longer take the 5:05 to Waterloo to tend their rhododenrons and wash their long socks: they're hanging out at Sweet Mother's Kitchen or Mighty Mighty, writing film scripts, making crafts, planning an exhibition, working on their next blog post or discussing their latest gig.

Nevertheless, Wellington's economy needs to be based on more than the government sector and indie crochet, which is why the emergence of "Silicon Welly" is so welcome. The phrase got a bit of a boost thanks to an article in Idealog last October, though I'm not sure who first coined it or when: the first reference I can find is in a post by Nat Torkington last May. The name may seem a bit silly (is it more or less cringeworthy than "Wellywood"?), and there's some scepticism from Aucklanders (natch), but there really does seem to be a cluster of new tech businesses in downtown Wellington, and a post-Trade Me sense of possibility.

ProjectX is based at the Creative HQ in Marion St, so this is goodbye to the Lambton Quarter, at least as part of the daily grind. And speaking of grind, I'll miss the good folks at Magnetix and their excellent coffee. I suppose I'll just have to put up with Floriditas and Scopa as my local hangouts. It's a tough life.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Changing Customs

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Former Sunglass Bar in Customhouse Quay; about to become the new nzgirl shopThere's a lot of excitement around town (though tinged with scepticism) about the imminent opening of a certain shop in Lambton Quay. Meanwhile, just around the corner in Customhouse Quay, another new shop is about to open: much smaller and quite a bit more local. Next Wednesday (the 21st), the site of the former Sunglass Bar will reopen as New Zealand's second (and Wellington's first) nzgirl shop.

That's one shop replacing another, but it's interesting to look back a few years and see how far this stretch of Customhouse Quay and the intersecting Hunter St have come. There have long been places like Zambesi and Pravda to make it something of a destination, but retail had been fairly patchy around here. Then in the last few years we've seen a lot of "retail infill", whereby former office lobbies and other neglected spaces have been turned into retail tenancies. Fashion businesses like Out There Clothing, Miriam Gibson and Pearl moved in, and now that Bose and Basquesse have opened in the long-empty spaces at the base of the Todd Building, most of the formerly blank and unfriendly edges between Post Office Square and Willeston St have come alive. It's now a genuine part of the "silver mile".

Corner of Customhouse Quay and Willeston StThe Willeston St corner is a special case. It's opposite what's known locally as "Stewart Dawsons corner", and before that as "Clay Point" or "Windy Point" (as opposed to the breathless calm of the rest of Wellington, presumably). Traditionally, it has been one of Wellington's busiest corners for foot traffic, and yet the opposite corner hardly took advantage of it. The faceted glass building that will soon house the nzgirl shop once had a strange cut-away corner, with fiddly steps leading down into the underground BNZ mall. When it was first proposed to fill this in a few years ago, the original proposal was to build a huge, two-storey Levi's "concept store", but that was then scaled back to a much smaller store and a couple of other outlets.

The final transformation of this space is about to occur, as the late and not particularly lamented Rose & Crown, which spent a couple of decades in its semi-subterranean lair before succumbing to the curse of the Workingmen's Club last year, will reopen next week as a new branch of Sports-Wide. A pub turning into a gym? Surely that's a backwards step for civilisation!

Amazing what a little World Cup can do

So, Auckland will be getting a new railway line (well, an old one brought back to life), whereas Wellington spent most of last year trying to get rid of one and building a $40 million road to nowhere. Well, good for Auckland, and I hope that some of the same principle starts to flow through to us. Central Government's $10 million for the reborn Onehunga branch line might seem like a tiny amount in the context of all the roading money being thrown about, and I assume someone else will pay for the extra rolling stock, but it's a good start.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Mystery bar number 56

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The previous mystery bar was too easy: it was indeed the Bull & Bear on Plimmer Steps, as identified by a sheepishly anonymous commenter rather late one Thursday night. As the mystery bar posts have outstripped the opening of new bars, you may have noticed that I've had to slacken off the pace somewhat, and now it's time to bring out some real obscurities.

Mystery bar #56 - random decorToday's bar is in a part of town that's not exactly overrun by drinking establishments, and that's one of the few reasons for visiting. Actually, it's pretty much the only reason for visiting.

That's not entirely fair, since although it's the sort of place where one might expect predictability and blandness, it actually has a sense of individuality and even eccentricity. There's a lot of wood, but not the Matterhorn or St Johns style of designer dark wood, but a raw mid-brown wood that can best be described as 70s faux-rustic. This made sense, given the eclectic and sometimes twee collection of objets d'art and turned wood candlesticks, but looked very odd in the context of multi-coloured plastic chandeliers.

Mystery bar #56 - the barThe drinks selection was fairly limited, and I decided against trying anything too obscure. The bar staff were friendly and attentive, though perhaps to a fault since it made it difficult to take surreptitious photos, and they chatted away at length to another customer about the difficulty of getting a park in that part of the city. I get the feeling that it's a family-run establishment, which would account for the almost charmingly random decor. I emphasise the "almost", and although with a bit of work the owners could make it into a livelier place a good little local, I suppose they have other priorities.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Brut, Brutalism and Brutes

The Architectural Centre is running a little outing tomorrow (the 10th of March) called Brutalism and Bubbles. It's a train excursion to the Hutt Valley and back to central Wellington to appreciate, draw and photograph some examples of that much-misunderstood architectural movement (the name comes from béton brut, meaning "raw concrete", and has nothing to do with brutality). Oh, and it sounds like there may be some alcohol involved.

Anyone can join in: you just need $15 for the all-day Metlink Explorer ticket. I've put together a public ZoomIn group of the places along the way, and we may add some photos and drawings to the places once we're done.

The full timetable:

10:05am Meet at the Wellington Railway Station to catch the Hutt Valley Line to Upper Hutt
(10:50am) draw Civic Centre & visit Expressions
12:30pm catch Hutt Valley Line from Upper Hutt to Heretaunga
(12:37pm) draw Heretaunga Campus lecture theatre, picnic lunch & frisbee
2:37pm catch Hutt Valley Line from Heretaunga to Waterloo Station
(2:44pm) Walk to TheNewDowse to appreciate contemporary architecture
4:06pm Walk to Lower Hutt - Queensgate, Stop B, Hutt City, Bus Service: 83 departs 4.10
5:45 Arrive Courtenay Place, draw the Hannah Playhouse ... possibly from the bar downstairs ... later stroll on to Happy (cnr Tory+Vivian St) for some more drinks etc. in the former Cricketers Arms.

Talking of the Architectural Centre, their submission on the upcoming heritage listing consultation takes the unusual approach of proposing a list of "negative heritage"; that is, "sites and buildings which are negative contributions to the built environment", and for which there should be incentives to redevelop. I'm sure that many of you will have a long list of such brutes (and they may even overlap with the above list of brutalist gems), so go ahead and make some suggestions here. I'm ususally very cautious of advocating demolition, but here are a few obvious ones for me:

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Civic music

Plans for a purpose-built NZ School of Music building adjacent to Civic Square have been revived this week, thanks in part to the City Council agreeing to a peppercorn rental for the site and MPs from several parties uniting to seek government funding. The original proposal drew opposition from the usual quarters, including the Wellington Civic Trust, before it was approved by council in 2004. After running into funding troubles for a while, it looks like the proposal may finally be on its way to becoming reality.

Rendering of proposed NZ School of Music buildingThe rendering shown in the paper and online is unchanged since the first proposal, though I understand that the design shown has never been more than a very vague initial indication of the form it might take. I certainly hope so, since although it's a fairly decent design, this site and activity deserves something much more spectacular. If it's done well, with the right sort of public access, then this school and associated auditorium will not only physically complete the original vision for Civic Square but bring it much-needed night-time activity.

Update: you may also be interested in the recent council report (70kB PDF) and its appendix, the decision document from 2004 (329kB PDF). The latter is especially interesting for its discussion of alternative sites, proposals for replacement green spaces in Te Aro and the summary of submssions and surveys.

Living on

Arrivederci Remiro - photo courtesy of Hadyn at http://www.flickr.com/photos/94364624@N00/414865541/As I should have suspected from the number of people who've come to this site recently by searching for "Remiro Bresolin", he died on Monday night. I didn't know this when I popped into Scopa yesterday lunchtime to pick up some panini, and the staff there gave no indication either. Farewell, Cavaliere: I never knew you, but your influence on this city has touched many of us.

Meanwhile, I've heard rumours that plans to reopen Il Casino are still going ahead, though not in the former Mayfair as I had heard earlier. In fact, it may return to the old building in Tory St, despite the site being sold to a developer with plans for apartments. The latest gossip is that the apartment building will use only part of the site, allowing most of the (currently gutted) original building to be retained and reborn as the new Il Casino. It remains to be seen whether the redevelopment is respectful of the old building, or a cheap exercise in blatant façadism, but if the rumours are true then it will be great to see Remiro's legacy live on in a building that holds so many memories.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Building rumours 9: 18 Lorne St

Unlike the previous building rumour, in this case I have no idea what the buildings planned for 18 Lorne St will look like. Earlier this year consent was granted (40kB PDF) "to demolish existing building and construct two mixed use buildings for retail use, residential accommodation and carparking", and demolition is now well under way.

Old industrial building being demolished in Lorne St, Wellington
Site netween Lorne and Tennyson streetsThe redevelopment of this site is no surprise, since it went on the market well over a year ago, and the mix of retail and housing should be very appropriate for a location a few metres from Moore Wilson. I'm not sure whether this development will cover all the land that was up for sale (a huge 2,463 sq m block spanning from Lorne to Tennyson St), but if it does, then the 27m height limit could allow for a major development. It has the potential to give a huge boost to the area or be a hideous lump, depending upon the skill of the architects and (more realistically) the intentions of the developer. Given some recent efforts, I'm a bit nervous about the prospects.

Can any of my readers shed some light on this? How much of the greater site is being used, and how high will it go? In particular, is this old industrial building being completely demolished, or just gutted in preparation for conversion? I'd like to think that an enlightened developer would retain it to give the complex some character, and to help maintain a scale and historical relationship with the neighbourhood. It's the sort of robust and chunky old factory that could handle some fairly radical adaptation, along the lines of the Croxley Mills apartments, and such a development could fit in well with any new buildings on the block.

Demolition sign & graffiti in Lorne St, WellingtonEven if that were the case, Wellington would still be losing yet another specimen of an increasingly rare species: under-used old inner-city buildings that could provide cheap informal work or living space for artists, students, artisans and new businesses. This particular building may have been too far gone structurally (especially in light of new earthquake standards) to have ever provided safe accommodation without expensive strengthening work, but it's a worrying trend. I welcome the increase in inner-city living, but we need to give some thought to retaining the diversity that has made central Wellington an interesting place to live.

One way might be to place an outright ban on demolishing any existing buildings, except for temporary structures and single-storey big-box retail, until all the vacant land, car yards and Briscoes' have been built on. That will allow for several thousand new residents in Te Aro, while preserving potential studio space, and with any luck when the time has come for them to be redeveloped, some other buildings would have become old and cheap enough to maintain the supply. Will it work? I've no idea, but other than hoping for a recession (which I've heard some people suggesting), it's one of the few ways that I can think of to stop the phrase "Creative Capital" becoming even more of joke than it is now.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Drink of the month: wheat beer

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Wheat beersFor a change, the drink of the month for March isn't a cocktail but a type of beer: wheat beer, to be precise. It's often thought of as a summer drink, but to my taste it's better in the late summer or early autumn than in the blazing heat, when something crisp and hoppy (like a Pilsner), fruity and girly (like a Radler) or watery and tasteless (like 90% of the beer sold in New Zealand) is more effective as a thirst quencher. A good wheat beer is certainly refreshing, but it should also be complex enough to reward leisurely, contemplative sipping.

On the face of it, there doesn't seem as much point in reviewing beer compared to cocktails, since it doesn't rely upon the skill of a bartender to put it together in front of you. It's true that I don't expect as much trouble getting a decent drink as I did with Mai Tais, for instance, but there are quite a few variables to consider.

For a start, there's the range of beers on offer, and with the term "wheat beer" actually covering a bewildering range of Belgian witbieren and German Weizen, cloudy Hefe and filtered Kristall, there should be a lot of variety to choose from. Presentation is important too, and having the beer served in the right glass, at the right temperature and with a proper head can make all the difference. And as with any drink, the atmosphere and environment is a vital component of one's enjoyment. Ideally, a wheat beer should be enjoyed in the dappled sunlight of a terrace beside the Danube, with a cold glass in one hand and a saltzy brezel in the other. Failing that, we'll just have to make do with what's available, so the wheat beer's natural habitat is the balcony, beer garden and streetside bar.

So, where best to explore the yeasty delights of wheatbeer in all its guises? Any bar with a serious range of beers should be a good bet, with Leuven being the obvious choice, but Bodega and the soon-to-reopen Malthouse also top contenders. One might think that bars with a brewery connection (such as the Brewery Bar at Shed 22 and the Loaded Hog) would do it well, but past experience is not encouraging. There are plenty of other bars around with outside areas and wheat beer on tap (Imbibe, Southern Cross and St Johns spring to mind), so I expect this to be varied and productive month.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Council snippets

It should be time for me to introduce the drink of the month for March, but while I'm working on that post, here are a few important bits of council-related news that couldn't wait.


At last, the council has acknowledged that the exterior of Toi Pōneke needs to reflect the vitality of the creative work going on inside. I wrote way back in 2005 that "stained concrete, blank ground floor windows and faux-domestic brown weatherboards hardly say 'vital creative community'", and now the Public Art Panel has called for "creative concepts" to enliven the façade of the east building. This could be "a sculptural form, a moving image projection or new media installation, light boxes or other work involving light", or anything else the applicant chooses. It seems that any local artist can apply, and the winning artist will get $10,000 towards design, construction and installation. I wonder whether it'll take more than that to counter the grinding mediocrity of the building itself, but it's a welcome move nonetheless.


Another prominent public facility that's up for a design competition is Frank Kitts Park. It won't be a completely open competition, but this month "expressions of interest [will be] sought using the networks of the New Zealand institutes of architecture and landscape architecture", followed by a public exhibition of entries in the middle of the year. The design brief for the redesign has already attracted controversy from the predictable quarters, and meeting all the requirements on a limited budget is going to be extremely challenging, but I'm sure the entrants will come up with something much more exciting than my rough scratchings, and I can't wait to see the options.


A less visible but probably much more significant upgrade to Wellington's infrastructure is also on the way, with a Council commitment to "affordable, high-speed broadband access throughout the city by 2012". It's a great example of the benefits of sharing infrastructure, because by using the trolley bus network and existing ducts as the host for a fibre network, the entire exercise becomes much cheaper. 2012 does seem an awfully long way away, though.


Finally, something less positive. With regional council officers, bus companies, taxi drivers, couriers, Autoholics Anonymous, the Greens and geeks all blaming the bypass for recent gridlock, it looks at the moment to have been a complete disaster. While I've always been opposed to it, I think it may be too early to say "I told you so" and blame increased congestion on induced traffic, as the Greens and Transport 2000+ have done. There's obviously a lot of confusion out there with the temporary layout, and with Vivian St currently spookily deserted it looks like the traffic has had to go elsewhere for the moment. Ongoing bypass-related construction and unrelated roadworks have added to the problem, and I suspect that some people have been so aggravated by recent bus fiascos that they've switched to driving.

Once the new southbound route opens on March 25th (which is earlier than previously suggested), and drivers have sorted out their way through the new intersection layouts, we may see a return to some sort of normality. What I don't expect is any significant improvement on pre-bypass travel times, and while Ghuznee St should theoretically benefit from reduced traffic, will that really be enough to justify $40 million and all that destruction? Of course, the Mayor is still whole-heartedly behind it, and according to a small article in yesterday's Dominion Post (page A7, apparently not online), she
scolded Mr McDavitt for his comments, saying the bypass was not yet finished and such public criticism by an official was unhelpful. ... "Of course it's going to work," she told Mr McDavitt at a meeting of the transport committee.
We should remember that. And by "work", we should take that to mean more than just going back to what we had before, but the full suite of benefits that we were promised. There are a lot of weasel words in there, and not a lot of measurable targets, but if there are not, for example, "fewer delays to people travelling across and through the city" than there were before it opened, then we can indeed say "we told you so".

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Building rumours 8: 140-144 Vivian St

There's been some uncertainty for a while about the future of the vacant lot at 140-144 Vivian St. It used to be home to one of Wellington's red-light institutions, which was already slated for demolition when it mysteriously burned down. Since then there have been occasional advertisements for an apartment block with the bizzare name of "Duel on Vivian", but for the last two years the site seemed to be an entry in an urban weed-growing competition. There are now some new renderings available, and the proposed building now looks quite a bit different.

Old and new versions of the building planned for 140-144 Vivian St, WellingtonThe first difference is that the building appears to be lower, at six storeys rather than seven. Instead of having an imitation second storey at street level, with balconies behind that and the main tower set back, the building goes straight up from the street with a setback at the penthouse level. The Vivian St elevation is detailed very differently, and while it's hard to tell from these images, it looks like the slight indentations along the sides weren't present on the first version, which surely would have been asking for trouble if the neighbouring sites were developed.

There are quite a few things I like about the new version, and some of them are more visible from a different angle:

Rendering of the proposed apartment block at 140-144 Vivian St, WellingtonFirst of all, the height is more appropriate, certainly much more so than some of the things proposed for Taranaki St. The setback of the top floor, and the inset balconies in the middle, break down the mass and stop it looking like a simplistic lump. The insets at the sides give the impression from the street of a much shallower building, rather than one that goes far back into the block, further reducing its apparent bulk. There are also some subtle (if somewhat arbitrary) departures from symmetry, making it less predictable. Above all it seems honest, with none of the floorless fake balconies or suburban pitched roofs of the Knigges Ave atrocity across the road.

Not everything's good, of course. The penthouse floor is poorly resolved and looks like an afterthought. The ground floor looks squashed, and the verandah is too low compared to its neighbours. There are still some big blank walls visible from the street, though presumably they'll be covered in billboards before long. And what's with that sludge green colour scheme?!

So, this is far from a work of architectural genius, and it's best described as very average. But if this were the average standard of new residential developments in the inner city, I think we'd be a lot better off than we are at the moment. I don't think we want a city crammed with architectural show ponies, all clamouring for attention and striving to be different from their neighbours. Most great cities are full of buildings that individually are dull to the point of invisibility, but that together make coherent and liveable streetscapes.

It certainly would be a nice change to have a few Wellington apartment buildings that aspired to greatness, but overall I think that what would benefit our city most is an improvement in the quality of the average building, from mean and almost wilfully uninspired to unassuming but decent. This building could certainly be better, and with very little effort it could be a quite distinguished addition to the street. But even as it is, with the passage of time and the character that only comes from human habitation rather than architecture, a district composed of buildings a bit like this could become a great high-density neighbourhood.