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

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Playing favourites #1: Wellington City Library

Well, the Dom didn't quite get around to publishing the top ten list today, rendering redundant my unseemly rush to post my own list. I know what's on the "official" list, and there are a few there that made me think "damn, I should have chosen that one too". With the list due for publication some time this week, I might as well post about my number one favourite post-WWII building in central Wellington.

You may have gathered that I rather like Modernist architecture (though certainly not Modernist planning), so it may come a surprise that my favourite Wellington building bears many of the hallmarks of postmodernism. But the Wellington City Library is everything that postmodernist architecture was supposed to have been about: design as language and meaning, taking the best from history while being responsive to the needs of a changing society, bringing playfulness, delight and local relevance to the built environment.

Wellington City LibraryIn the corporate world, po-mo rapidly devolved into a debased quasi-classical Legoland of tacked-on anachronistic quackery. But the detailing here is anything but arbitrary. Take a simple column, one that plays a structural role and helps to define space. Note how a classical column erupts into a mass of acanthus leaves at the top, then look to the local flora for inspiration, and your columns become Nikau palms. Use them as a colonnade, then let them out of captivity to colonise the square and mark the gateway to the sea. This is a true integration of art, architecture and urbanism, not the tired old "turd in the plaza" as a cynical afterthought.

This may be the highest achievement of Athfield's "Mies meets Gaudí" phase, though it's perhaps more Foster than Mies (a sinuous curtain wall straight out of Ipswich), and more Rossi than Gaudí (all those rag-rolled walls, small square windows and heavy Bolognese arcades). The interior is more individual, playing airiness against containment while throwing in deconstructive in-jokes and bringing in the warmth of handcrafted and customised furniture. After only a few years, it's already easy to forget how radical it was to bring a café and neon signs into a library: what do you mean, libraries are supposed to be fun? Are you mad?!

It's still not perfect (the columns between the escalators are in exactly the wrong places, and the flow between public and library spaces is a bit awkward), but perfect buildings (Villa Rotonda, Johnson's Glass House) are perhaps too cold and aloof to thrive amid the jostle of an urban environment. This is a living, breathing building, and a vital part of the change that kick-started Wellington's metamorphosis from a grey and apologetic government town into a lively and confident city. It's a building that I always enjoy, as a passer-by or as a visitor. It may not be the most beautiful or elegant building, but it's my favourite.