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

Thursday, August 30, 2007


Urban spaces - outside Sweet Mother's KitchenI've been a bit quiet here, but a bit busy elsewhere around the blogosphere. Every now and then on Texture I get the chance to write about something other than cocktails, art, theatre and breakfast, and cover the sort of issues that I normally do here on WellUrban. The most recent example is this article about what makes good urban space, inspired by the upcoming IntensCITY week.

I've tried to make up for my slackness on the Wellingtonista (apart from participating in Wellingtonista drinking social activities, of course) by writing a quick introduction to this year's mayoral campaign. Someone's campaign seems to have got off on completely the wrong foot with one Wellingtonista "Gramma Nazi", though.

I should update my original article about the imaginary ArcHaus tower, but for the moment I've just left a quick note on SkyscraperCity to say that I've heard where this was intended to go: the car yard on the corner of Ghuznee and Leeds St. That's the sort of place where I'd imagine 5-6 storeys to be highly appropriate, but 18?!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The lost commandment

If Moses had lived in Willis St, he might have resorted to this as well:

'The 11th CommandmentNot quite as rude as some of the informal "no parking" signs around, but rather direct nonetheless.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Building rumours 17: towers of the imagination

Regular readers will know that we haven't exactly been kind to ArcHaus around here, but here's a surprising find: a project on their website that exhibits more than a little grace, drama, complexity and invention.

Mystery project by ArcHausI get the feeling, though, that this project will go no further. Unlike their other featured projects, this is just labelled "Inner City Residential Concept", and bears all the hallmarks of a "what if" scenario rather than a serious development proposal. It is described thus:
This concept design was a reaction to a tight Wellington inner city corner site. Using the space and the movement inherent in the site the concept was produced of a building that unrolls as the views progress. The curving form was designed to respond to the surrounding more sensitive environment by never turning a blank wall to its surroundings, the delicate curves allowing the building to unfold, even on the site boundaries. The height of the building was based upon use of the discretionary limits to allow the massing which would reflect a building that evolves from the rear towards the front of the site.
Does anyone know whether this might indeed be going ahead, and if so, where it would be? I've tried to work out from the context where this might be, and thought first of all of the old Il Casino site, but it doesn't quite fit.

Mystery project by ArcHausI'm not completely won over by this design: the shimmering whiteness may just be the product of a simplified rendering, but it all looks a bit more Gold Coast than Wellington. While the separate treatment of tower and base is a good approach to combining sculptural gestures with the more down-to-earth requirements of street-edge urbanism, the latter seems undeveloped and the juxtaposition is a little too arbitrary. I'd also like to know more about "the surrounding more sensitive environment" before deciding how appropriate its 18-storey scale might be.

But otherwise: wow! This an energetic and even gleeful design, showing modulations in all three dimensions and positively revelling in its verticality. One can almost imagine the downtrodden architects at ArcHaus, traumatised after having to grind out yet another envelope-filling, minimum-spec lump, letting all their creative impulses burst free from the oppression of cynical volume-maximising instructions from developers, and remembering that their CAD software does have a curve function after all. The result is exhilarating, and perhaps even a little overwrought, though some subtle variations in materials could temper the spatial exuberance with some elegance and finesse and produce something really special.

With my earlier provisos in mind, this could be a rare example of "discretionary limits" freeing up the architectural imagination rather than being used purely as a loophole to get more dosh out of the site. It's just a pity that this, of all the ArcHaus projects currently proposed, seems the least likely to go ahead.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Big Competition

aBc competition logoFor those of you who love architectural and urban design competitions, here's a biggie. In the run-up to IntensCITY Week next month, everyone's invited to enter aBc -Connection Through the City, an "ideas competition" that tackles what should be the next big issue for Wellington: movement, infrastructure and urban environment from the Airport via the Basin Reserve to the City.

Among other things, this will give some context to all the issues facing Mt Cook, but it has a much broader scope. Here are a couple of quick quotes from the brief (available as a 136kB A4 flyer or higher-res 2.8MB A1 poster):

The brief asks you to assess the movements, associated infrastructure and urban environment between Wellington Airport and City [THE LINK]; and a site specific consideration of the Basin Reserve, where movement and public space are often in conflict [THE HINGE]. It asks how a design-led solution can resolve a number of issues that face this critical piece of infrastructure – the hinge that connects the city.

Five factors that will inform your ideas and designs:
  • Movement between Wellington Airport and the central city
  • Adelaide Road intensification
  • Basin Reserve
  • Government House
  • National War Memorial / Memorial Park
It is expected that you will use your knowledge of Wellington and experience of transport systems to inform your response. Complete schemes and detailed solutions are not expected. However, ideas that show existing and future potential and that challenge current assumptions about how and why we move are encouraged.
Of particular interest to eternal optimists such as myself is this quote: "Project elements likely to be considered as part of the Ngauranga to Airport Corridor Study [include] a high quality public transport service on its own dedicated right-of-way. This could take the form of either light rail [my emphasis] or a dedicated busway running from the railway station to Newtown along the existing bus route." Even though this competition is sponsored by the council, I'm not so naive to take this as an endorsement by the current council of light rail as an option for the much-delayed Ngauranga to Airport Study. Nevertheless, it's a great opportunity to push for creative and forward-looking transport solutions that also look at the broader picture of urban form, public space, heritage and urban experience.

aBc competition - area of interestIf you're interested, you'll have to register by Friday the 7th of September and have your entry in by the 24th. It should consist of two A1 pages, plus a written explanation of up to 250 words, and you'll get to see your entry exhibited in the foyer of the State Insurance Building (a much underrated public space) as part of the IntensCITY events. Given my previous posts on these topics, you won't be surprised to know that my mind's already ticking over!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Film and architecture

Apologies for the late notice (I've only just found out myself), but the 2007 Jasmax Architectural Film Festival starts today. Here's a quick summary of the programme (all films are at the Penthouse cinema).

Thursday 23rd August
1:00pm: Philip Johnson – Diary of an eccentric Architect
2:35pm: The Concrete Revolution

Friday 24th August
1:00pm: Renzo Piano – Piece by Piece
2:20pm: Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan
6:30pm: The Rural Studio
7:50pm: A Crude Awakening – Oil Crash

Saturday 25th August
1:00pm: City of Dreams
2:15pm: HERZOG & DE MEURON DOUBLE FEATURE (Tate Modern and The Alchemy of Building)
6:30pm: Renzo Piano – Piece by Piece
7:50pm: Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan

Sunday 26th August
12:10pm: The Rural Studio
1:30pm: A Crude Awakening – Oil Crash
5:40pm: City of Dreams

Monday 27th August
1:00pm: Renzo Piano – Piece by Piece
6:30pm: Philip Johnson – Diary of an eccentric Architect
7:50pm: Antonello and the Architect

Tuesday 28th August
1:00 pm: Philip Johnson – Diary of an eccentric Architect
2:20 pm: Antonello and the Architect
6:30 pm: The Rural Studio
7:50 pm: Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Good sports

There's a Waterfront Development Subcommittee meeting on tomorrow night, and for once, I'm not going to put myself through all that pain. While there's no single development up for specific debate, this time, feedback is due on the entire draft Waterfront Development Plan, so all the interested parties are having their say.

One thing that's different this time is that the submissions aren't dominated by Waterfront Watch. Oh, they'll be there all right, letting everyone know how appalled they are about everything, but this time it's a different group that's making most of the waves. Of the 633 written submissions (250kB PDF), 604 were about the future of indoor sport given the changes to Sheds 1 and 6; and in particular, most of these called for the ground floor of Site 10 to become the new indoors sports venue, along the lines of what I've also been suggesting.

Site 10 at KumutotoIn this case, I can certainly state that I have no vested interest in the outcome: those who know me can attest that I'm not exactly a sports fiend. The tone of some of the submissions seems a bit extreme to me, especially when they suggest that if they can't play indoor football then everyone will become fat. Competitive sport is not the only way to maintain fitness, and if there were no indoor courts in the CBD, there's nothing to stop people joining a gym, doing yoga or going for a walk. There's a reason why indoor football and netball courts are rare in CBDs: they take up a lot of space compared to more "urban-friendly" methods of exercise.

Having said all that, I've always fully supported the presence of indoor sports in the city, and ever since my first post about the Hilton my support for that development has been dependent on the provision of a suitable replacement venue. Given the right location and urban design considerations (i.e. no more blank sheds) indoor sport should be a valuable part of the mixture of uses that make up the waterfront, and it would be a huge loss to thousands of people if the facilities were not replaced. Right now, while the design and uses of the north Kumutoto buildings are still being determined, this is a unique opportunity to influence the process and show that workplaces and indoor recreation can coexist in a dense urban setting.

It does seem that the powers-that-be are taking this seriously. The consultation feedback document (84kB PDF) states:
A working party consisting of representatives from WWL, the Council and Save Our Sport (SOS) has been established for some time to identify solutions for relocating the indoor sports activity in the central city. It was reactivated when the decision was taken to develop the new indoor sports stadium in Cobham Drive. It meets regularly and is currently considering a number of options for indoor sports, one of which is Site 10 [my emphasis]. This working party will also liaise with the commercial operator that leases Sheds 1 and 6 to understand his plans.
I hope that when they consider "a number of options", they take into account the fact that while Site 10 is just as convenient as Shed 1, anywhere much further north will be too far away for many people. A hotel with bars and restaurants will make much better use of a site like the outer T, but indoor sport at Site 10 will be good for the waterfront as well as for the sporty types who would use it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mt Cook summit

Mt Cook has been facing a few changes recently, and the locals have been vocal in their response. The next step is a well-publicised public meeting tomorrow night, and it will be interesting to see what comes out of that.

Quite apart from specific issues of supermarkets, swimming pools and traffic, I get the feeling that Mt Cook has long faced a more fundamental question: one of identity. It's no doubt different for those who live there, but I suspect that even many long-time Wellingtonians don't have a clear image of what or where Mt Cook is, beyond a vague feeling of it being "not the city, but not quite Brooklyn or Newtown". Here is its "official" extent, as recognised by the council, NZ Post and others:

Mt Cook mapMuch of this is certainly what, with some effort, I might recall as being "part of" Mt Cook, but it's difficult to get any coherent sense of Mt Cook as a whole. Some of the factors that lead to this lack of what Kevin Lynch would call "imageability" include:
  • the geographic feature that gave it its name no longer exists;
  • even the eponymous school is outside of the suburb boundaries;
  • the official boundaries include areas (such as Nairn St and the east side of Adelaide Rd) that few people would think of as "Mt Cook";
  • there's no recognisable centre, and hardly any small-scale shopping;
  • the urban fabric ranges from low- to medium-density "character" homes to high-density council housing, light industrial and bulk retail;
  • the most recognisable landmarks (the War Memorial and Massey University) are of national and regional importance, but don't seem to offer many everyday facilities for locals, and act more to physically divide the community than bring it together.
Perhaps the most positive thing that could come out of the various pressures and potential threats on the area is the opportunity to create a focal point for Mt Cook. Okay, so a supermarket hardly counts as a community centre per se, but with the right approach there's no reason why it couldn't become part of one. The block for which it has been proposed is in a slight dip, and could handle some medium-rise development without massive impact on the surroundings.

Tasman St - proposed Pak 'n' Save siteConceivably, this block could have room for a supermarket (which apparently is not intended to follow the standard over-scaled Pak 'n' Save model), the retained BGI building, some apartments, and a combination of small-scale shops and a compact public square on the Tasman St side. That would require not only some much more community-spirited thinking than one has come to expect from corporate developers, and some determinedly proactive planning from the council, but also an acceptance from the residents that more people will be coming to live and shop in their neighbourhood, and that two-storey weatherboard won't be the norm forever.

There have been some accusations of Nimbyism, but I think that the tone of the campaign so far (a few letters to the editor notwithstanding) has been more about positive engagement and sensible planning than a blind resistance to any sort of change. I'm sure that there'll be plenty of anger at tomorrow's meeting, much of it justified, but I like to think that the local community can take this as an opportunity to guide the future of their neighbourhood in a direction that's best for both them and the broader needs of the denser, more urban Wellington of the near future.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Skin deep

Maritime Tower - northwest viewMaritime Tower at 10 Customhouse Quay was controversial from the start, with some allegations that the resource consent process had been manipulated in an unsuccessful bid to get a couple of extra storeys. Now that it's been complete for a while and is starting to feel like part of the cityscape, it's time to appraise its effects.

There's a lot to like about it. While the overall massing is unremarkable, the surface treatment lifts it above what we've come to expect from a spec office building. The "sail" is not quite as dramatic as one might have hoped, but it emphasises the curve of the northeast corner and helps give it an almost Moderne streamlined effect from some angles. From a distance one could almost get the impression that it has a slender lenticular plan rather than the near-square plot of the actual building, though this illusion disappears rather rapidly on approach. The blue-green glass, while it's starting to become a cliché, is quite appropriate for the near-waterfront setting and is one reason why, in my opinion, the real thing looks significantly better than the renders.

Maritime Tower - render vs realIt's still far from perfect. While the quality of detailing is generally what lifts it above the norm, there are a couple of false notes. The top of the sail, where it clears the rest of the building, has some clumsy joins. The corner of the tower is faceted, since the window panels are flat, but the pale blue glass that wraps around the verandah is actually curved, and to my eye the effect is quite dissonant.

Maritime Tower - south elevationWorse than that, the southern elevation is almost completely blank. I know that this anticipates the possibility that another building could one day be built right up to this edge, but in the meantime we're stuck with a looming grey wall for what will be the most commonly seen aspect of the building.

Above all that, one thing grates with me in particular. While Conservation House has attracted some well-deserved praise for its "green" features (locally from the Architectural Centre, and internationally from Grist.org), and the Meridian HQ looks like it will be even better once it's complete, Maritime Tower plays with some of the imagery of green design without delivering. If I remember correctly (and it's hard to tell, since the pages about this project have disappeared from Warren and Mahoney's website), the sail was originally intended to have been part of a double-skin façade. It now seems clear that this element is now purely ornamental, as it's sealed at the bottom and it looks very much like there's no second curtain wall behind it, meaning that the tower will have to rely on mechanical ventilation. Also, the horizontal louvres are too shallow and in the wrong places to provide any useful shading.

It's perhaps a sign of how little we've come to expect from commercial architecture that, despite all my grizzling, I actually rather like it. There are many angles from which it's surprisingly delicate or dramatic, and it has subtleties of colour and rhythm that set it apart from the run of the mill. Is it better than the modest historical building that it so controversially replaced? I'd tentatively say yes, based as much on the extra density and activity that it will bring (a café will open on the ground floor next month) as on architectural merit, though I suppose that fans of stripped classical won't agree. It could have done with being either narrower or taller (perhaps those extra floors would have been a good idea after all?) to give it more appealing proportions, and the courage to have gone through with some real environmental design rather than cosmetics, but nevertheless it's a lot better than it could have been, and a huge leap ahead of most of the apartment towers that are on the way. Perhaps we can now look at this as the bottom line for half-decent office design, and demand greater things from whatever comes next.

Maritime Tower - northwest corner detail

Friday, August 17, 2007

Kumutoto green

Here's the first signs of the revamped public space at Kumutoto nearing completion: pohutukawa and grasses being planted along the western side of the Steamship Wharf building.

Planting at KumutotoI was a little disappointed when I first found that the small raised lawns originally planned for the area weren't included in the revised designs, as we can't quite count this as "green space". But now I see that they're taking quite a clever approach by planting rows of tussock at irregular intervals between concrete strips, as it'll create the impression of walking through a lot of greenery while being usable in all weathers (which is something that can't be said for lawn). If they do get around to building the winning entry in the "toilet competition", which would be sited just behind where the background tree is, then this section of the "lane" will be a very pleasant public space. I just wish I could post some picture of the spectacular winning entry, but they're not for public distribution yet.

The main Kumutoto Plaza won't be ready until nearly the end of the year, but according to Meridian Energy, they'll be moving into their new HQ in just a couple of months' time. Whether or not there's a lot of literal green in the public spaces, the building will be even "greener" than I'd thought, incorporating some solar electricity generation as well as solar hot water. There's still no (public) word on what will be going in the ground floor, but the building itself just gets better and better the closer it gets to completion, and it should be a suitable flagship not just for sustainable design but for good urbanism and inspirational architecture as well.

Corner of the Meridian building at Kumutoto

Moving pictures

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Watermark development, replacing Rialto and Wellington MarketsAfter much speculation, there's now a timetable for when the Rialto and Wellington Markets will have to move: according to an article in Wednesday's Dominion Post, "the market building would be demolished before Christmas, while the three cinemas would be vacated by the end of the year."

In my earlier discussions on the subject, I speculated about where the market might move to, but not about the Rialto. While I think most cinemagoers would agree that the current layout and facilities leave a lot to be desired, it would be a huge blow to Wellington if it disappeared entirely. Rialto's owners are actively looking for a replacement location, and while they expect to make an announcement soon, it's hard to imagine where it might go. While the existing theatres aren't huge, I can't think of any existing vacant buildings into which three cinemas could be inserted at short notice, so perhaps it would have to be part of a new development.

There are plenty of development sites just down the road in Wakefield St. The rear of Courtenay Central has supposedly been earmarked for a five-screen Angelika Film Centre complex for some time now, but there's little sign of progress. Across the road, the old service station next to what was until recently the Warehouse is crying out for a productive use, and a combination of cinema, retail and residential could work quite nicely there.

Perhaps it's time to think further afield, and with the surge in residential developments in SoCo, perhaps some of the underutilised sites further up Tory or Taranaki streets could work well. When you think about it, the Cuba Quarter seems a natural place for arthouse cinema, so perhaps some of the vacant sites around Ghuznee St could be worth a look: for example, the corner of Leeds and Ghuznee St, or the land parcels between Bute St and Garrett St that were recently sold. In a sense, moviegoing is an introspective activity that doesn't lend itself to active edges and the other tenets of good urbanism, but cinemas and theatres generate a lot of coming and going, and usually have associated shops and café/bars that bring a lot of activity to the street. Thus, any replacement site should be able to add to its surroundings, and a brand new complex certainly wouldn't go amiss.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Jafa wars

Last month, media person, sometime blogger and reluctant man-about-town Damien Christie wrote an article for Metro about everything that's wrong with Wellington. I know that's old news by now, but I've deliberately taken a while to respond here, partly because it was hard to tell how much of it was consciously "shallow Jafa" self-parody and how much was real. Besides, Che has done a good job of replying, but I thought it was time to have a go.

Apart from the usual jibes about the weather and public servants, the article mostly boiled down to the complaints that (a) you keep bumping into people you know, so it's hard to be a misanthropic slapper, and (b) we have too many intellectuals and bohemians and not enough celebrities.

On the first point, I can agree a little bit: there is something appealing about the anonymity of a really big city (though Auckland hardly counts as that, either). But is there really anything wrong with bumping into people you know when you're out for a walk or a drink? Most of us actually enjoy social contact, and relish the fact that (many) Wellington streets are functioning urban public spaces rather than just roads where we can all whiz past in the splendid isolation of our cars while going from one suburb to another. If you feel constrained by that, then either you should widen your circle of friends beyond a narrow clique of media and PR people, or take it as a hint to treat your fellow human beings with decency and respect.

But I'm certainly not going to complain about it being hard to find a bunch of publicity whores to turn up to the launch of a new car. As I wrote elsewhere about a night that was full of Wellington's equivalent of "celebs":
I spent some time talking to a certain Aucklander "in exile" who had just written a scathing article claiming that Wellington isn't a real city because it doesn't have celebrities. Maybe we don't: instead, we have people who are well-known for their talent, imagination and achievements, rather than for their busts (drugs or otherwise). Sounds like a fair swap to me.
I don't actually hate Auckland: I enjoyed much of the two years that I lived there in the Nineties. But I do hate the way that it's laid out, with all the implications that that has for social disconnection and environmental destruction, and the fact that it's pretty much impossible to live there without a car. Contrary to Christie's assertion that Wellington is "a heart without a city", I've always felt that downtown Wellington feels more like the centre of a real city than Auckland does. That's confirmed by census figures that show that Wellington's CBD has more workers than Auckland's in a smaller space, and if you expand the boundaries of Wellington's CBD to include inner suburbs, it has more workers and residents than the same space in central Auckland.

So, if you're a city person, the fact that there's several times the population between Henderson, Orewa and Papakura as there is between Waikanae, Birchville and Seatoun doesn't really matter: if they're all spread out in office parks and malls then you're unlikely to bump into them on a daily basis, and they don't factor into the sense of bustle and activity that makes a city. Wellington could definitely do with more people (maybe twice the population in a similar space would be ideal), but where they live, work and shop has at least as much influence on the sense of urbanity as sheer weight of numbers does.

He also digs out the old cliché that in Wellington "You're either a bureaucrat, or someone in the private sector whose income derives from supplying bureaucrats." We could certainly do with a broader economic base, but that's a vast exaggeration: I worked in Wellington for nearly 15 years without knowing anyone who worked for the core public service. And that's a bit rich given that he works for TVNZ, which is, erm, the government-owned public broadcaster.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Friday snippets

What's happening with Ferg's empire? The Dragon Boat Festival may have been saved almost straight away from what appeared to be imminent doom, but after years of promises, he's finally given up on plans for a wine bar in what should some day be West Courtenay Park. Apart from any financial considerations, according to the Dom he "felt uncomfortable with public comments against the agreement". By "public comments", I assume he's referring to Jack Ruben's outbursts late last year. This just shows that the deal that raised Ruben's ire wasn't quite as sweet for the proprietor and tough on the ratepayer as he claimed: quite the opposite in fact.

Moving on to someone with a bit more hospitality experience, John McGrath is running for Mayor. While Wednesday's Dominion Post article said nothing about his policies, there's a lot more in yesterday's Wellingtonian and in McGrath's press release. His policies include: debt reduction, rates relief for business, council amalgamation, infrastructure (which in his case means roading, especially Transmission Gully - which sits rather strangely with his other stated goal of "preserving the natural environment") and, erm, "No more Blanket man". None of which would come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the clientèle of his bars. Other than that, he's mostly just promoting himself as a marketing whiz, though even that comes with a bizarre touch when he says "I'm the man with the Mojo". Really? I knew he owned a lot of beery bars full of real estate agents and property developers, but I didn't know he'd branched out into coffee chains.

It's interesting to read that Vibrant Wellington have pulled out of their campaign against Harbour Quays. Some of that might be due to what they could count as a victory: "A big factor in the group pulling the plug was the mixed uses proposed for the site in the council's draft district plan." While the mixed uses in the plan may not be quite as diverse as the Kemp Report called for, and it'll still have some butt-ugly buildings, it's good to see that their campaign may have had some effect. On the other hand, some of the fears stirred up by Vibrant Wellington may have been a little exaggerated. It may be true that many large companies and government departments are moving away from what was the core CBD in search of newer, bigger offices, but anecdote and personal experience suggests that the old buildings are now providing much-needed small spaces for start-up businesses. Who knows: maybe Featherston St will be the new Te Aro?

At the other end of town, while it's been common knowledge for a while that the council intends the Adelaide Rd area to be one location for residential growth, the article in Tuesday's Dom contained a couple of interesting points. First, that the council would consider waiving development contributions there, as long as the savings were passed on to first-home buyers, for a potential saving of up to $15,000. That sounds reasonable to me, but I'd like to see it tied to actual reductions in infrastructure requirements: for instance, green roofs place less stress on stormwater systems by reducing runoff, so part of the reduction could be dependent on installing green roofs on the buildings. Secondly, according to planning director Ernst Zollner, "it would be low-rise developments, no more than three storeys". Three storeys seems about right for the quieter, smaller-scale residential streets up towards Tasman St, but surely a wide arterial like Adelaide Rd (which could potentially be even wider, if plans for a bus lane go ahead) could handle something more substantial. It's worth further investigation, but I'd have thought that something like six storeys along Adelaide Rd itself would not only provide greater density, but create a more attractive streetscape.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A sporting site

Submissions on the Draft Waterfront Development Plan close on Friday, and while my opinion on most of it is just "get on with it", there's one area where I'll be promoting a specific change. While the ground floors of Sites 8, 9 and 10 have been designated simply as "retail", I think that Site 10 should be explicitly set aside as an indoor sports facility to replace Sheds 1 and 6. I first suggested this about six months ago, and the Save Our Sport lobby group is now pushing for the same solution, so this seems like a good chance to try to get the concept formally adopted by the council and Wellington Waterfront Ltd.

Ralph from Save Our Sport asked me to come up with a rough layout to see if it might work within the proposed footprint for Site 10. I think that it is possible to fit three 27m x 15m courts (slightly smaller than the current courts, but acceptable) into a 5m-high ground floor, and still have just enough room for all the services required for access to the office floors above, plus some basic amenities and even a small café. Here's a very rough render, looking from the south:

Proposal for indoor sports facilities at Kumutoto Site 10The three courts are placed hard up against the walls on two sides, as at Shed 1, and are separated by nets. There's a 2m-wide access way along the right hand side, which still leaves room for stair- or lift-wells to the office floors and "pods" containing toilets, showers, changing facilities or vending machines. This leaves a space at the south that's nearly 10m deep: this would allow plenty of space for a lobby providing access to the upper floors, and while some of the remaining space could be used to make the courts slightly longer, I'd suggest a different use. A mezzanine floor provides office space for the sports centre administration, while the ground floor could be a casual café and shop that would not only be a useful facility for the users of the courts, but could also provide an active edge when the courts aren't in use. It's not an absolute necessity, and it could be sacrificed if I've missed out any services or access requirements for the offices. What should be essential, though, is that the walls should be transparent wherever possible, providing natural light while avoiding the blank edges that make Shed 1 so unattractive at the moment.

Site 10 makes sense for so many reasons:
  • it's nearly as convenient as Shed 1, and in fact it should be closer for a lot of CBD workers;
  • combining indoor sports with offices above is an efficient use of space;
  • it's close to the city's main transport hub;
  • there are few (if any) other sites in the CBD with sufficient space;
  • the location is likely to be the least attractive part of Kumutoto for retailers, so there's less opportunity cost in giving up the space;
  • it will bring activity to an area that would otherwise struggle to attract visitors;
  • other uses could be found for the courts outside of scheduled games (early morning gym sessions, Sunday markets, evening functions);
  • it would complement the retail, office, residential, cultural and open space uses planned for the rest of Kumutoto, making it truly a mixed-use precinct.
If you agree, you have until Friday to let the council know.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Drink of the month: Whisky

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Whisky monthSome have suggested that a month of absinthe may have been bad for my health, so for August I'm switching to something medicinal and health-giving: whisky. I'll leave it to good ol' Wikipedia to give you the background, but let's just say that there's a lot of variety (from bourbon & rye to Irish whiskey and the proper stuff - Scotch) and I'm thirsty.

I'm normally a bit of a purist, and I prefer my dram either straight up, or in the case of cask strength, with a splash of spring water. But for this month I'll broaden my explorations beyond my peaty comfort zone and try a few whisk(e)y cocktails. In some people's opinion, only American whiskeys are sweet and bland enough to lend themselves to mixing, but there are a few recognised cocktails that call for the use of Scotch.

Blood and Sand cocktail at PlumThe Rob Roy is a simple classic, and not just because it was invented at Moe's. Rusty Nails and Whisky Macs are appropriately warming for a late winter's night, and consideration must be given to the dangerously moreish Blood and Sand. For those less inclined to purity, the mixological mad scientists at places like Imbibe and Hawthorn Lounge have been known to play with dangerous ingredients (such as the fierce iodine and seaweed bomb that is Laphroaig) in their pursuit of the outer limits.

Of course, a good whisky is more than complex enough to savour on its own, and to seek the best selections around town it'll be worth venturing beyond my usual haunts into noted dens of malty goodness such as The Dubliner and The Dog & Bone. Where are your picks for the best selections and the most obscure drams that an old-time maltworm such as myself should try?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Building rumours 16: Thorndon rising?

Trawling the web for renderings of proposed buildings can give one an early hint of what's on the way, but you have to take the results with a bit of caution. Developers, architects and real estate agents often post images of buildings long before the design is finalised, the project receives consent and in some cases before the land is even acquired, so the buildings may end up substantially different or never even get built. Websites for architectural illustrators can be even more misleading for the unwary, as some of the images may have never been intended to see the light of day. With that in mind, it's still worth looking at what could be, if they're serious, some very significant developments as shown on Stantiall Studio's site.

The first image is not too much of a surprise: it's of "Pipitea Plaza", an office development proposed by the Tenths Trust on some of their land on Pipitea St. I've seen renderings before in the Dominion Post, but this is the first I've seen online, and from a different angle.
Rendering of Pipitea PlazaWhile most architectural renderings seem to fall into the "Impress the client" category, I think this belongs to the opposite school: "Don't scare the neighbours". The proposal has drawn a bit of flak from the friends of Old St Paul's, ostensibly because the additional shading would cause the timbers of the old church to dry out and even fall to pieces. Now, I'm no expert on the properties of old wood, and maybe this rendering is doing too good a job of making the new building look insignificant, but that really does sound rather far-fetched to me.

Down the other end of Pipitea St, on the site of the currently derelict Thorndon Tavern, a much larger development is (apparently) being considered by Mainzeal.
Rendering of Mainzeal developmentWhile I quite like the pseudo-random patterning of the windows, there's no disguising the stolid rectilinearity of this building. Mainzeal were also the contractors behind two mediocre lumps in the vicinity: Defence House and the rapidly-rising Vogel "Integrated Campus". The family resemblance is depressingly obvious, and it's almost as if they're going out of their way to continue the leaden precedent set by the Ministry of Works back in the sixties and seventies.

This next one is rather different, and one that I've heard a bit about from other sources: a street-level extension to the National Library.
Rendering of National Library additionThe additions look very clean and light (assisted by one of Stantiall's trademark twilight renderings), and by replacing the currently forbidding shuttered concrete with a much more welcoming entrance that comes properly to the street edge it could be a good move from an urbanist perspective. But I'm a little worried that the library (which I have much more affection for than some critics) will lose some of its integrity and boldness of form, and it makes Athfields' very recently completed glass entrance seem like a waste of effort.

Finally, something that came as a complete, and rather pleasant, surprise: a tall and very glassy tower on Kate Sheppard Place.
Rendering of 'Kate Sheppard Place' developmentIt's hard to tell for sure whether the perspective might be misleading, but it looks like there are some complex angles going on here, with perhaps even a slight lean towards the east in the upper floors. It's a seductive image of a sleek, daring and crystalline building that shows up the neighbouring Environment House for the timid mediocrity that it really is (can anyone explain to me why it had to get cheap imitations of stripped classical detailing slapped over its façade?). It's impossible to tell from this angle how well it would relate to the street, and there's clearly not a lot of detail to go on, but it's a heartening sign that someone's thinking (literally) outside of the box when it comes to office tower design.

Of course, most of this is speculation, and with the exception of Pipitea Plaza and possibly the National Library, I haven't come across any other information that might attest to the status of these renderings. The appearance of so many illustrations by the same studio in a small area seems a strong hint to me that these may be part of the "Capital Precinct" urban design project, and some of them may just be conceptual drawings to illustrate how major buildings could conceivably fit into the overall scheme, rather than concrete proposals. As usual, I'm opening the floor to confirmations, denials, opinions and gossip.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Absinthe round-up

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I have to admit that my month of absinthe was a little disappointing. I had hoped that someone, somewhere had managed to track down some of the really good stuff (such as something by Ted Breaux), but no: the best I could find was La Fée Parisian. That was on offer at the French (Simply Paris, Le Métropolitain) and New Orleans (Sweet Mother's Kitchen) establishments, as well as most of the top cocktail bars (Matterhorn, Imbibe, Hawthorn Lounge). Surprisingly, Motel serves Pernod 68, which one might expect to be top quality, but turns out to be characterless and not much more than a strong pastis. Other places settle for even lesser imitations of absinthe, such as Absente, Trenet and the almost undrinkable Dedo or Hapsburg.

In the absence of anything truly outstanding, maybe mixing is the best approach, and I drank my share of absinthe cocktails during July. My favourite Sazerac was a beautifully-balanced concoction at Matterhorn, though Sweet Mother's wasn't far behind. Hawthorn attempted a half-way house between a Sazerac and the old-style Sazerac Rex, but I think it just shows that blending Rye and Cognac isn't such a good idea. Much more appealing was Matterhorn's take on that other classic absinthe cocktail, Hemingway's favourite, Death in the Afternoon. It's not on the menu, but I went along with Jamie's suggestion of Prosecco in place of Champagne, and it seems to work a treat: light and refreshing, and without the clash of flavours that a yeasty, toasty Champagne might produce. I wish I could tell you about their Soul Manhattan, and how well absinthe goes with bourbon and Cherry Heering, but I'm afraid I can't remember much of that night. That's an occupational hazard of the professional absintheur.

Or perhaps not. Absinthe should actually be thought of as an ideal aperitif, taken at l'heure vert to relax the mind and stimulate the appetite, rather than just as a quick way to get well and truly wasted. That seems to be the attitude that some bars take (such as the Southern Cross, where the bartender said that they had no absinthe, but if I wanted a strong shot, how about some Jägermeister?), and it may be the reason why it's so hard to find good absinthe here: if you're not going to taste it, why bother with the real stuff? Really good absinthe is no more expensive overseas than a good single malt or Cognac, so given that some bars go out of the way to track down and import rare and exquisite spirits, one might hope that someone would take absinthe seriously enough to do the same.

Friday, August 03, 2007

It's a competitive world

Here's a quick round-up of some recent and upcoming architectural competitions.

The Road Works winners were announced last night, and it was interesting to note that my entry was not the only one to ignore the MCH-sanctioned plan to move Buckle St closer to Mt Cook School: in fact, everyone rejected that in favour of a bridge, trench or simply leaving the road where it is. I didn't get a chance to note down the names of the winning team (I hope to rectify that soon), but here's some blurry photos of their scheme, which was one of the most subtle and sensible ones on offer.

Winning entry in the Road Works competitionThis scheme follows the history of excavation of Mt Cook, forming a crater-like amphitheatre between the Carillion and the school. The one really controversial aspect of this is that the road enters this gentle dip and goes through a 10kph "shared zone" for both cars and pedestrians. For major events, State Highway 1 would have to be closed, which is an intentional aspect of the scheme's investigation of the concept of "interference" between stillness and movement. But can you imagine Transit's reaction?

Following up from this, on August 10th the brief will be announced for another, much more wide-ranging competition. This one will be called ABC - Connection Through to the City, and is intended to "raise the level of debate about transport movements and the relationship between transport and urban spaces". Buckle St will once again be part of the focus, since it examines the vital connections from the airport to the city and beyond. The entries will be displayed during IntensCITY Week, of which I will say much more later.

The winner of the Kumutoto public toilets competition has also been decided, and while I've been told what it is, it's not supposed to be public knowledge until Wellington Waterfront Ltd have had a chance to assess its physical and financial viability. What I can say is that the winning scheme looks damned good, and as far as I'm aware there's really nothing quite like it in New Zealand architecture.

And speaking of Kumutoto, at the moment half of the city's architects will be furiously putting the finishing touches on their entries for sites 8, 9 and 10. This is the next area of the waterfront set for some big, and with any luck, exciting changes, and while it should all be in line with the long-standing masterplan and design brief for the area, I'm looking forward to seeing the specific designs for the buildings and public space. Not all of the final uses for those buildings will have been determined yet, and with the Draft Waterfront Development Plan currently undergoing consultation, now might be a good time to push for specific ground floor uses, such as an indoor sports centre. I'll be writing more on the subject soon.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Any port in a storm

The long-awaited Port Café at Chaffers Dock finally opened yesterday, and I had a chance to pop in for lunch today. I nearly had a heart attack, but not from the grease: the mains were mostly over $20, which was not what I was expecting from a casual café and takeaway! It turns out that there's a separate takeaway menu, with fillets for around a tenner and "family feasts" starting at $29.95 for 6 fish & chips, which sounds like much better value, and a rather good fishburger & chips for $14.90.

Fishburger at The Port CafeOne should remember that this is a "gourmet seafood restaurant" rather than the corner chippie, and certainly the crumbed fillets and beer-battered chips are a step or two above the takeaway norm. There's also a counter with a rather glorious array of brightly-coloured fresh salmon, tuna and the like, all of which is reminiscent of the Wellington Trawling Company in Cuba St and gives it something of a "fish market" feeling. They also have a BYO license (though I'm not 100% sure whether that's active yet), making this a reasonable choice for a (relatively) cheap & cheerful dinner.

The counter at The Port CafeCombining "gourmet seafood" and takeaways is a tricky balancing act, and I'm not sure they've quite pulled it off. There are a few attempts to make the décor interesting, but the indoor chairs look like they've been grabbed from a clearance sale at Warehouse Stationery, and they really need to do something about the music (Linkin Park, anyone?). Nevertheless, it's great to have another evening dining venue on the waterfront, and it's about time that we had some fish & chips available right next to both the marina and Waitangi Park. Plenty of other people seem to think so too: it's only been open for a day, and it's already attracting plenty of custom.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

One-way traffic

I spent a large portion of the weekend working on my entry for the Road Works competition, and though the winners will not be announced until tomorrow night (6pm at the School of Architecture, if you're interested), the judges have already made their decisions, so I'm free to post my entry here. I actually started work on two entries (a serious one and one that if not exactly frivolous, is more rhetorical than buildable), but in the end I only had time to finish the latter. If I get the chance, I may write up my serious suggestion for Buckle St and post it here soon, but for the moment here's my actual entry, reformatted for the web and with a few embarrassing typos cleaned up.

One-way traffic: a memorial to the end of the car age

'Nodding Donkey' plan for Memorial ParkThis is a proposal for an ultimate solution to traffic congestion in Wellington. As burying SH1 completely has been rejected as too expensive, this includes only the entrance, and no exit. Instead, cars enter a subterranean recycling and crushing centre, where the driver receives a ticket for a year's free public transport in exchange (a Light Rail hub is nearby, to make the continuation of the journey as easy as possible).

The recycling is marked by an enormous "Nodding Donkey" oil pump, but instead of extracting oil from the ground, it acts to crush any non-recyclable components and drive them back into the earth from where they came. As the brief calls for allied countries to be able to install their own memorials, there is space for redundant cars symbolic of these countries (a Holden, a Chrysler, maybe a Reliant Robin) to be embedded into the ground as headstones to mark the sacrifices that human beings, cities and the planet have made in order to feed the now-vanishing age of the automobile.

'Nodding Donkey' plan for Memorial Park