Maritime 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.
It'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.
Worse 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.