IntensCITY notes: Gerald Blunt
Gerald Blunt's talk, New Zealand's Capital Centre: Matching the urban landscape to its national importance, raised a lot of intriguing issues about New Zealand's national identity and Wellington's role as a capital city. There are two broad types of capitals: dominant (e.g. London or Paris, where the capital is also the largest city and financial hub) and designated (such as Washington DC, Brasilia or Canberra, which were explicitly chosen and planned to avoid rivalry between states). Wellington is closer to the second type, since it is not economically or demographically dominant, and was designated as capital because of its geographic centrality. However, Wellington is not an artificial or planned city like the other examples, and thus lacks the grand formal nationalistic gestures associated with such capitals.
This may be entirely appropriate, since the modest, picturesque and informal qualities of our parliamentary precinct suits what many New Zealanders think of as our national character. We have little need for nationalistic symbolism, and planned capitals (full of monuments and grand axial boulevards) often lack character and intimacy. However, our national institutions are stuck within a messy part of town that not only lacks gravitas, but has poor legibility, street edges, public space and connections to the rest of the city.
Hence, the council has been conducting a study into how we could improve what is being tentatively called the "Capital Precinct". This started as an urban design exercise, and produced steps towards concrete designs, such as a framework plan that included improvements to the Molesworth St streetscape, the treatment of Thorndon Quay as an extension of the Golden Mile, public art and monument plans, and distinct "Thorndon Village" and "Pipitea Precinct" nodes. However, an evaluation of the first stage decided that the study would have to include the whole inner city (to encompass Government House, the National Memorial and Te Papa), and should step back a bit to look at what the country as a whole might want to see represented in our capital.
I've heard other reports that this project has stalled somewhat, but it may not be a bad thing to take some time over something so important. The study thus seems to have morphed into something more like a conversation on national identity (so beloved of the current administration) and what that might mean in terms of "pride of place" and "identity by design". It considers both the considerable heritage value of the sites, and how we might move to a future vision of the capital as "a place to talk" which presents a sense of theatre about citizenship, representation and debate.
Some concrete ideas are arising from this, such as opening up some of the buildings (e.g. shifting the National Archives' emphasis from storehouse to showcase), creating a central interpretation centre and moving towards a coherent physical plan (though I wouldn't expect any wholesale Haussmannisation of Thorndon). As befitting the centre of bureaucracy, there'll have to be a lot of work done about funding, administration, land status and even choosing a name for the place before anything physical starts to happen.
Blunt stressed that the current exercise is not about drawing a masterplan, but about "infiltrating thinking", so that a whole range of agencies, institutions, private organisations and individuals start thinking about the urban and symbolic potential of this part of town. Part of that exercise might be to publish a booklet about "our extraordinary democracy": after all, as Michael King wrote, Aotearoa New Zealand was the last major land mass to be settled to humans, yet the first to see full democracy. I'm the sort of person who's usually impatient to see maps and renderings, but I think that this is something that ought not to be rushed.