WellUrban

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

Monday, October 01, 2007

IntensCITY notes: Stuart Niven


Stuart Niven gives a lecture at IntensCITYI didn't make it to the first of the Wellington 1990-2040 lecture series that I mentioned last week, but I hope to attend them all this week. There's a lot to think about in each talk, so for the moment I'll just write up some quick notes, starting with today's session featuring Stuart Niven.

It seems hard to believe now, but when he was appointed as Wellington City Council's urban designer in 1993, his was the first such position in New Zealand. He made the point that urban design is about "custodianship of the public environment", and while that is primarily outdoor space, it is defined by buildings and the way in which their interior life engages with the surroundings.

Importantly, this public realm is experienced predominantly by pedestrians, and he makes no apologies for the general bias among urban designers towards pedestrians! He even described himself as having a "commitment to jaywalking", and expressed his disappointment that Jervois and Customhouse Quays, despite the promises made about the bypass, were still "a landscape of war" dominated by traffic and unnecessary turning lanes.

He made positive comments at the start about the opposition to Variation 17, but he responded to a question from a Waterfront Watch type by saying that the argument about whether or not to build on the waterfront was a "stupid debate" compared to the real question: what is the purpose of the waterfront? His answer to his own question is one that I heartily agree with: it should become a fine piece of the city, with good public spaces, that happens to be by the water. It's important that people live and work there as well as all the other activities that can go on; we shouldn't remove life from the waterfront; and "building a field" there would not just be bad urban design, but actively anti-urban.

The most surprising part of his talk referred to his current role in Victoria, where he described the state government as interventionist. In areas of greater Melbourne where major development is occurring (so-called "activity centres"), not only public but also significant private buildings have to go through what sounds like a complex process to ensure high quality design. I didn't quite catch the details, but it sounds as if developers have to choose from a pool of 30-35 architectural firms who have been judged to be "skilful, sophisticated and clever about a building's presentation to the public". I wrote recently about what seemed to me a much greater level of quality and adventurousness among Melbourne buildings, compared to what Niven calls "the sheer poor quality of city buildings" in Wellington, where we have "not many examples of finely-gauged, thoughtful large buildings". Could it happen here? Imagine the cries from developers about "infringing on private property rights"!

11 Comments:

At 8:17 AM, October 02, 2007, Anonymous Monique said...

Stuart made the point that the "interventionist" central governmnent had legislated to make such local government policy legal, thus avoiding any potential legal action from developers crying foul.

Much needed here!

 
At 8:48 AM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Evad Rehtona said...

But he added that if you have 30 or so architects in the pool, it's hard to argue unfair favoritism or bias.

He also said the pool is constantly under review and other firms can at any time put forward evidence they are of sufficiant character and should be added to it.

He illustrated this part of his talk with a slide of the architectural dogs breakfast that is Manners Mall....

 
At 8:50 AM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Yes, good point. Things are complicated by the three levels of government there, and I think it was the Victoria state government he described as interventionist, rather than the federal, though that would imply central government legislation here.

One thing I wasn't convinced about is that the process seems to concentrate on assessing whether or not architects are any good, rather than developers. It seems to me that here, the architects of some of the worst buildings are also capable of decent architecture given a decent brief, and that no architect could deliver quality given the expectations of some developers. On the other hand, it could mean that any firm that's too willing to bend over for the client to provide bad buildings would be removed from the approved list, and the fear of that could make them work harder to convince their clients of the value of good urban design.

 
At 9:09 AM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Will de Cleene said...

Tom, can you give an example of a 'good developer'? It really does sound like an oxymoron. From what I've observed, the developer tends to want to maximise their return, therefore architects are generally given the same brief: variations on a cube.

 
At 9:50 AM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Tom, can you give an example of a 'good developer'? It really does sound like an oxymoron."

As much as I rant about certain developers here, the fact is that without developers I'd have nowhere to live. Except in the rare (and hardly inspiring) cases of completely planned cities, without property developers cities wouldn't exist. So no, I don't think that's an oxymoron.

It's hard for me (and possibly legally dubious) to make statements on who's a "good developer", as that would include judgements on things like ethics, financial propriety, paying their contractors promptly and other business aspects to which I'm not privy. But I can suggest the names of some developers who have, on at least some occasions, been "skilful, sophisticated and clever about a building's presentation to the public" as Niven put it.

Ian Cassels (formerly Whats New Ltd, now The Wellington Company): while there are plenty of people who don't like the build quality of things such as the Left Bank, I think that that and the Hannahs Factory are brave and quite inspiring experiments in urbanism, far beyond what most developers would consider. The DoC building is excellent in its own way, and I'm intrigued to see what comes out of the "Willis Central" idea.

Willis Bond: responsible for redevelopment of the Brewery bar, Odlins building and Free Ambulance Building, currently constructing the Chews Lane development and planning to redevelop the OPT. Generally a sensitive approach to heritage (though there's a bit of facadism going on at Chews Lane), with what looks to me like really good materials and construction. There's a commitment to ground floor activity and mixed use, plus some architecture which, while not exactly groundbreaking, is usually a positive addition to the city.

Globe Holdings: they're all over the place really, but have been behind two of my favourite apartment buildings in Wellington, Summit on Molesworth and Croxley Mills. They also built the Hub and Lofts in Victoria St, which I quite like for their quirky exterior and good living spaces. On the other hand, they can also be blamed for Knigges Ave.

Stratum Management: okay, so buildings like Portal, Piermont, Monument and the newly launched Republic are all pretty much "variations on a cube", but I think they're rather good variations, and I've got enough of the Modernist in me to quite like cubes at times. I could quibble over a storey or two in height, and wish for a little more variation in places, but there seems to be an attention to detail and quality materials that sets them slightly apart from the most cynical developers.

 
At 10:45 AM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Erentz said...

He also stressed a very big point (a couple of times) about the importance of having good negotiators on the council in order to negotiate better designs with developers.

I think the pool of architects is a great idea. If nothing it certainly makes a statement to both the architects and developers that we're sick of inferior buildings, you need to lift your game.

The thing that keeps architecture firms pressing for better developments is that they will be removed at the next 4 year cycle, since they wont have a decent body of good quality work to show. So they have to during that time show good work. Possible this flows on to the developers through the pressue the architects show, and by the fact that at a certain point architecture firms will have to say (in some nice way) "no, we can't develop this" in order to maintain a good record for the next review.

I think it's a brilliant idea.

 
At 11:12 AM, October 02, 2007, Anonymous monique said...

One qualm I have is how a just-starting-out architect/ architecture firm is supposed to get on the "good" list in the first place.

Some might argue that it's hard as it is (and I would agree), but I believe Melbourne's scheme could add another obstacle to getting new/ fresh ideas from younger unknown architects.

Maybe an allowance for wild card selections could help with this?

My colleague has also made the point that perhaps the Wellington architectural community (and Wellington in general)is a tad too small for such a proposal.

 
At 11:28 AM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"One qualm I have is how a just-starting-out architect/ architecture firm is supposed to get on the "good" list in the first place."

Stuart pointed out to me later that it only applies to buildings over a certain size (4-5 storeys, I think) and in designated "activity centres", so there would be opportunities for new firms to build a reputation for quality smaller buildings or with buildings outside those areas before applying for the "good list". That may not be too much different from the current situation: how often do freshly qualified architects get commissions for major office towers or apartment buildings at the moment?

"Maybe an allowance for wild card selections could help with this?"

That might help, though another option might be to hold open competitions for public buildings, giving an opportunity for fresher or more unusual ideas to come to the judges' attention.

"perhaps the Wellington architectural community (and Wellington in general)is a tad too small for such a proposal."

Quite possibly, but perhaps a NZ-wide "good list" would work, given that NZ's population isn't far off that of Victoria. Not all major Wellington buildings are by local architects at the moment anyway, and a bit more mixing it up across the main centres could bring a bit of freshness of its own.

 
At 12:35 PM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Erentz said...

Speaking of forgettable buildings. See the announcement for 1 Featherston St in today's paper. A large, but perhaps entirely forgettable building.

Does anyone know if there is some way you can make a submission on developments like this? Is it only when they need resource consent you can do it? The reason I ask is I think the council should consider maintaining an underground easement right through this block for a possible tunnel from the station through to Customhouse Quay (for tram-trains or the Opus subway route). And therefore the building should be suitably designed for this. (There is no helping the existing Post Office building, but this is long term planning we're talking about.) It is probably too late to do anything unless the council simply "negotiated" it with the developer. Quick mspaint picture describing what I mean at http://simwgtn.blogspot.com/2007/10/underground-easement.html

 
At 2:44 PM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"See the announcement for 1 Featherston St in today's paper. A large, but perhaps entirely forgettable building."

Perhaps "forgettable" is not in itself a bad attribute for urban buildings, since a street full of buildings all crying "look at me!" would be an aesthetic disaster. Anyway, "forgettable" is better than "memorably hideous", and it could have been worse.

There's a scan over on SkyscraperCity, which you can compare to some earlier renders on a post I wrote a while ago. The big difference is that it now comes across as two buildings rather than one enormous monolith. The Featherston St side has a nice curve to it, and what looks like some balconies or fins at the southern end. The Bunny St side looks rather dark and ominous (perhaps appropriate for the tenant?), but at least the alternating pattern of fins every two floors gives some animation to the facade while giving the impression of a smaller building, and perhaps the colour scheme will end up different in the finished product. I have my doubts about the environmental credentials claimed for it (those vertical fins won't do much for the midday sun), but my overall impression is that it's a big improvement on the previous designs.

"Does anyone know if there is some way you can make a submission on developments like this? Is it only when they need resource consent you can do it?"

In fact, only when they need a notified resource consent, and since this was within the height limits and other requirements of the District Plan, there was no submission process.

"I think the council should consider maintaining an underground easement right through this block for a possible tunnel ... It is probably too late to do anything"

Definitely too late, unless you want to go down there right now and ask them to stop work on the foundations! It's an interesting idea about the easement, but it's a long time since the council has considered making forward-thinking plans for anything other than roads.

 
At 8:20 PM, October 02, 2007, Blogger Will de Cleene said...

Thanks for the e.g.'s, Tom. Still not entirely convinced ;-)

I like the concept of approved architects, as long as it doesn't ossify into an Old Boys' Club like the Law Societies and Rotary. Checks and balances could include increased transparency and input, such as published justifications for decisions and counter-arguments.

 

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