IntensCITY notes: Stuart Niven
I 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"!