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

Friday, December 28, 2007

Building rumours 21: end-of-year round-up

Here's an assortment of new building news to wrap up 2007, starting from the confirmed and moving towards the more speculative.

Cubana apartment building planned for 158 Cuba StThe apartment building at 158 Cuba St, which one would expect to be approaching construction since the previous building was demolished a little while ago, now has a name and a shiny website: Cubana. The apartment levels appear the same as the earlier model (i.e. rectilinear but with quite a lot of depth and variety), but the Che Guevara artwork on the first floor (which made me cringe earlier) has been replaced by an abstract design of metal and neon circles.

The Metropol apartment proposal for Ghuznee StThe proposal for the corner of Ghuznee and Leeds streets has morphed from a rather surprisingly curvy design into something much more conventional: the Metropol. 14 storeys might seem surprisingly tall for Ghuznee St, but the District Plan height map (1.16MB PDF) does indeed allow a 43m height limit here, and this is a fairly complex design that steps down from a tower on Leeds St, via what look like "townhouses in the sky" above the building that currently houses the Nut Shop, to the height limits set for the Cuba St character area. This is still apparently at the pre-application stage, so it may change before it gets any further.

Telecom Aldgate Centre on Tory St: to become a 'green village'The headline 'Green village' plan for Tory St had my hopes up for a while: is someone finally going to do something worthwhile with that hideous agglomeration of bulk retail at the top of Tory St? Sadly not. But Ian Cassels' plan to convert the Telecom office complex into a combination of apartments, retail, offices and even a retirement home sounds intriguing on many levels. It may be some years off, it may not involve any major new construction, and whether the "sustainable urban village" turns out to be anything more than a fairly conventional mixed use development remains to be seen. But as an opportunity to freshen up some tired architecture, provide some more active edges, turn the surface car parks into decent public space and provide pedestrian connections to Alpha and Tennyson streets, this is a proposal with a lot of potential.

Mysterious wrapping on the former Il CasinoThe much-discussed former Il Casino site currently bears an intriguing giant ribbon and sticker, implying that some sort of gift is about to be presented to the city. Most of us are too cynical to expect any development here to be much of a pleasant surprise, but there is apparently a proposal working its way through the consent process, with some hints of improvement as it proceeds. Despite the news that the site owner is "still considering options for the site", the ribbon would seem to indicate that an advertising campaign (for what one presumes will be apartments) is imminent. That same article seems to put an end to any rumours about a future re-launch of Il Casino, so whether or not any physical remnants of the building remain (and there's not much more than façades left), this corner will never be the same.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The fun police

"Graffiti Alley" between the Left Bank and Ghuznee St may have just been edged out in the Wellingtonista Best Public Art awards, but it's still the most dynamic and democratic site of all. There were some particularly interesting goings-on a couple of weekends ago, and when I walked past early one the evening the masked artists were hard at work; later that evening they were still there, but being sternly spoken to by the boys in blue. I'm not sure whether anyone was arrested, or whether the police attention was due to anything other than the graffiti action, but the end results were certainly more than your average tagger's scrawl.

F is 4 fun - signStreetwise Wellingtonians will have been aware of tags and stickers by "F is 4 Fun" for a while now, but this goes well beyond that and probably counts as an art installation. About half of the alley was taken up by posters, hanging signs, collages and even complex multi-media assemblages incorporating ironing boards and sneakers (which soon disappeared, perhaps to become a collector's item?). Other photographers have already been onto it, including Robyn Gallagher and bronzebrew, and this appears to be an anniversary celebration by a long-established street artist.

F is 4 fun - postersThere are signs that the installation might have been even more ambitious if they hadn't been caught in the act. There was a rough outline of some abstract organic designs around the sneakers, and that may have been intended to be filled in by aerosols. While the artists seem to enjoy taunting the police, if this is anything to go by, perhaps this is a case for police discretion? After all, it's hard to say that this work detracts from the attractiveness or amenity of what would otherwise be an anonymous and malodorous alley.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Mystery bar number 69

File under: , ,

Last week's mystery bar was Chill, a new "café and wine bar" at the base of the Central Stratford hotel in Willis St. The appearance of the building didn't bode well for the quality of the long-promised café, and the name doesn't help either, but in the end it has a pleasant (if conventional) interior design and generally feels very good. While it's definitely more of a café than a proper bar, it's a good place to go for a civilized glass or two of wine after work, and the tapas are delicious.

Mystery bar #69 - steel barsToday's mystery bar is much less likely to be a good choice for a "civilized" glass of anything. There are plenty of bar and restaurant designers who have done good things with industrial style, but this place seems to take it to a new level: Paremoremo chic. Despite certain elements aimed at comfort, such as upholstered booths and even recliners, the extensive use of polished concrete, metal tubes and bare wood suggests that washability is a higher priority than luxury.

While the décor seems spartan, no effort or expense has been spared in the provision of entertainment technology, and even when empty, this bar must put a significant strain on the national grid. In one of those "hilarious" gestures so characteristic of this sort of bar, the toilets are labelled "Fluffies" and "Diddles", though it's clear that everything is tailored much more towards the latter than the former. With a menu that promises "something for everyone from some classic buffalo wings for a nibble or the biggest Char Grilled steaks in town" and a music policy that ensures "you WILL know all the words to every song", this is also clearly not aimed at metrosexuals or the "trendy urban class", however much some of the latter might like some of the facilities. On the other hand, if you own a Holden and say "maaaaaate!" a lot, you'll feel right at home.

Mystery bar #69 - the bar

Friday, December 14, 2007

Slightly less super

When you're considering what to submit for the Adelaide Rd consultation (due in less than 4 hours), it's worth bearing in mind the current state of proposed private developments. There was an article in yesterday's Dominion Post (now online), and a media release from the council, stating that a demolition consent has been applied for for the proposed supermarket site that has been much discussed. While both articles are primarily concerned about the possibility of the site being left vacant for months, there's a small point mentioned in the Dom article that's quite interesting: the proposal has been scaled down somewhat.

Instead of a 6000 sq m Pak 'N Save with 60 apartments, Foodstuffs are now proposing "a medium-sized New World supermarket above a car park with space for 157 vehicles, and a couple of four to five-storey blocks, each with 20 apartments". The façade of the old BGI swimming pool will also be retained and incorporated, and while I'm always wary of façadism, this all sounds like some sort of compromise is happening quietly during the pre-application stage of the consent process. If the actual consent process (which Foodstuffs expects to start in March) were able to ensure that the final design incorporates plenty of active edges and maybe even a replacement for the pool, then I think we could go a long way towards balancing the needs of what could be a valuable development with the legitimate concerns of current residents. Fingers crossed.

Frank comparisons

The winner of the Frank Kitts Park design competition has been announced (on page A4 of today's Dominion Post and in the latest issue of On the Waterfront), and it was the one labelled Option B. As I speculated at the time but couldn't say for sure, it's by Wraight and Associates, who were part of the Waitangi Park design team. Interestingly, the announcement includes a perspective drawing that makes it much easier to grasp the overall layout than the entry itself did.

Winning design for Frank Kitts ParkIn my summary of the options, I said of this one that it has "Nice clean geometry, with a good tight cluster of buildings, but too much bleakly flat lawn." I think I still stand by that, but that's partly based on my own personal aversion to big open paddocks, and people who want a big flat space for chucking around a ball or frisbee should be very pleased with this. In fact, for all the talk in some quarters of the redesign "destroying open space", it looks like this plan actually has more open green space than the current park:

Current Frank Kitts Park layout compared to selected new designThe most important thing is to compare the new design to the current park. On the plus side, this will finally be a waterfront park from which you can actually see the water. It will be an opportunity to update the physical and design qualities of a park that is looking rather tired and dated. The Chinese Garden, which I think is handled better than in any of the rival designs, should provide a lot of spatial variety, visual interest, shelter and cultural value. The upper lawn will have better access from the promenade and lagoon, and in general movement into and through the park should be easier. Best of all, from my perspective, the cluster of pavilions in and adjacent to the Chinese Garden has the potential to create a node of activity part way along a stretch that can be quite deserted at times.

Apart from the exposed nature of the lawn space, there are a few other aspects I'm less happy with. I don't see the need to relocate the Albatross sculpture to the upper lawn: it's very popular where it is, and the current combination of lagoon, fountain and Kaffee Eis works very well. The larger flat green area comes at the expense of the amphitheatre, so while it will be better for some sorts of events it will be less suited to others. There's no attempt to create new connections between the promenade and the water, though the brief suggested that this might be left until later stages for financial reasons. Finally, the improved visual connection between the lawn and the harbour comes at the expense of shelter and seating along the promenade: while the loss of shelter may be an unavoidable trade-off, I hope that some sort of informal or moveable seating could be included without too much effort.

The article emphasised that this is not a final, detailed design, and that more development of the design will occur over the next six months. There's a lot to like about this proposal, and I hope that between now and the eventual reconstruction of the park (which is unlikely to start before 2009), there are opportunities to work through any shortcomings and create the best possible space.

Update: the agenda for this Wednesday's Council meeting has just been released, and there is an overview report on the park decision, together with detailed reports from the jury, Chinese Garden committee and Technical Advisory Group.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bowen Integrated Ruckus

There's been a lot of publicity, most of it negative, about the planned "Bowen Integrated Campus". There hasn't been much to go on, apart from this one rendering, but even so it seems hard to reconcile some of the statements about it with the plans.

Proposal for Bowen Integrated CampusFor a start, some people have referred to the development as "an office block" or "a building", when in fact it's a complex plan that involves refurbishing two existing buildings, replacing another, adding to some, building a new block and then joining some of them with a large atrium. Whatever its aesthetic merits (which I'll discuss later), this development cannot be described, as the Dominion Post did, as a "monolithic building". If anything, it's the opposite of monolithic, since it consists of several varied masses rather than a single large one.

The main objector to this has been Parliament and its lawyers. Among other things, they have called it "an insult to heritage", though it's not clear what heritage they're talking about. The Bowen State Building and Charles Fergusson Tower will be directly affected, since they will be re-clad and added to, and while they were significant in their time and I'm generally in favour of seeing modern buildings as part of our heritage, I think all but the most ardent aficionados of Ministry of Works functionalism would agree that they could probably do with a bit of a revamp. The objectors seem more intent on preserving the "dignity" of Parliament itself, though, and claimed that the development will "get in Parliament's face". Given that Parliament faces the other way, and that the extensions will take the complex only about 10m or so closer to Parliament across a wide space, this could perhaps more accurately be described as "creeping slightly closer to Parliament's arse".

The space between the Bowen State Building and ParliamentOne of Parliament's other objections was that this would be 'a "de facto appropriation" of public land for private purposes'. Here are some images of the high-quality public land that will be cruelly sacrificed if this development goes ahead:

Site of proposed Bowen Integrated Campus - east
Site of proposed Bowen Integrated Campus - north
Site of proposed Bowen Integrated Campus - west
These are not verdant swathes of parkland or bustling town squares, but exactly the sort of windswept, leftover, car-dominated spaces that the high-modernist "towers in a plaza" typology so often inflicted upon cities. The irony of this complaint becomes complete when you read that part of Parliament's objection is because "it is concerned at ... its potential to limit growth of the parliamentary complex, including expansion into the temporary sculpture park". Their outrage at the threat to the sculpture park by building closer to it is put into context by their presumed intention to build on the park itself at some stage.

So, from a straightforward urbanist perspective, I don't really have a problem with this plan. It turns a depressing chunk of Milton Keynes into something resembling a proper city block, comprised of multiple adjacent buildings built to the street edge. If the shops and cafés planned for the atrium also open onto Bowen St itself, the resulting active edge could be much more pleasant to walk beside than the existing carpark. Seen from the context of nearby Lambton Quay and the Terrace, the scale and massing are not at all overwhelming or dominating, but an extension of the urban scale of the high city.

However, the rendering is not exactly encouraging from an architectural point of view. In particular, the new building along Bowen St shows the same lack of imagination as recent and current developments elsewhere in Thorndon (the Defence building and Vogel Integrated Campus spring to mind). Even those designs that looked staid and conventional among the Kumutoto competition would look like works of subtle genius in this company, and while I'm not usually averse to rectilinear modernism, a bit of curve, colour or variation would not have gone amiss. Perhaps the architects are deferring too much to the area's (brutalist) heritage? Or is the brief just the same old "we don't care if it's drab, just give us lots of cheap floor space"?

Ultimately, I do agree with one thing that Parliament's lawyers have said about this: "New Zealand has only one Parliament. It has only one parliamentary precinct. This precinct is of national and local importance." This precinct demands a more integrated approach than a mere "integrated campus": it should mesh much more with Parliament itself and the Capital district as a whole. We could do without the misinformation, exaggerations and hidden agendas, but we also deserve a measured and far-reaching approach to designing this unique part of the city.

Monday, December 10, 2007


I haven't posted much recently on WellUrban's core concerns (architecture and urbanism), but normal service should resume shortly. The usual start-of-month posts on Drink of the Month and the preceding roundup, combined with a new mystery bar (that no-one's attempted to guess yet), have taken up some of my time, but I've also been busy with the Second Annual Wellingtonista Awards (dubbed "the AWAs"). There was an absolutely stonking awards party on Thursday: ridiculously glamorous photos are available on MLR and on Flickr via Jo Hubris, begilejapan and variasian; and write-ups can be found on Hard News and the many blogs linked to by Miramar Mike. It took a while for enough of us to recover from the festivities to post the results, which are now fully online and generating controversy already. Here's a bit more detail on the most WellUrban-ish of the categories.

Best Building: for the second year running, the Wellington City Library took out the award, thus proving that this is one example of late Postmodernism that has aged surprisingly well. The Meridian building wasn't that far behind, though, and given that (unlike the library) the general public hasn't had a chance to spend time inside it, I'd like to think that it's well on the way to establishing itself as a Wellington favourite and a benchmark for new architecture in the city.

Best Public Space: this was one of the most-answered questions in the survey, with nearly 600 votes overall. It was also much closer, and while the Botanic Gardens was the winner, Oriental Bay wasn't far behind, followed quite closely by Cuba Mall and Waitangi Park. I was quite surprised that Midland Park came in a very distant last, but I guess it's not a destination space, and now that I'm no longer working nearby I can't imagine myself spending much time there.

Best Public Art: this category was won by a cluster of sculptures rather than a single piece: the Meridian Energy Wind Sculpture Walk along Cobham Drive. It only just beat the "Left Bank Gallery" aka Graffiti Alley (which was the scene of some very unusual activity over the weekend - I'll write more about that soon), and while I voted for the Alley myself, it's good to recognise the great work that the Wellington Sculpture Trust has been putting in. In fact, the only reason that the trust couldn't have someone there to receive their award was that they were busy unveiling their latest contribution to Wellington's public space: Regan Gentry's Green Islands sculptures on the plinths outside Te Papa.

Most Needed: this was a very broad category, covering everything from bars and shops to infrastructure. The winner by a huge margin, with nearly twice as many votes as its nearest rival, was light rail to the airport. Of course this wasn't a scientific survey, but someone should tell the council as they consider transport options to the airport that 248 out of 544 people voted for light rail. Second place went to "a 24-hour diner", and I'll be willing to push that up the priority list given our post-awards dining debacle.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Drink of the month: Champagne Cocktails

File under: , ,

Classic Champagne Cocktail at MatterhornAfter having to curb the enthusiasm of one particularly over-eager punter who was keen to give away the not-very-well-kept secret, here (at last) is my post on the drink for December: Champagne Cocktails. They're light and bubbly enough for summer sipping; with the extra kick required to get one through the tedium of office parties and uninvited rellies; and nothing says "celebration" like champers.

First, some definitions. Strictly speaking (that is, according to the International Bartenders' Association), a traditional "Champagne Cocktail" starts with brandy and a bitters-soaked sugar cube, and is then topped up with Champagne. Although I'm normally a stickler for the proper geographic use of the Appellation "Champagne", I think that most of us are not in the financial position to insist that our mixed drinks include ingredients from anywhere near Reims, and besides, much of the subtlety will be wasted once the other ingredients are included. I'll also broaden the category for this month to include all cocktails made with sparkling wine, though I'm strict enough on the definition of "cocktail" to only go for those drinks that contain actual spirits. That rules out otherwise classic drinks such as the Mimosa and the Bellini, and even the Kir Royale, since Crème de Cassis is a liqueur rather than a spirit.

What does that leave us with, apart from the original Champagne Cocktail? The French 75 is a well-known, refreshing and surprisingly powerful drink, and you get extra pedant points for ordering a "Soixante Quinze". I've written before about the delights of Death in the Afternoon, though I would advise against drinking these on too warm an afternoon, lest the name become a prophecy. The legendary Joe Gilmore created all sorts of posh concoctions as tributes to the celebrities of the age, and many of those involved Champagne, though I'd think twice before drinking anything named after Princess Anne's horse.

That still leaves a vast universe of variations still to be invented: anything that involves a spirit and sparkling white wine would count. I used to swear by a mixture of Champagne and Cointreau, and the Ray Gun, while more of a novelty than a pleasant drink, is another way to put some zap into your Xmas party. Plenty of bars around town offer their own variations. Matterhorn tweaks the French 75 with the bizarre-sounding mixture of fig and cigar syrup, though along with a few of their sparking-wine cocktails, they spoil the effect a bit by serving it over ice in a highball glass. Boulôt always has some intriguing cocktails, and their Bellbird, which may have been a temporary special, offered a more alcoholic alternative to a Kir Royale. Alice has a page on their list dedicated to the genre, so that's one place that should definitely be on the itinerary. Where else should one seek out this holiday season?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Tunnel vision

The long-delayed Ngauranga to Airport Transport Study has finally come back with some options for public consultation. It'll take a while for me to crunch through the many megabytes of reports, brochures and forms, but for the meantime I'll just point you to the Dominion Post's barely restrained glee at the prospect of more roads and tunnels, and frogblog's reasonably measured response.

Submissions are due on the 22nd of February. It's good to get some time to mull over the reports, though it means that people's submissions on the Adelaide Rd consultation will have to be in well before they've been able to think through the transport study, which is disappointing considering how closely the two are linked.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Mystery bar number 68

File under: , ,

The last mystery bar was in a fairly visible location, and it didn't take long for it to be identified as D4, a large and slick new bar upstairs on Featherston St. It has already attracted a regular clientèle, partly because it has everything required to appeal to the local office workers, and partly because, as was pointed out to me, the owner Dermot used to own the Black Harp just up the road.

Mystery bar #68 - booths and tablesMeanwhile, as some of the comments on the "Wellington's most needed" category in the Wellingtonista Awards attest, Wellingtonians have been hanging out for a tapas bar. Might today's mystery bar be the answer to their prayers? While it bills itself simply as a "café and wine bar", it has a definite lean towards Iberian food, and the tapas menu includes such classic nibbles as piquillos rellenos, pinchos, gambas al ajillo and even (for those unafraid of tentacles) pulpo a la vinagreta.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a traditional tapas bar atmosphere, with old brick walls, low lighting and a crush of regulars eating and drinking at the bar, then you may be disappointed. There's been an attempt to make some of the seating areas reasonably intimate, with comfy banquettes and walls lined with dark wood, but the overall impression is more like a café than a bar or restaurant. That suits the market that they're aiming at, though, and it could gain a lot in atmosphere depending on the crowd. The selection of wine and other drinks also doesn't seem to go out of its way to offer traditional matches, such as sherry, Rioja or Sangria, so it might be best to think of this as a "café with tapas" than as a tapas bar per se. Nevertheless, it's a pleasant enough place and much better than one might expect from the location.

Mystery bar #68 - chairs

Monday, December 03, 2007

Daiquiri roundup

File under: , ,

I managed to get through a reasonable selection of daiquiris last month, and though some places revealed their ignorance by initially saying things such as "we can't make one, because we don't have any fruit", in general I managed to get good results with a bit of coaxing. The lime/sugar balance was all over the place, but none were really undrinkable, and it's really down to personal taste whether you prefer them tart.

Plum-flavoured daiquiri at AliceNowhere really stood out for the excellence of their classic Daiquiris, though a couple of places offered worthwhile variations. The Buena Vista Social Club has some new staff who seem more capable of living up to the expectations that their cocktail list sets, and their "Floridita Daiquiri" (with the reasonably traditional addition of Maraschino) is nicely set off with a palm sugar rim. I see that this place is on the market, so if it has new owners soon I hope that they continue this improvement in form. Newcomer Alice also does a very good classic Daiquiri, plus some very tasty variations involving apricots and plums. These aren't slushy frozen Daiquiris but good strong drinks with the addition of fruit purées, and they achieve a fine balance between fresh flavours and serious alcoholic content.

The drink for December will also be just right for summery weather, and has specific seasonal connotations that make it doubly appropriate for this time of year.