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

Monday, March 29, 2004

Urban Eye: Hope-Gibbons carpark

Planter boxes transform a multi-storey carpark on Taranaki St into something almost pleasant: The Carpark Gardens of Babylon

Urbanism +2
The planter boxes don't strictly count as an extra "use" of the building, so they don't contribute to density or liveliness, but they do provide a visual element that would otherwise be lacking. It would be even better if there was a way to add actual variety and vitality (such as street-level shops as a "skin" to the building), but most elevations are already shielded from the street by other buildings and the amount of blank wall at street level has been minimised quite nicely.

Aesthetics +3
There's not much explanation required here: most people prefer foliage to bare concrete. More of the concrete could have been covered by creepers, or the remaining hard surfaces could have been given a more interesting design, but otherwise this is a huge improvement over the standard façades for multi-storey carparks.

Environment +2
"The vertical belongs to man and the horizontal to nature", according to Hundertwasser, but this shows that even the vertical can be partly returned to nature.

Though carparks by their very nature encourage car use, a multi-storey carpark uses less land than surface parking, and the vegetation at least provides a token palliative against the greenhouse emissions of the cars within. I believe that the top level is still exposed asphalt, rather than permeable paving with soakaways, so there is room for improvement by making the horizontal element more compatible with nature. I don't know whether greywater from the roof is currently being used to water the planter boxes, but that would be an obvious way to reduce both runoff and maintenance.

Social 0
It could be argued that this provides a more pleasant urban environment for everyone, but there are no specific measures in favour of social justice or community cohesion.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Urban Eye: Courtenay Central

A suburban multiplex invades the nightlife quarter.

Urbanism +1
I'm reluctant to give this complex a positive score, since it's not my idea of great urban design. But I can't deny that it fits a lot of diverse uses (cinemas, shopping and food) into a relatively small space. The whole ground floor presents an active edge to Courtenay Place, and there's a pedestrian route through to Wakefield Street for those who don't mind walking through a mall. All in all, it's an improvement over the previous situation: a vast gravel car park with a handful of dodgy kebab vans.

On the downside, it feels monolithic and it internalises much of its activity. The Left Bank, by contrast, opens all of its vitality to the street, and is thus a much more urban solution than this misplaced suburban mall. It's harder to do this with a cinema complex, of course, but with a bit of creativity the developers could have created a new street and brought a finer grain to the city.

Aesthetics -2
It generally conforms to the scale of its Courtenay Place neighbours, and it's certainly an improvement on the mutely hermetic boxes of the 1980s (such as the well-loathed Mid City centre). It even shows some vaguely interesting interplay of convex and concave forms in the façade, but in the end it is very much a façade.

This is the downside of contextualism: it purports to mirror the 1912 neo-classical St James theatre across the road, but all it does is ape their details, in the process stripping them, flattening them and cheapening them. As well as the usual columns and arches, the fakery includes mock balconies and tromp l'oeil windows to nowhere, in the faint hope that passers-by will be fooled into thinking that something is happening behind them. Theatres are necessarily insular, but there's no need to disguise this by plastering them with imitation windows: they could be expressed as bold sculptural forms, as in the Hannah Playhouse down the road.

Overall, the plasterboard exterior with its blandly tasteful earth tones is redolent of suburban malls, but squished uncomfortably into a dense and noisy urban context. It bears little relation to the interior, which is mostly standard-issue multiplex: a hyperactive discordant logoscape with the occasional pretension towards "classiness". There is a brief moment of spatial interest, as an escalator pierces eccentric ovals to reach the cinema levels, and it's intriguing to consider what might have happened if such gestures had informed the entire complex, inside and out.

The architects can't be held entirely responsible for the timidity of the design, as some of their projects display a cool, crisp modernism that is quite at odds with the bland suburban aesthetic exhibited here. It's more likely that the culprits are the developers, with their vision of "classy" entertainment, and over-zealous planners afraid of a heritage lobby that would have conniptions if anything vaguely daring was constructed opposite the St James.

Environment 0
It is certainly denser that the standard multiplex-and-mall typology, with cinemas stacked above the foodcourt and retail rather than scattered around in separate boxes. But that's no more than should be expected of the location, and there are no specific environmental measures.

Social -1
It could be argued that Courtenay Central has broadened the social mixture of Courtenay Place, and it certainly seems to have attracted the teenage mallrats who used to congregate in Manners Mall whenever they ventured beyond their home territories of Coastlands or Queensgate. The developers' stated intention was to create a "family-friendly" Courtenay Place, which in practice has resulted in Disneyfication, corporatisation and an attempt to bowdlerise the bawdier, dodgier aspects that are essential to a real nightlife district.

But what is there here to attract families away from the out-of-town multiplexes? There's virtually nothing here that can't be found elsewhere in Wellington, just a rollcall of global and national chains (Starbucks, McDonalds, Blockbuster, Whitcoulls). Reading Cinemas deserve some kudos for supporting the Drifting Clouds short film festival and the premiere of Return of the King, but otherwise their repertoire is familiar multiplex fare. Wellington is a city that prides itself on creativity and quirky individuality, but there's nothing of that on show here.

Despite the developer's insistence that the complex "links Courtenay Place to the waterfront" and that the internal mall is envisaged as a "street", this is resolutely a private space. The doors are locked at night, and security guards will accost anyone trying to take photos (though I could see no signs prohibiting this). This could have contributed to the public realm, but the owners obviously decided that the public world is too messy and dangerous for their "family-friendly" theme-park.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Urban Eye: Tory St Big Box Retail

What is this sprawling, anti-urban retail park doing in the centre of town?

Urbanism -4
This is the antithesis of urbanity. Stolid, mute boxes squat around the edges of an asphalt desert. The coarse scale, contempt for the street and the priority given to cars all mark this out as a place where pedestrians are suffered rather than welcomed. It's not a place to linger or enjoy: just drive in, do your shopping, then go home.

All this would be bad enough in the exurban sprawl-lands of Porirua MegaCentre, but what is it doing here, just five minutes' walk from Courtenay Place? It's a hangover from the time when this part of Te Aro flat was the fringe of central Wellington, a low-rise shambles of light industry and car yards. But the city is spreading south and revitalising southern Te Aro, with a mixture of residential, commercial and entertainment developments springing up along Tory Street. This is part of the city now, so I'd like to think that this place's days are numbered.

However, even apartment dwellers need furniture, so it wouldn't be desirable to drive out large-format retail. There is a way to heal these urban scars without displacing the existing uses. Build two or three storeys of offices or apartments on top of the retail (there's an example further north on Tory St that shows how this can work). Build a narrow retail and café block along the street frontage, with smaller units to encourage independent operators. Then allow a new public thoroughfare through to Fifeshire Ave and Cambridge Terrace, and instead of an insult to the city we'll have a lively, diverse, fine-grained urban quarter.

Aesthetics -3
This is non-architecture at its blandest. One of the older buildings has a modicum of no-frills industrial dignity, but the others are soulless minimum-spec sheds, and not even plastering them with vast logos and strident colours can mask their essential meanness.

Environment -3
Some of the buildings stretch to two or three stories, and the buildings themselves don't actually belch out noxious fumes, so this place doesn't quite deserve the worst rating. But this type of retail is the polar opposite of sustainable urban form.

A few sad beds of agapanthus cannot compensate for the runoff from all that asphalt and roofing iron. There are ways to make carparks less damaging, with porous surfaces and filtration beds, and trees between rows of car parks would suck up some carbon dioxide. Greening the roofs would also help redress the balance. But even with all these measures, this is a typology that is deeply unsustainable, as low density and segregation of uses chew up land and promote driving.

Social -1
Large-format retail is all about big business and chains, so there's no room for individuality or local colour here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Urban Eye: Front Page

The café as staff canteen.

Urbanism +3
This is an example of how a simple idea can make a positive contribution to the city. Many large businesses provide a canteen for their staff, which encourages workers to spend their entire working day in the office, never getting out into the city or seeing anyone from outside the company. Instead of this closed approach, the Dominion Post created a publicly accessible café.
Boulcott Street had previously lacked a café, so the Front Page quickly became an informal extra meeting room for other businesses on the street. By choosing sociability over corporate insularity, the Dominion Post has added life to the area.

It could have scored higher here if it were open in the evening as well, but Boulcott Street is not exactly a nightlife hotspot, so this may not be viable until there are a few more apartments nearby. It could also be improved by opening up to the street more, but with just a narrow pavement between it and a dark, often gridlocked street, you can see why this was not an attractive option.

Aesthetics 0
Inside, it's a pleasant and modern (if generic) café, given some individuality by the display of historic newspaper front pages. But this criterion refers to the effect on the streetscape, rather than the interior, and the façade is so bland as to be almost invisible.

Environment 0
There appear to be no specific environmental measures.

Social +1
The café was created by shutting off a colonnade, so it could be accused of alienating the public realm. However, this colonnade was little used, and there's still some protection from the rain, so this is outweighed by the positive effects of the new social space.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Urban Eye: 66 Boulcott St

Temporary, removable townhouses over an inner-city carpark.

Urbanism +2
In many ways, this development should score very poorly for urbanism. It's purely residential in function, and at the sort of density that would be appropriate for inner suburbs, not a CBD street full of office and apartment blocks that range from 6 to 20 storeys.

However, when one realises that this is a temporary use of airspace above a carpark, it's possible to see it as a clever solution to a common urban problem. The owner plans to wait until the commercial property market picks up before developing offices on the site, and the usual decision would be to leave this as a carpark. However, by building modular units and elevating them above the carpark on columns, the unused airspace gains a useful and viable urban function while retaining the current ground use and access to the offices behind. When conditions are right to build more permanently, the units can be moved elsewhere, beginning another life as ordinary suburban townhouses.

Thus, this project scores well for adaptability. The residents of the 22 apartments also bring a modicum of after-hours life to an otherwise mainly 9-to-5 street. Above all, when compared to that most anti-urban of land uses, surface carparking, it's hard not to regard this as an improvement.

Aesthetics +1
When first built, these apartments featured in a newspaper article as the poster child for "ugly high-density housing". They are certainly neither beautiful nor cutting edge, and their unapologetically temporary materials were bound to raise the hackles of those who equate permanence with respectability. To my taste, the most unappealing element is the cheesy orange cladding, reminiscent of suburban pseudo-Tuscan McMansions.

But at least a certain amount of effort has gone into detailing, especially around the entranceways, and there's a bit of token landscaping. The units could have been much better, but they are certainly much more attractive than the barren asphalt on which they're built.

Environment +1
There are no explicit measures to promote sustainability, though the fact that they are designed to be re-used is a plus. Their main environmental virtue is the fact that these 22 units house a population that would have taken two hectares of greenfield land and made 44 car journeys a day if they had followed the usual suburban pattern.

Social 0
These are not cheap apartments, so they can't be said to be adding to the social diversity of the area. They seem to be aimed at short-let accommodation for travelling executives and professionals, so they will do little to promote a sense of community. However, there are no existing residents or businesses to displace, so they should do no social harm.