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

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.


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