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

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Density done right: Ebor St townhouses

If we're going to add another 50,000 people to Wellington City in the next 50 years without resorting to greenfield sprawl, we'll have to significantly increase the densities at which people live. Part of this will come from inner-city apartments, but we'll also have to find ways to increase density in the inner residential areas.

As I've mentioned before, a large proportion of recent multi-unit developments are truly horrid, so there's a big risk of alienating people and creating a backlash against density. What we need are some good examples to show that infill doesn't need to be ugly.

Density done right: Ebor St townhousesHere's one such example. This is part of an apartment development along Ebor St (in south Te Aro) that takes the form of townhouses, a typology that's similar to the classic terraces and mews of West London. It's hardly cutting-edge architecture, but it's pleasant and restrained, and creates visual interest without arbitrary or anachronistic decoration.

I've finally got around to posting a full review of this to the UrbanEye section of the original WellUrban site, where I assess its contributions on urbanist, aesthetic, environmental and social grounds. There's also a photo in my Urbane Jungle gallery that emphasises the foliage. Some people will still find the density a bit much to deal with, but it's hard to claim that it's an eyesore.

Urban Eye: Ebor St townhouses

An attractive example of a low-rise medium-density residential street.

Urbanism +3
I have long thought that the Georgian terraces and mews of West London provide a wonderful model for residential districts on the fringes of central cities: they provide surprisingly high densities without high-rises; they offer a balance between privacy and neighbourly interaction; they can easily adapt to other uses; and they help define the street as an active urban space. However, until recently I hadn't seen a local development that successfully adapted the underlying typological properties rather than aping the historical detailing. I think this is the best example that I have seen.

The basic structure and scale of this townhouse development are very similar to mews or low-rise terraces. The top storey has been set back from the street, thus reducing bulk and shading effects while adding a balcony. In addition, each townhouse has a front porch and tiny garden, so that there's a reasonable amount of outdoor space for a relatively compact development.

However, there is one way in which this departs from the terrace model. It has been built largely within the envelope of an old car workshop, the footprint of which was too deep for standard apartments but too shallow for two rows of three-storey townhouses without leaving a dark, narrow path between them. Thus, between the two rows of terraces there is an elevated private "street" of two-storey apartments, with an at-grade car park below. On a less restricted site, it might have been better to have a public path at ground level instead.

There are some minor downsides. The interior plan might not be ideal for the inhabitants, since New Zealanders are used to low wide houses rather than tall narrow ones, and the units receive natural light from only one side. Another disappointment is that the opposite side of Ebor Street is a blank wall, though with luck that might change in time. More importantly, the modestly domestic scale, with a single use and only moderate density, doesn't seem quite appropriate for central-city ex-industrial Te Aro. This sort of development would be more suited to inner suburbs such as Mt Cook or Berhampore, with a less linear version (more like Ian Athfield's quasi-hill-towns) for steeper sites like Mt Victoria. But these are minor quibbles, and in the right place this could be an inspirational model for medium-density residential neighbourhoods.

Aesthetics +4
To my eyes, this is a very appealing and humane street. It's good to see a middle ground between agressively hard-edged modernism (which I enjoy myself, but can be off-putting for middle New Zealanders looking skeptically at higher urban densities) and banal historicist pastiche. The style is crisp and mostly contemporary without being self-consciously so. The bay windows and inter-tenancy walls help to modulate the elevation and connect it to the human scale, and the curves are derived from the retained façade of the old Ford workshop. The materials and colours are earthy and restrained, and the whole complex is easy on the eye without being an outstanding work of art.

But there are two reasons why this development is especially attractive. Firstly, it's not dominated by cars: compare it to the units next door, each with an individual garage door presenting a blank and forbidding face to the street. Secondly the extensive planting (front gardens, street trees, window boxes and climbers) adds interest and life, and it is this aspect that makes so appealing the thought of whole neighbourhoods designed like this.

Environment +2
As well as its aesthetic value, all that greenery (grass, street trees, front gardens, window boxes and climbers) absorbs CO2 and provides habitat for birds and insects. The development as a whole makes good environmental sense, since it provides housing at moderate densities on a brownfield site.

Social +1
There was no direct gentrification involved in this development, and while some might worry that a blue-collar workplace has been replaced by moderately upmarket housing, I believe that the workshops had fallen out of use long before the conversion. Unlike the nearby Sanctum apartments, which fenced off an unofficial mid-block connection for private gardens, these townhouses face the street, add greenery to the public realm and maintain public connections through an otherwise large block. I've also seen residents sitting in their front yards and children playing on the street, so it has the potential to foster social interactions and neighbourliness.

Street eats: Satay Kingdom

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Wellington has plenty of cheap and cheerful Malaysian restaurants and takeaways, and Satay Kingdom is one of the cheapest and most cheerful. What makes this place different, though, is that there are usually more customers outside than in, taking advantage of the intimate pedestrian-friendly environment of the Left Bank.

Satay Kingdom, Left Bank
Though not strictly a street vendor like Tony Chestnut, Satay Kingdom nevertheless helps create a lively, market-like ambience well into the evening. It's unlicensed, which would put a lot of people off straight away, but you can't argue with $5 Roti Chanai.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Urbanism Down Under: in review, part 4

This is the fourth and final section of my report on the Urbanism Down Under conference (see also parts one, two and three).

Session D1: Urban Strategies included two talks of direct interest to Wellingtonians. Graeme Spargo talked about the Wellington Regional Strategy project, which brings together all nine local authorities in the Wellington Region to create a framework for growth in both an economic and spatial sense. He pointed out that while Wellington still has the highest GDP per capita of any region in the country, and has recently has had the fastest GDP growth, that growth is now slowing. While I have reservations about the reference to GDP (focusing solely upon GDP growth can promote unsustainable development at the expense of environmental and social wellbeing), I'm keen to see a stronger and broader economic base for Wellington, so it was interesting to hear about what is holding us back.

We're very strong on research (at CRIs and universities), but not good at converting that into value, which is partly due to lack of good connections to markets and distributions. There was the inevitable talk about the Western Corridor, and mention was made of the various machinations between port-related companies (Toll, Fonterra, CentrePort and P&O Nedlloyd). International air links are a clear weakness (as someone who's had to fly Wellington-London and back six times in a year, I can heartily agree), so the runway extension and expected arrival of 787 services will be welcome. I was also glad to hear the call to further support and make the most of our existing rail investment, including the encouragement of Transit-oriented developments.

Ernst Zollner and Paul Kos from the WCC then spoke more specifically about the council's urban development strategy (still in preparation), which will be a spatial strategy to guide the growth and change of the city over the next 50 years. Wellington can expect population growth of about 35,000 in the next 25 years, and a further 15,000 in the 25 years after that: this is a manageable growth rate, but there is still a challenge to ensure that this growth builds upon our good existing urban form.

Of these extra 50,000 people, 32,000 are expected to settle in a relatively compact "spine" that extends from Johnsonville via the CBD and hospital to the airport. This will require a continuation of high density residential development, with an expanded CBD that could extend from Kaiwharrawharra to Newtown. It's thus fortunate that household sizes are decreasing, which creates more demand for medium- and high-density housing, allowing the minimisation of greenfield development. The WRS website contains a lot of technical reports with all the details on demographic projections and housing.

This scenario is not without its challenges, of course. A laissez-faire approach to apartment development and suburban infill can lead to the sort of cheap and nasty disasters that give high density urbanism a bad name in some quarters, so there has to be some mechanism for coordinating high-quality design. Quality transport along the spine is a must, and my ears pricked up when I heard the phrase "high quality public transport". Is this a hint that it's time to go for a strategy like the Greens' Ride the Wind package, including a light rail link from Johnsonville to the airport? The report by Urbanista (among the consultants' reports on the WRS website) seems to think so:
Light rail is another option which while costly will add value to the city, will be able to leverage higher density employment and residential development and potentially could be an important urban and economic icon for Wellington and one of its key marketing tools.
It's not such a utopian concept, especially when one factors in the economic benefits from enabling better land use along the route, and considers that most of the metropolitan areas in the USA are introducing or expanding transit systems.

In all, I found this an exciting session, as it demonstrates the opportunity we have to extrapolate Wellington's existing strengths (such as density, walkability and vitality). We still need the vision and the political will to fund high quality public infrastructure, apply sustainable building principles and encourage high design quality in private developments; but if we do it right we can grow from a really good little city into a truly great world-class city.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Mystery bar

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Here's something for those of you with a thirst for the unknown, as well as just a thirst. Some of us recently visited a newish bar, in a part of town not generally known for its nightlife, and supped a rather well-assembled Martini and a very pleasant Verdelho. The bar seems to make a point of exclusivity, to the point where there were two bouncers on the door and a sign saying "maximum 35 people", but it's very relaxed and comfortable once you're inside.

This photo has been heavily photoshopped, partly to enhance the cocktail lounge atmosphere, but mostly because my phone takes such rubbish photos in low light that some drastic tweaking was called for. The decor is not actually red at all: instead there's a curious mixture of purple, white and pale greens. Aside from the odd Philippe Starck lamp there's a general feel of "tasteful hotel lobby circa 1987".

The mysterious feel is compounded by the entrance sequence, which takes you through a doorway in an anonymous grey carpark, down a couple of flights of stairs, past a brass plaque engraved with Chinese characters, then across this magnificently gloomy retro stairwell before you finally reach the door to the bar itself. Any readers who can tell me the name and location of this bar will win... something.

Scurrilous election poster

I'm posting this image (snapped somewhere in Willis St this lunchtime) purely to illustrate the depths to which personality politics have sunk in the run-up to the election. Some will believe that this has something to do with an unfortunate incident last month that may have involved vicious drug fiends, or perhaps a staircase.

The incident provoked a police investigation, accusations and counter-accusations, rather a lot of sniggering, and even a new verb and adjective ("to blumsky down the stairs" and "to get completely blumskied"). Of course it's all scurrilous, libellous rumour-monging, and while some may find it rather amusing, I couldn't possibly comment. After all, who could fail to be impressed by a man who owns a dog called "Winston"?

Shops we love: House of Hank

Wellington men might look very much more boring if it weren't for the efforts of Hank Cubitt and his team at House of Hank. Combining impeccable tailoring with a flair for the outrageous, Hank's creations are powerfully individualist but instantly recognisable. The fact that he can convince me to wear a denim jacket is proof enough that his garments defy expectations.

The shop itself is also a paragon of good urbanism. Located opposite the Willis St Village, it addresses the street in a way that is not just positive but extremely inviting, with stunning window displays and floor-to-ceiling windows that open right up on a calm day, blurring the boundary between shop and street. Much of the shop is taken up by a huge cutting table and rolls of intriguing fabrics, so it's not just a showroom but a workshop as well, connecting customers and passers-by to the process of tailoring. It's the perfect antidote to bland, placeless chain stores, though I have to admit that it's not exactly in the same price bracket as Hallensteins.

Hank somehow manages to find the time not only for his own fashion business (and an impressive social life) but is also organising a series of fashion shows with a difference. The second of a series based upon the four elements, Walk on Air is a showcase of local fashion (not just his own work, but also Starfish, Laurie Foon, Robyn Mathieson, Fashion HQ, Mandatory, Andrea Moore, Miss Wong and Soup), and it takes place in an hangar by the airport this Thursday. Some tickets are still available, but it looks like you'll have to be quick: it should be a spectacular show.

Floriditas "scandal": a storm in a latte bowl

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The Floriditas "scandal" has been generating a lot of interest, and a huge amount of support for a great little café that I suspect has been smeared without justification.

The email snowball has shown the dark side of the Internet's use of personal networks. A bit of badmouthing might have got around a few friends and slowly spread, but in this case a venomous email has probably spread to tens of thousands of Wellingtonians, mostly forwarded by people who have never met the original complainer and thus have no way of assessing her reliability. At what stage does forwarding an email cease to be gossip and become publication, thus potentially opening up the forwarder to legal responsibility?

Floriditas have now taken the step of sending an email response to thank those who have supported them, so I'll post it here to give their side of the story.
To all those who have received email re; Restaurant review - must read (re. Floriditas on Cuba St)

We would personally like to thank the huge number of Wellingtonians who have given us incredible support, over the last few days, in particular those people that have contacted us by phone or email with voices of concern and support.

We thank you very much.

With every story like this, there are always two sides!

We can say that swearing is not our way or that of loyal hardworking staff.

It is worth noting that the two remaining guests from this table of 5 apologized for the incident, and the behaviour of their fellow guests, which was greatly appreciated.

Thank you once again for your support,

Marc, Julie, James and the Floridita's Team

Waitangi Park: Pinot people and park people

Waitangi park - graving dock under constructionHere's a photo of construction under way at Waitangi Park. The watery area between the cranes is in the historic graving dock that is being excavated, and will become of the wetlands that will be exactly the sort of functional natural system that Catherin Bull wants incorporated into cities.

The crane in the foreground is close to what will be the northern end of the raised Chinese Garden and the northeast corner of the "Transition Building" (see my UrbanEye review for a very unofficial mockup of where these are likely to go). The Transition Building is intended to provide a step down from Te Papa while housing gallery space, dining and functions venues, and possibly a hostel or low-cost hotel.

My previous rant about Waitangi Park was published in the Capital times on the 17th, and various Waterfront Watchers replied on the 24th. Here's my reply:
Pauline Swann (August 24) needn't correct me: I've never claimed that Waterfront Watch opposed the Chinese Garden, though they evidently object to a raised one. Personally, I'd prefer no carparking at all on the waterfront, but as the Waitangi Park brief required some, I'm glad that the designers combined the two. Cars block views; so do Chinese Gardens with their walls, rock features and trees. Building such a garden beside a carpark instead of on top of it would actually block more views!

Peter Brooks seems surprised that city people eat out at least twice a week, but people don't move into the city just to sit at home every night. If we wanted that, we'd live somewhere like Wadestown or Khandallah where views are more important than vitality. It does explain why Waterfront Watch are happy for the waterfront to be deserted after dark: they evidently don't get out much, and don't see what a wasted opportunity their so-called "public's choice" would have been.

With the proposed plans, they'll still get their gardens, playgrounds and great big lawn; we'll also get shops, galleries, restaurants and outstanding new architecture. There's room for everyone: Pinot people as well as park people.
Update: this letter was published today, thought slightly abridged (without the sections that I've greyed out above).

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Urbanism Down Under: in review, part 3

This is the third instalment of my long-drawn-out report on the Urbanism Down Under conference (see also parts one and two).

The title of Catherin Bull's keynote speech sounded promising: The Future City as "New Nature". With her abstract suggesting that "we need a new paradigm for the future city where it, rather than what is beyond, becomes nature", I was looking forward to some radical investigations that could break down the city/nature binary and inspire a new way of looking at the built environment.

I agree with her call that we need to be less anthropocentric. Many urban designers still see unbuilt spaces as sites for human activity, not ecology (though she mentioned Waitangi Park's wetlands as a good exception). Her suggestion that we should "integrate functional natural systems at every scale within the city" is a powerful challenge and opportunity, but from her talk, it seems that she's only giving concrete solutions at very large scales.

Specifically, Bull called for absorption of national parks, wild areas and even productive agricultural lands within the city region. Her examples - Canberra, the Gold Coast, the Pearl River Delta – don't strike me as inspiring visions of "new nature", but simply as placeless, decentralised sprawl interspersed with remnants of nature. Perhaps Wellington, with its Town Belt threading through the city, is already a better example of city/nature integration at this scale.

EborBut what about integration at smaller scales, such as the neighbourhood, the street or even the building? I asked whether elements such as street trees, green roofs, Hundertwasserian "tree tenants" and living walls counted as "new nature". Bull laughed and said that I must be an architect (some people assume that anyone who likes buildings must be an architect!), then said that she had done research showing that green roofs don't work (they're apparently too difficult to maintain) and claimed that they were a distraction from the "real issue". This seems astonishing to me, given that green roofs are becoming more popular worldwide. I've already posted some local examples of greenery on and around buildings, showing that nature can exist in the city, and from what I've read, many of these techniques do have real ecological value.

While Ian Bentley's message was familiar (as you would expect, given the influence that his Responsive Environments concept has had on urban design), but his clarity, geniality and very English pragmatism made for an inspiring speech. He demonstrated the interrelationships between permeability, vitality, variety and legibility, as well as their individual contributions to a good city environment.

He gave a concrete example of putting these principles into practice: the regeneration of the Angell Town estate in Brixton. This shows a similar approach to New Urbanism in terms of planning, but without their insistence upon traditional architecture. I wonder what Hank Dittmar would make of these crisp Bauhaus-like homes? What's more, the architectural style wasn't imposed upon the inhabitants by arrogant architects, but chosen by the residents, who wanted to present a forward-looking image.

Bentley also made the good point that there is often more biodiversity in the town than in the "country", which has in many cases been cultivated into a highly artificial monoculture. He pointed out that humans may see a wall as a barrier, but that to other creatures (such as lizards or birds) it offers little or no barrier and to some creatures (such as insects) it may even be a habitat. I think that this simple observation might be the key to a more nuanced understanding of the city as "new nature".

Friday, August 26, 2005

Weekend debauchery

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Ah, Friday afternoon on a fine spring day in Wellington, and a young(ish) man's fancy naturally turns to... alcohol! There's a big nosh-up and booze-up planned at Neat (not that it's a special occasion or anything), no doubt with some of Eddy's dangerously delicious cocktails to lubricate the palate. Before that, we may take in a pre-drink drink (a wonderful phrase: thanks C.K. Stead!) at that alluringly exclusive-looking new basement bar on the Terrace.

If brain, limbs and liver are still functioning later this evening, we may wander along to Bodega to catch Montano and Jet Jaguar, given that there won't be a chance to seem them live again for quite some time. I've been a big fan of Jet Jaguar's quirky, scratchy brand of melodic ambient electronica (along with his Involve labelmate and fellow mulcher Aspen/Signer) for a while, so it'd be a pity to miss this gig.

On Saturday I definitely will make it to Bodega to see Lotus, whose voice has graced many a Wellington recording, including tracks by Rhombus, Rhian Sheehan and the ubiquitous Twinset (has anyone know of a bar or restaurant where they haven't played?). Before that, some of us may temporarily revert to blokeishness and head to Hope Bros for a slap-up meal and a few ales (or is it Radler time yet?) while watching the rugger.

Very wild foodHope Bros recently starred in the Wild Food Challenge (click on the picture to see just how wild it was, if you dare!), so it's certainly a bit classier than it was in its "Fats" days. But it's still more a pub than a restaurant, which is good, because I feel the need to balance my allegedly metrosexual side with a bit of manly shouting, especially since the Capital Times called me an "Urban(e) Aesthete". Urban goes without saying, urbane is a compliment, but aesthete carries some, ahem, Wildean connotations. Come on guys, I may be currently reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I hardly ever wear cravats and it's years since I sported a green carnation!

But if you think that I've got a drinking habit, have a look at this post at Drinks after Work, not to mention his drinking buddies Ms Brown, Kate and The Sifter (where I found a link to a very useful site: Droogle). Cheers!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Spring is here!

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Ignore the wintry weather, because we've seen the first sign that winter is over. Not daffodils, nor lambs, nor young lovers frolicking in the grass: it's the first linen suit of Spring!

Urbanism Down Under: in review, part 2

Recently I reviewed the early sessions of Urbanism Down Under. Here is the second instalment, covering the keynote speech by Hank Dittmar.

Dittmar is CEO of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment and chair of the Congress for New Urbanism. Both organisations promote urban values to which I think most urbanists would adhere: walkability, connectivity, mixed use & diversity, mixed housing, quality architecture and urban design, traditional neighbourhood structure, increased density, smart transportation, sustainability and quality of life. I especially like their emphasis on the street as the most important part of the public realm.

However, I've always felt uneasy with both groups because, whenever their principles are translated into built form (Poundbury, Seaside), there is an undeniable nostalgic tweeness. Very little of their published manifestos explicitly condemn modern architecture, but there are occasional vague uses of terms like beauty, aesthetics, decoration and timelessness that hint at their tastes.

Dittmar called for design that "celebrates local history, climate, ecology and building practice", while also claiming that this "transcends issues of style". I certainly agree that architects can learn a lot from vernacular architecture, particularly in terms of typologies that respond to climate and ecology, although it's difficult in New Zealand because we lack an established tradition of high-density residential architecture.

When he presented some slides of good and bad urbanism in Wellington, I noticed that all of his "good" examples of major buildings were in imported styles such as neo-classical, gothic and art deco. I asked him why he thought that these styles were any more "local" than high modernism, and he replied that modernism is now just another style, and that it too can become part of the local. So it's now official: the Prince's Foundation thinks modernism can be OK! Right, bring on the monstrous carbuncles!

On the other hand, Dittmar considers "decoration" to be essential, and showed a slide of the Rutherford House extension as an example of a building that "we would all agree" is dreadfully lacking in this regard. I objected that it was one of my favourite buildings, and that I considered its façade to be beautifully complex and detailed. He said something vague about how wonderful it was that there are different opinions in the world, but I still got the impression that he sees classical detailing as the only acceptable form of decoration, and that other ways of bringing complexity and scale into architecture just don’t count.

I still believe that a building's contribution to the public realm is more important than its aesthetic appeal, and that the best way to "decorate" and animate a building's façade is to populate it! There are beautiful classical buildings that close themselves off from the street, and austere modernist buildings (Plischke's Massey House, the Umbrella Park apartments above Felix) that address the street with respect and liveliness.

Shops we love: Wineseeker

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Some places may be a little cheaper or have larger selections, but Wineseeker in Victoria St has rapidly become many people's wine shop of choice.

Carl, Nicola and Brie specialise in "matching people with wine", and are always happy to guide you towards something new or different, something that sounded intriguing but that you might not have got around to trying. They can ask you for your likes, dislikes, food choice and budget, then guide you in the direction of a new winery or obscure variety like Aglianico or Carmenère. There's a strong emphasis on local Martinborough wines, but they also cover a wide geographic scope, including South America and southeast Europe as well as the usual suspects.

You can always pop in and grab the same old bottle of Pinot Gris that you always do, but that would be missing the point. There's always at least one bottle open for tasting, ranging from cheap & cheerful quaffers to yesterday's massive Brunello di Montalcino. It's a fantastic place to be a regular: I often think that loyalty cards are for big chains that want to pretend that they get to know you, but it's really worth joining their wine club for discounts and email alerts of today's tastings.

The shop itself is located on the ground floor of an undistinguished high-rise office building, which disproves the notion that such buildings can only support anonymous chain stores, and that independent shops only survive in characterful old low-rise districts. Wineseeker is exactly the sort of friendly, individualistic neighbourhood shop that makes the city a more pleasant and humane place.

Oh and by the way, it's just around the corner from Siem Reap and Balti House, which are both BYO.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Not so Grey

Here's a photo of the water feature, near the corner of Grey St and Lambton Quay, that took so long to complete.

What was once just a street intersection now works quite well as a small public space, with trees, benches, sculptures and a cafe.

Grey St is one of the few side streets off Lambton Quay that seems pleasant and alive, partly due to a conscious effort to recognise this as a key link from the Golden Mile to the waterfront, but also due to the closure of this end to vehicles. Jan Gehl's report suggests that more of Lambton Quay's side streets should get the same treatment, making it easier to walk along the Quay while also providing more of these tiny but valuable squares.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

WellUrban: the highlights package

I've been writing this blog for about six weeks now, so it seems like a good time to sum up where it's at and look back at some of the highlights. Some have asked where the name comes from. "Urban" is self-explanatory, but "Well" stands for three things. It's short for "Wellington", but also refers to "wellness" or "wellbeing", because I'm interested in liveable, sustainable cities. Finally, there's the English colloquial sense of "well" = "very", as in "well fit" or "well sorted". So this blog is well urban, innit?

The original purpose of WellUrban was to discuss architecture and urban design, and while I've wandered into other areas of urban life, that's still my focus. I've been writing up some highlights from last week's Urbanism Down Under conference, discussing the future of the Futuna Chapel, and having the occasional rant about waterfront controversies and sprawl. I also take a look at downtown parks and other greenery in Keep on the Grass, Pimp my Park and the old Urbane Jungle gallery.

WellUrbanMy original WellUrban site contains more in-depth analysis of urban developments, including some examples of very good urbanism (the Left Bank, Midland Park) and urban disasters (Big Box retail on Tory St, the "bypass"). I'll update some of the articles shortly.

Virtually all of the photos on this blog were taken on my phone (an i-mate JAM), and I discuss some of the better images in Pick of the Pix. Some recent posts (such as Re-Greta-ble?) were created completely on my phone and uploaded from the field, with help from flickr and software such as Blogs in Hand and Pocket Artist. I've just added a couple of highly Photoshopped camera photos (Greenery for your Desktop) to show the potential of these photos at even relatively high resolutions.

Cabaret FeverI write about local arts news in Fireside Korero, Inside the Arts Centre and Neighbourhood Spaces, while In the LOOP, Sans Souci and Cabaret Fever deal with music and nightlife. The more liquid side of Wellington culture is covered in Staggering Distance and Wellingtonpista.

Those interested in sexual geography (and who wouldn't be?) should check out my infamous series of posts inspired by the "man drought": Where the Boys Are parts one and two, and the follow-up, Toyboys & Sugar Daddies. The title of that post has led to some very interesting search results! I also analyse the relationship between Wellington's high educational levels and liberalism in Sex, Sin and Latte. Enjoy.

Greenery for your desktop

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Yesterday at work I had to come up with some desktop images to match a particular theme (rawa, which can roughly be translated as resources) and colour (green). So I grabbed my trusty phone and rushed out the door, took a few quick images and took them back to the office for some quick Photoshop magic. My phone camera has a fairly mediocre resolution (1.3 megapixels) and a very poor lens, but I've found that these are not necessarily any impediment to conveying mood.

Ferns: 136kB jpg

Even so, I was surprised at how well they scaled to 1280x1024 resolution (Blogger scales them down a bit, so the images linked to here a bit smaller than that). Colourisation and curve manipulation certainly helped, with a bit of judicious blurring or unsharp mask. I even managed to blow the ferns image up to an A3 poster, by using Photoshop's Smart Blur filter to give a posterised look thatavoided excess pixelisation.

Seabed: 89kB jpg

There's a special WellUrban prize for anyone who can identify the locations of these two photos (hint: they are both from the Lambton quarter).

Urban Eye: Prudential Extension

Adding floors to an Art Deco "mini-skyscraper": how to get it wrong.

Urbanism +1
This is a conversion of an office building into apartments, with the addition of several floors. Apart from some refurbishment, it looks like there has been no change at street level. It should, however, make a small urbanistic contribution by increasing the after-hours population of Lambton Quay.

Aesthetics -3
The original building was pretty much the closest Wellington got to a classic 1930's skyscraper, albeit in shrunken form. It was stylish and dashing, and the developer's marketing was happy to refer to it as "one of the country’s most flamboyant art deco-style buildings", with a "jagged skyline... [that helps] to provide an appearance of distinction".

One of its most distinctive features is the finely articulated cornice that defines the top of the building as seen from street level. If the added floors had extended right up to the facade, they would reduce the "jagged skyline" to a sad, dimensionless piece of decorative moulding.

The new floors are set back just slightly, so if they had been well detailed they might have not only retained the integrity of the cornice, but actually enhanced the spirit of the architecture. One of the most urbane features of Art Deco skyscrapers was the use of setbacks, which not only reduced shadowing (as required by the zoning regulations) but also turned the building into a soaring spire rather than a blunt extruded lump. When I first wrote about this before the scaffolding came off, I was optimistic.

How wrong could I be? The massing is actually not too bad: there's a series of setbacks, the flagpole is a nice touch, and it's broken into a cluster of smaller forms around the lightwells of the original. This stylised photo shows that in silhouette, it's rather striking and elegant. But the materials and the horizontal banding of the fenestration are so heavy and lumpen that they completely destroy the vertical emphasis of the host building. It squats where it should soar, and does a great injustice to a formerly distinguished building.

Environment +1
Apart from its contribution to sustainability through density, there's no sign that this conversion makes any special moves towards environmentally sustainable design.

Social 0
It has replaced expensive office space with expensive apartments, so it is socially neutral.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Urbanism Down Under: in review

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It'll take me a while to write up all my impressions of last week's Urbanism Down Under conference, so I'll do it in stages, concentrating on subjects with direct relevance to Wellington. Here's the first instalment, covering Thursday and Friday.

Peter Bosselmann at Urbanism Down Under 2005Peter Bosselmann demonstrated that Wellington and San Francisco have more than cable cars and urbane tolerance in common. We also share an interesting and varied street plan, the result of multiple grids laid over irregular land forms, and our topographies have created distinct neighbourhoods separated by visible open spaces on the hilltops, helping orientation and legibility.

He also declared that "freeways don't belong in the city", and showed the benefits in terms of walkability, ecology and residential potential when the Embarcadero freeway was removed. Unfortunately, here's where the parallel ends, since we're doing the opposite.

He also demonstrated efforts to contain their skyscraper district, currently restricted to a well-defined "downtown hill" (look towards Lambton Quay from Oriental Bay and you'll see our version). He made the interesting point that this not only has visual benefits, but helps to rein in land speculation on the city fringe, thus protecting local residents and industries that might otherwise be driven out. A case for stricter controls around Cuba St, perhaps?

In session A3 (Civic Negotiations), Chris McDonald chronicled what can only be described as a heroic effort on the part of the council's urban designers (among others) to co-ordinate and cajole some often-fractious land owners towards an integrated vision for the City Gateway. This project has the potential to turn the grey wastes around the Stadium into a pleasant, mixed-use precinct where 15,000 people live or work, bringing symmetry to our lopsided CBD.

At the moment, these broader plans are on hold for at least 12 months, since CentrePort and Toll may actually have to expand their operations rather than shedding surplus land. The Harbour Quays part of the development will definitely go ahead (there are now some detailed maps and images on their site), and the City Gateway team can definitely take the credit for demonstrating the value of urban design and wider integration to the promoters of that scheme, but without the infrastructure, connectivity and mixture of uses of the broader vision, it's unlikely to live up to its full potential.

Session B4 (Architecture, Housing and Urban Design) included one of the few dissensions from the contemporary urbanist orthodoxy that suburban densities are unsustainable. Bryan Pooley talked about his PhD project, which retrofitted his traditional house in Three Kings, Auckland, to reduce its energy use substantially. He pointed out that servicing the occupants is more important, in energy terms, than servicing the building itself. This is a good point, and it's certainly clear that a lot can be done to improve the energy use of the ordinary suburban house.

However, I'm not convinced by his use of research by Sumita Ghosh, suggesting that densities of 18 households per hectare (approximately quarter-acre sections) have the greatest potential to be sustainable. When questioned as to why sustainability would drop off after this density, he could only answer that households would lose the space to grow their own vegetables(!), lose roof space for photovoltaics, and that "anecdotal evidence" shows that residents of Auckland infill still drive to work.

This seems hard to reconcile with recent research showing greatest energy savings at about triple that density, and claims that Manhattan is the greenest community in America. I didn't see Ghosh's presentation (it ran parallel to this session), but her abstract talks of 18 households per hectare at a moderate distance from Auckland, and I'm not sure how they propose to house Auckland's millions at a moderate distance without considerably higher densities.

In session C4 (Engaging the City), Bruno Gilmour moved away from design towards literary theory, and talked about a subject dear to my heart: using walking as a means of defamiliarising the urban landscape. His discussion of Shklovsky's ostranenie ("making strange"), the Situationist dérive ("drifting" through the city to create an experiental immersion) and "derived transects" (akin to some of Iain Sinclair's forced marches through London) did have some design implications, though, implying that permeability, mixed use and the retention of existing histories were vital in creating an urban environment that is a fertile source of such evocative experiences.

Friday afternoon was taken up by workshops and tours, and I covered the latter previously. More instalments coming soon...

Floriditas: the case for the defence

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I've just received an email that must have reached half of Wellington by now, complaining of bad service at Floriditas in Cuba St. While the behaviour described in the email is clearly unacceptable, I have to admit that I'm incredulous, as it seems completely out of character.

I must have visted Floriditas at least 20 times in the last few months, on occasions ranging from a quick coffee to a full dinner for ten people, and the service has never been less than friendly and professional. Some of the younger staff are a little inexperienced, but they've always been cheery and welcoming.

It's a pity that one bad experience can spread so far while good impressions rarely have the same impact. So here's a bit of balance: Floriditas offer simple food based on fantastic ingredients, at incredibly reasonable prices, in a stylish atmosphere with courteous and efficient service.


A quick update: I went there for dinner last night (for some delicious gnocchi with slow-cooked tomato sauce and fresh herbs) and the staff commented that it was their quietest night since opening. I asked whether they thought that it was due to the email, and while they hadn't seen the email, they remembered the incident when I described it. Not surprisingly, their recollection was rather different from the complainer (probably because the staff were sober). It's quite revealing that, apparently, some of the complainer's party came back afterwards and apologised to the staff about their friend's behaviour.


And another update: I've just added a new post about the latest developments.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Fireside korero

As part of the Word Festival, last night Thistle Hall stoked up the (electric) fire for Fireside Korero. Amid the usual open mic clichés (public-bar doggerel, undergraduate angst and wild-eyed anarchists) there were some vigorous performance skills, subtle allusions, and even some attention to language. I loved the fantasy of Frank Sargeson and the bananas at New World!

There was also a true sense of camaraderie and welcome (though Don Brash or Kerry Prendergast might have found otherwise if they'd turned up). At 7 tonight, you can see the best of the festival performing in Howltearoa ("I have seen the best minds of my generation getting stoned on Cuba St..." etc).


Yesterday I took part in Urbanism Down Under's tour of recent multi-unit developments in the inner suburbs. Densification is a vital part of sustainable growth, so it's a pity to see that so much infill is so poorly designed. The Aqua apartments (in Oriental Pde opposite Waitangi Park) are an exception, combining crisp modernity with enough articulation to prevent a monolithic appearance. Others in Mt Cook reveal an exclusive concern for profit at the expense of aesthetics and neighbourliness.

Assessing the Greta Point development was trickier. The unfriendly entrance, faux-Tuscan cheesiness, poor relationship to the water and forlorn token "community spaces" didn't auger well, despite the soundness of the basic typology. But then a few people appeared at their windows for a chat (at 4pm on a Friday) and some children came out to play, giving the place a semblance of life.

I can't see this ever succeeding as a true mixed-use neighbourhood, given its physical isolation from work, schools and shops. But despite this, and its preponderance of orange plasterboard, its claim to be a community might not be too farfetched.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Urbanism Down Under

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The Urbanism Down Under 2005 Conference kicked off today with a rousing start, as Gerald Blunt (chair of the organising committee) quoted James Howard Kunstler railing against:
"...a car-dependent suburban infrastructure - McHousing estates, eight-lane highways, big-box chain stores, hamburger stands - that has no future as a living arrangement in an oil-short future.

The American suburban juggernaut can be described succinctly as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world".
See The Guardian for the full article.

Peter Bosselmann from San Francisco was next, and he began with the observation that urbanity is not about geography, but is a state of mind. It is an openness to the world that is the opposite of provincialism; in his opinion, Wellington exemplifies this mindset. Perhaps that explains the infamous openmindedness of Wellingtonians.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Pick of the pix

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I previously mentioned the SHOOT phone pix competition: the results are now in and published on the Transmit web site. One of the winners' names might seem a little familiar. *cough* I'm off to Matterhorn very shortly to pick up my loot. In the meantime, here are some of my entries, together with a bit of context about the locations and events that they capture.

This was the judge's favourite image. It shows a competitor in the Brothers in Metal snowboard and ski event in Civic Square. I wrote a post about this at the time: Civic Slopes. It shows up both the limitations (poor resolution, lack of exposure control) and the strengths (spontaneity) of current phone cameras.

Amanda la Whore and Sheba Williams strutting on stage at Midnight Burlesque. There are some more photos from this event in the post Cabaret Fever. My phone has no flash and takes terrible pictures in dark environments, but on the other hand, this accentuates the murky, suggestive, restless atmosphere of cabaret.

This photo of the Prudential building in Lambton Quay make it look much more striking and elegant than in the daylight photo I took for my previous post (How wrong could I be?). The slight blurriness caused by the cheap lens and low resolution of the phone actually helped, giving it a misty, vaguely retro feel appropriate to a (formerly) great Art Deco building. Pity about the trolley wires across the middle, but it's a small price to pay for sustainable transport.

This snap of Fat Freddy's Drop on stage at Shed 6 relies on the striking lighting design of the stage crew to give it some colour and compositional interest. Cheap digital cameras are usually terrible for concert photography (poor old Dallas' face just becomes a washed-out blob), but the contrasts of light, smoke and blurrily skanking crowd help give a touch of the live gig feeling.

Street eats: Tony Chestnut

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Tony Chestnut, Left Bank
One of the few street vendors in Wellington is "Tony Chestnut", adding colour and life to the streets while his caramel almonds add padding to my waistline. Based in a shop halfway down the Left Bank near Satay Kingdom, Tony and his helpers usually set up their stall on the corner of the Left Bank and Cuba Mall.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Staggering distance

My previous post about identifying the parts of Wellington within walking distance of a green space reminded me of an even more vital necessity of civilised existence. The first Commandment of urban life is:
Thou shalt not live more than five minutes away from a decent Martini.
Wellington has a fair cross section of bars, opening and closing with bewildering rapidity, but not all of them can deliver a decent cocktail. So, I decided to create a map of local cocktail bars, with circles around them showing the walking (or staggering) distance of any part of the central city from the nearest purveyor of blissful intoxication. Red dots are the watering holes, and concentric rings show distances of 50m, 100m and up to 300m.

Most of the city is well-served, with Blair St standing out, unsurprisingly, as cocktail central. There's a worrying gap between the Lambton and Courtenay Quarters, with only Pod to provide some relief on the Friday night stagger from Suitville to Margaritatown. Upper Tory St is also rather arid, and Latinos stands out as an oasis of Caipirinhas amid the dry wastes of southeast Te Aro.

The Maasique at BoulotBut the most glaring lacuna of all is the waterfront, especially from Te Papa to the Overseas Passenger Terminal. Anyone who finds themselves stranded here will be languishing more than five minutes away from a revivifying draught of aqua vitae, so let's hope that Chaffers Dock and the new buildings by Waitangi Park provide ample opportunities for Wellington's many cocktail afficionados to slake their throats.

Urbanism Down Under

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The Urbanism Down Under 2005 Conference starts this Thursday, in the Town Hall and Michael Fowler Centre. I've been looking forward to this for a while, and having difficulty choosing between the various streams, though I'll probably concentrate on topics directly relevant to Wellington. There are 12 walking tours to choose from on Friday, and I'm torn between the waterfront, City Gateway and a critical assessment of multi-unit developments.

I'll be posting my impressions as it goes, along with any interesting photos, stories or controversies. And I'll somehow have to find time for the Word festival, too!

Dynamic Deco

Water and Fire are Tamed for Man's AdvancementHere are some photos of the etched designs in the foyer of Te Puni Kōkiri House (the former State Insurance building) on the corner of Lambton Quay and Stout St. The conversion of Gummer & Ford's distinctive 1941 Moderne office building by Athfield Architects in 1999 has been controversial, with some of the more fundamentalist heritage lobby feeling that the glass and steel additions were out of keeping with the original building, whereas others in the architectural community have praised the bold extension as an intriguing variation on the original theme.

Water and Fire are Tamed for Man's AdvancementHowever, the interior retains some of the original features, including these strange and wonderful Art Deco designs on the pink marble walls of the lobby. Featuring hilariously triumphalist captions ("Electric Power Man's New Servant", "Water and Fire are Tamed for Man's Advancement") that are a relic of an age before environmental sensitivity, they are magnificent period pieces full of futurist dynamism, celebrating a bright and streamlined technological future.

So, if you're wandering around on the Parliament and Thorndon heritage walk, feel free to peek into the lobby to have a look. Just say Kia ora to Hika on the desk: I'm sure he'll be happy to let you have a look.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sex, sin and latte

Yesterday's Sunday Star-Times carried the results of their so-called "Great Morality Debate". Never mind that they ignored any distinction between ethics and morality, and that as a write-in survey it is by definition a complete load of shite (thanks to Keith Ng for pointing out that "A 1000% over-representation of moral conservatives in a survey about moral conservatism is an invalidating, systematic fuckedupness on the scale of having an ass for a face"). This is a Wellington blog, so the talking point for us yesterday was the "finding" that Wellingtonians are a liberal bunch.

Sin CityThis is unlikely to be a surprise to my cocktail-quaffing, toyboy-seeking, cabaret-going readership. But the scale of the difference was surprising: disapproval of pre-marital sex at 22% compared to 36% in Auckland; intolerance of gay sex only 26% compared to a scary 44% in Auckland (suggesting a high Mt Roskill to Ponsonby ratio in their sample).

While the editorial snidely warned that we Wellingtonian "complacent latte-drinkers of the chattering classes" are ignoring a huge groundswell of conservatism, the "researchers" tried to explain the festering sinfulness of Wellington by pointing out that we have have a highly educated population and a lot of public servants. While this conjures up disturbing images of mortar-board fetishism and PVC walkshorts, it's worth investigating the link between higher education and attitudes to sexual morality.

So, combining the survey's dubious numbers with census data, here is a scatter plot showing the incontrovertible link between academia and moral turpitude:

So it's true: education does broaden the mind. And Wellington is clearly vastly more open-minded than the rest of the country (maybe we share more than the harbour and cable car with San Francisco).

Of course, the survey is complete bollocks. But let's all sip our lattes and give a chattering toast to Wellington: Sin City of the South Pacific.

VJ day remembered

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Wellingtonians gathered on Lambton Quay to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and cheer our surviving soldiers.

The crowds were reasonable, though not as large or as animated as for Michael Campbell's recent parade. Still, it's good to see that laying one's life on the line to save one's country from Fascism and Japanese imperialism is almost as highly regarded as knocking a little ball around with a stick.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Movable feasts

I mentioned before that it's hard to believe in a glut of restaurants and bars in Wellington, especially when you're trying to get a large group of cocktail afficionados into Matterhorn on a Friday night. Courtenay Place and its side streets, in particular, have no hospitality vacancies at all. Friends in the industry have mixed opinions, but some say that the business has been pretty tight. I had noticed a few closures recently, but there'd also been some new openings, so I decided to try some very rough research and whip up a map of recent openings and closings.

I plotted only new venues or substantial expansions of existing places, not just a change of restaurant on the same premises. I limited the study to permanent dine-in venues, so temporary venues (like the F69 bar) and takeaways were ignored. I didn't even attempt to track changes in malls and food courts, because they tend to be so volatile (and besides, I do have some standards). My definition of "recent" is fairly vague, since the data comes only from my rather fuzzy memory, and goes back about 3 or 4 years. Here's the result (new places in red, closures in blue):

It's clear that there's been a net increase, but there are couple of areas that look pretty sad. There have been five closures in the Willis-Manners-Victoria-Dixon block, mostly in the last couple of months. While some are so recent that the leases may be taken over again shortly, these closures may reflect the long-term shift of the entertainment district from here to Courtenay Place. Those of you with long memories may recall that back when Allen and Blair offered nothing but wholesale cauliflowers, Armadillo, Dish, Casper's and Chevy's were the places to be (depending upon one's preferences). While a few places still thrive (Vivo and Tupelo), the district is a shadow of its former self, and recent closures hint that it may continue to struggle.

The two dots between Dixon and Ghuznee streets represent what looks like the final demise, after several incarnations, of Apartment Bar and Svago. Tucked down a back alley in the Stygian gloom beneath the old Hannahs factory, they were never going to attract much casual traffic. Their closures seem unrelated to that of Angkor around the corner in Dixon St, as Angkor's owners recently chose to retire after a long and successful career. Update: La Casa Pasta will soon be moving here from just the roas (above Diva).

On the positive side, one of the most striking features is the rash of new cafés on the Terrace. These are mostly only open in the daytime, but it's still good to see the Terrace evolving from an office monoculture to a mixed use environment. There's been little change on the Golden Mile itself: demand here has been so strong that new premises have had to open on nearby side streets. Of the few changes on the Golden Mile, most involve upstairs venues or spaces attached to existing premises. It's especially encouraging that there are many new places between the Golden Mile and the waterfront: this bodes well for improving the connection between the waterfront and the city.

So, while the market has been volatile, it seems that there are enough hungry and thirsty people in Wellington to support new restaurants and bars. But we're fussy and fickle people, so proprietors will have to offer a compelling combination of food, drink, service, atmosphere and location to attract our custom.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Wellyblog roundup

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Just a quick roundup of what some other local bloggers have been up to.

The Wellingtonista picks out some Film Soc highlights coming up at the Paramount, including the magnificent Metropolis (presumably with the non-Queen soundrack!).

Among the usual mix of sports, politics and personal musings, Hadyn at Grabthar's Hammer gets the big Kia Ora from Kung Fu Monkey, and bemoans the stupid technology wars that are messing up the local online music business. He's also apparently reading a book by someone called Salmon Rushdie (The Satanic Gravlax, perhaps?).

Kate at myegoism records a weekend of alcoholic abandon that makes my liver hurt just reading it.

Heimatseeker has a shot of one of the Dubya in Hell billboards that got Jack Yan all steamed up.

Not a blog as such, but my colleague Deb has some gorgeous photos of Wellington details on Flickr.

In the LOOP

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Where would the Wellington music scene be without the good work of Loop Recordings? Here's advance warning of a couple of Loop-related gigs to underline in your diaries.

Ex-Detroit DJ/producer Recloose has been a Matterhorn stalwart for a while now, and his album "Hiatus on the Horizon" adds a laid-back house groove to the usual dub-inflected Welly sound. He's now assembled a live band, featuring regulars of the local scene such as Deva Mahal and Rikki Gooch, and they'll play Indigo on Saturday the 3rd of September.

There's an even more eclectic cross-section of local musos (a bit like Hadyn's Passion for Music cocktail) in Fly My Pretties (check out some samples or buy the album at The Green Room).

They take on a larger venue than their original haunt at Bats when they play three gigs at the Paramount from the 15th to the 17th of September. Tickets are on sale at Real Groovy.

Oh, and come on guys! Stop teasing us and get that Module album out!