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

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

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.


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