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

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Do you recognise any of these buildings? Hide the following paragraph if you want to try identifying them.

NZ Parliament House (bottom left) compared to Wikipedia photos of (clockwise from top left) Ottawa Government Conference Centre, San Francisco Opera House and the Lincoln Memorial
Chances are that if you are a Wellingtonian you will recognise the building on the bottom left as Parliament House. If you are an architect or if you work near Parliament (and that probably covers about half my readership) then you would have spotted it reasonably quickly, but others might have taken a while to identify it without prompting. For all its dignity and elegance, there's not much that for a non-specialist immediately makes it distinctively different from other grand Neo-Classical buildings, in this case from Ottawa, San Francisco and Washington DC. But if I show it in context, it's a different story:

NZ Parliament House and The Beehive
The Beehive, for all its practical problems and apparently arbitrary oddness, is instantly recognisable. The word "iconic" has almost reached semantic satiation through mindless overuse, but in this case it's true in the proper Peircean sense of visually signifying Wellington: for decades it was the default image for the city, and in many places still is. I love the fact that we're no longer simply summed up by a symbol of bureaucracy, and that today we're more likely to be represented by the image of a public sculpture (Ferns, the Nikau Palms, the Bucket Fountain): it's a change that says something important about Wellington's evolution as a city. But the Beehive is uniquely recognisable as a Wellington building in the way that the more traditional and elegant Parliament House could never be.

Pop philosopher Alain de Botton seems to disagree, though. De Botton, who will be talking in Wellington tonight to promote his book The Architecture of Happiness, was quoted in Friday's Dominion Post as saying:
"It's almost like its first mission is to look unusual. ... The Beehive doesn't really seem to be in dialogue with the old bit. It almost seems like it's just decided to step up on stage and do its own thing without really thinking what's around it."
Comparison of columns on The Beehive and Parliament HouseI used to think the same thing, as it seemed to have very little in common with the adjacent Parliament House. But if you look at the colonnades of the two, you can see how the new building has interpreted the column heights, rhythms and cornice of the old. In fact, the photo used by the Dominion Post article is from an angle that shows this very strongly. Combined with the shared use of Takaka marble, this gives a sense of continuity that may not be immediately apparent, but is quite strong once you know what to look for. It could even be argued that there's a greater stylistic clash between Parliament House and the adjacent Parliamentary Library, since the battle of the styles between Victorian Gothics and Classicists was as vitriolic as that between 20th-Century Modernists and traditionalists.

It appears from drawings by the architect (Sir Basil Spence) that the Beehive was intended to complement the existing building, so whether or not this was successful, there certainly is a dialogue between old and new. These drawings (which were published along with Robin Skinner's article in the March/April 2005 edition of Architecture New Zealand) also show that, far from being the result of the mythical "sketch on a dinner napkin", The Beehive was carefully thought through by Spence before being passed over to the Ministry of Works. This myth seems remarkably hard to kill, and still appears in the Wikipedia article (I'll get around to editing it some day) and all over the web. Skinner's article discusses the origins of the myth, and also reveal's Spence's rationale behind the circular plan: it would echo the curve of Bowen and Molesworth streets, and he believed that a circular form was appropriate for the sloping site, as it would act as a "peg in the ground" to visually stabilise the site and stop "an aesthetic slide down the hill".

So, rather than The Beehive being an arbitrary attempt at novelty, it appears that it was the result of a genuine engagement with the site and architectural context. The results of this engagement may be of debatable aesthetic success, and they are not exactly obvious to the layperson, but they have produced a building that in a few decades has become part of our folklore. There are even dark rumours of Masonic symbolism, hidden numerological meanings and cosmometallurgical significance: you'll be reading more about that soon. And it may be a period piece, a tacky hangover from 60s Modernism, yet time has moved on to the stage where it's almost reached the level of kitsch that leads to ironic celebration and thence to real appreciation.


At 3:21 pm, May 23, 2006, Blogger Will de Cleene said...

Always have hated the Beehive always will. It has had its moments, most notably in McP&G's Goodnight Beehive skits. However, the lifts are too small. Concrete support beams shoot through the offices like the ducts in Brazil. At night with all the lights on, it resembles an insect repellent bulb.

It is also a terrible place to get drunk in. Think the carousel scene in F&L in LV.

At 8:03 am, May 24, 2006, Blogger Hadyn said...

I love that scene!

I also like the beehive at night because you realise how much glass they have used. With the lights on the building becomes quite transparent and suddenly looks bigger.

It also has that nice "concrete with dark wood and green lights" feel that I get from the Matterhorn.

I agree about the interior though. Even with the renovations the offices are cramped and the elevator lobby is confusing.

It's generally what the building is filled with that's the problem.

At 3:57 pm, May 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the Blog. I am a NZ Architect now working in Sydney.

We're doing a precendent study of circular plan buildings and I'd like to include the Beehive. I can't however find anything on the web. Do you know where I would find even a basic plan?.

Thanks again,

Darren Graham


Post a Comment

<< Home