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

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


When I wrote about the potential demolition of the Il Casino building, there was an ominous anonymous comment about plans already existing for redevelopment. I've since heard rumours that these plans may just involve building on the open portion of the site rather than demolishing the whole building, and may just be speculative designs to assess the potential of the site rather than a sign of definite intent. That's slightly reassuring, but I still remain apprehensive.

Among the comments on that post, I mentioned the planned redevelopment of another pioneering restaurant site: the Settlement in Willis St. Harry Seresin was as much an inspiration to Wellington's hospitality scene as Remiro Bresolin has been, and while the old building has suffered some indignities since then (the Lions HQ!) it has at least survived. For a while there were plans in the window advertising its replacement by apartments, but they had disappeared for a few months and I couldn't find it mentioned online, so I wondered whether the plans had fallen through. Recently, though, a rendering of the proposed building has been sporadically visible in the window, and I managed to grab a blurry photo of it.

It's not pretty. It seems to be by the same developer and architect (Stratford Properties, Cockburn Architects) as the nearly complete Stratford apartment/hotel development across the road at 156 Willis St. That building is let down by a gratuitous travesty of a cornice and a shade of green that somehow manages to be simultaneously bland and bilious, but at least it has the virtue of slenderness when seen from Willis St. This one is a little shorter (12 storeys) but three times the width, muscling right up to Roti on one side and Mojo Invincible on the other. There have at least been some attempts to break down that imposing bulk by modulating the roofline, but then they've ruined it by tacking on folksy curvy bits of facade, presumably in deference to the existing Settlement, since none of its neighbours have anything of the sort. But what worked on a colonial two-storey shopfront doesn't belong on a concrete high-rise, and the result looks like a Wild West film set blown up on a malfunctioning photocopier.

I have a lot of respect for Daryl Cockburn's environmental activism, and with groups such as Transport 2000+, Cycle Aware Wellington and Living Streets Aotearoa he has been a welcome advocate for sustainable transport and urban form. However, I have to make a personal judgement (as a layperson) and say that I don't think his buildings are great advertisements for high-density urban living. What he describes as "classical timeless principles" looks to me more like the sort of plasterboard faux-historical gimcrackery that characterised the worst of 1980s postmodernism.

It might be instructive to apply the Architecture Centre's Manifesto for Architecture to this proposal and see how it matches up:

1) Architecture must be better than what it replaces (Fresh air is better than some buildings)
2) Architecture relies on intelligent government (Mindless bureaucracy will only create mindless architecture)
3) Architecture needs an assertive public (Architecture will only thrive if the public demand this)
4) Urban Environments must be planned (but not only by planners)
5) Recycle Architecture; Good architecture is elegant environmentalism (Continued human existence relies on having planet earth in our future; ditto for the next planet)
6) Architecture must facilitate better living (The delights of good design - light, warmth and pleasure etc - must be cherished)
7) Bad building must be eliminated (Wellington is too important for soulless building; buildings designed heartlessly for profit are not architecture)
8) Architecture must be celebrated (New architecture is our future heritage)
9) Architecture has an obligation to challenge (Controversy has a positive role in architecture)

Hmm. A lot of this comes down to aesthetic preference, but already points 1 and 7 are looking a bit shaky. It ignores rule 5, and number 6 is more about amenity for the residents, which is hard to comment on. It's hard to see this being the sort of thing that would be celebrated as heritage in the future, so it falls down on point 8. Its very blandness is what's offensive about it, so number 9 doesn't apply. If we followed point 3 the public might have been able to influence this development for the better, but since this was presumably non-notified (the height doesn't break the District Plan) we haven't had a chance. For that, we can probably blame a failure of points 2 and 4.

Is it too late to achieve a better outcome for the city? The demolition of the Settlement building, while regrettable for its historical importance, is not a terrible loss. A building of this size and location is justifiable on the grounds of increased residential density, and the bulk, while considerable, is probably manageable. It's just the facade that makes it look so cheap and depressing. I believe that it should be possible to come up with a surface treatment that's much more interesting, and that actually enlivens the street, without costing vastly more. The development is yet to start, so nothing is inevitable, but is there any mechanism through which the public, and the architectural community, can ensure that the result is something to be celebrated?


At 10:21 pm, August 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess there are many older buildings in Wellington for whom it could be said that demolition was not a terrible loss. Many have a bog-standard history and modest architectural value as individual structures. However, when one after another bite the dust it becomes really concerning. I'm not that fussed on The Settlement as a building, I think it has been too messed about with, but it has such an important local history, and is part of a pleasing collection of small-scale older buildings. Will the demoliton of this make the demolition of other comparable buildngs nearby easier/more likely? Quite possibly, precedents are important to developers.

At 10:32 pm, August 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any idea what's going to happen at the former A-mart site? I do know that A-mart has reverted back to Mr Chan's and shifted a few blocks north, and the Chinese BBQ place is moving to the Wakefield Market. No word yet on the famous Thorndon Seafoods (it's already been displaced once).

At 11:45 am, August 09, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

anonymous: you're right about precedent. That part of Willis St has quite a mixture of high- and low-rise buildings, but with the recent developments the low-rise ones will start to stand out as the anomalies. In any case, the block is zoned for high-rises (max heights between 43.8m and 75m - approximately 10 to 18 storeys), so developers wouldn't need much in the way of precedent.

deepred: I didn't know that they'd moved already. I know that Chris Parkin (owner of the Museum hotel and apartments; former councillor) owns the A-mart building and has planned for some time to develop it. It will presumably be apartments above: it's zoned for 24m or about 5 storeys, but Parkin's been quite successful in going over height limits before. I don't know whether he intends to keep the ground floor for something similar to A-mart or try some other (more lucrative) type of retail.

Personally, I'd love to see something like A-mart continue, but with more stalls and open at night: the sort of (licensed!) food court of which Tze Ming would approve. With a more active edge to the streets and a decent verandah, it would do a lot to create connections between Courtenay Pl and Waitangi Park.

As for Thorndon Seafoods: wouldn't it be great if it moved to Chaffers Dock? I've got a reason to believe that Mojo might open a branch there (which would be cool), but a fish 'n' chips shop between Waitangi Park and the marina would be fantastic.

At 2:53 pm, August 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what I understand the council is set to adopt amendments to its Central Area Design guide - currently it has little teeth to stop the kind of bottom-feeder architecture we are seeing constructed in upper Willis St!! [and elsewhere]

Also I definitely second a good fish n' chip store for the waterfront area!

At 8:56 pm, August 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...is there any mechanism through which the public, and the architectural community, can ensure that the result is something to be celebrated?"

In Wellington? Of course not.


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