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

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Courtroom drama

According to yesterday's Dominion Post, "Architects [are] in uproar over [the] Supreme Court building". What, all of them? Well, if you combine that article with one from last November, a total of three architectural lecturers have actually said they oppose the design, and another has spoken out against the process. I'm not close enough to the architectural community to know whether that's the general consensus, but I don't think that it quite constitutes an uproar.

My first and second thoughts on the design were vaguely positive, but I have to admit I'm less so now. I don't agree with Judi Keith-Brown that it's "quite horrible and a real lemon", or with Peter Cresswell that it's "supreme crap": it's just a bit underwhelming for what should be a building of national importance. It would actually make a very pleasant suburban library, of the sort that Warren and Mahoney are getting a name for, or a small low-rise commercial building with considerably more élan than usual. It would sit very nicely in Wanganui, and as someone once pointed out to me, something remarkably similar already does. But it doesn't say "Supreme Court" to me.

Elevations of the proposed NZ Supreme CourtMy objections are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Keith-Brown's: she says it's too big, but I believe it's too timid and deferential to the old building, and it needs to respond much more boldly to Lambton Quay and the Beehive. I think I can see where W&M were coming from by designing the courtroom itself as a sculptural ovoid clad in rich materials, but surrounded by a transparent rectangular box so that it fits the urban grid. But the ovoid is too small, and the box not transparent enough due to the heavy copper screen, so that from most angles it appears that the most interesting parts would disappear from public view, leaving the impression of a tame and conventional building. As for the park: it was always intended to be temporary, and as I said nearly a year ago when the site was announced, it has never been particularly good. Besides, with its proximity to Parliament grounds, the Government Building gardens and the forecourts of Rutherford House and the Railway Station, this is a part of town that doesn't lack for green space.

Where I do agree wholeheartedly with the objections is that this should have been the subject of a competition. A Supreme Court isn't just a courtroom and judges' chambers, but a national symbol. A competition, possibly international, would have made it less likely for the process to be dominated by the judges and the Historic Places Trust. This design will result in a decent building, but the purpose and the location call for something much more.


At 2:25 pm, February 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is not a terrible design but like you i feel a competition would have been great for a building that is costing some $50 million to construct. I wonder why we have so few competitions for NZ projects. Is it because there are costs involved or they just want to give employment to a NZ firm? The Dominion also mentioned that some of those opposed are peeved off that this building is going to replace a park area. This probably has something to do with the uproar.

At 2:50 pm, February 21, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"The Dominion also mentioned that some of those opposed are peeved off that this building is going to replace a park area. This probably has something to do with the uproar."

Possibly, but when it was announced last year that this was to be the site, there was no uproar or even noticeable objection. The "uproar" (if that's what it is) only came once the design was released.

At 7:46 am, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know how hijacking by heritage bods could have resulted in this design. I don't reckon the two buildings look particularly harmonious, and that it what heritage advoates would want, among other things I can't force my brain to come up with at this hour.

At 9:00 am, February 22, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Height limitations were the main thing that the HPT insisted on, according to my half-remembered discussions with the architects. You can see from the top elevation in my fuzzy picture that the top of the new screen matches the cornice line of the old building, and there are a lot of subtler or more conceptual references that won't be obvious at first glance (plinth height, module dimensions, the concept of the courtroom as a building within a building).

It seems that the HPT (I may be wrong in putting all the blame on them, it may have been other heritage advocates) wanted above all to ensure that the new addition doesn't upstage the old building. That squashed any opportunity for it to be bold or sculptural, and just makes it look timid and apologetic. The screen doesn't help, either: it could have been a good idea in another context, but here it seems fussily overdecorated compared to its neighbour and obscures the one interesting bit (the egg).

Oh well. I guess one of the reasons that I was more positive before was that at least we didn't end up with some sort of neo-classical pastiche a la 80s postmodernism. Shudder. I'm all for harmony, but that doesn't imply imitation.

At 10:44 am, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Tom that there is no doubt the architects were limited in what they could do due to the demands of the heritage folk. Franky i'm surprised we got something that looks even slightly interesting. It wasn't like we were ever going to get some outrageous Daniel Libeskind looking building next to the old high court.

At 11:50 am, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems i was mostly right about the architects being peeved off about this building destroying a park space. Have a look at todays letters to the editor in the Dom Post, it gives you a better indicator about the concerns of architects.

At 1:37 pm, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh for that distant pre-war time when we weren't afraid to pull down an old building to replace it with something better.

What happenned? I guess the post war decades where we pulled things down to replace them with something all to often inferior.

So now we cling on desperatly to anything pre war just because it is.

So many great interwar and pre WW1 era buildings were only possible because they replaced earlier colonial era buildings.

At 4:53 pm, February 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just popped into the City Council today and checked out the folder of information on this (its sitting with all the other big folders full of stuff by their service centre).

After looking in more detail at all the plans, elevations, and perspectives, it can certainly be said that this is *not* an inspirational building.

It is clear from reading that though that there is a need for an entirely new building, the size of the old building and the courtroom in it is just far too small, and you would need to completely gut the building and add another level to come close to creating the amount of space needed. So that was just never an option I don't think.

Is this now a sewn up done deal then? I don't seem to recall getting to put in any feedback. :-\


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