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

Monday, April 30, 2007

Amaro roundup

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My month of drinking amaro (Duncan was right: I should use the singular for consistency) certainly had its ups and downs. As hard as I try, I can't develop a taste for Fernet Branca, and I think the Argentine approach (mixed with Coke) is if anything even more palate-searing than having it straight. Cynar may taste nothing like the artichokes from which it is made, and one should be thankful for that, but it is still powerfully astringent and unapproachable for a neophyte. But they have nothing on Unicum, a Hungarian bitter which has been described as "smelling like a hospital corridor" and having "a flavour akin to hairspray", and sits on the shelves of Motel looking like an evil version of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Motel's cocktail list has a drink that includes real gunpowder, but it lacks firepower compared to this dark and impenetrable Mitteleuropean concoction.

So is the drinking of various amari nothing but a display of macho masochism? Not at all, since the best are truly delicious after your palate has adjusted. Capitol is indeed the amaro capital of Wellington, featuring some exquisite and obscure liqueurs involving myrtle, gentian and other aromatic herbs. But my favourite discovery had to be Barolo Chinato, a much richer blend than expected, based upon the namesake wine and the addition of quinine.

Motel, Matterhorn, Scopa and Good Luck all have good selections, and many an evening was lost in contemplation of Averna, Ramazotti and their cousins (such as Becherovka, which with its light body, high alcohol content and cinnamon notes is more like a spirit than an amaro). But I guess I'm not a true purist, since my favourite amaro moment of the month was a "Johnny Roselli" cocktail (click the "drink" tab) at Hawthown Lounge: Montenegro, Dubonnet and really good dark rum, with a twist of flamed orange peel to tie it all together. Hmm, I can feel a return to cocktails in the near future...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bouncing back 5

In the time since my summer shakedown post, there's been the expected revival in the Wellington hospitality scene, but it's a little slow and tentative so far. There are, however, several imminent or promised arrivals, so things do seem to be looking up.

The most notable opening is the General Practitioner, which means that the last of the Rao empire is back on its feet. That's a good thing in itself, and having a respectfully restored heritage building on a sunny corner returned to the drinking and dining world is something to celebrate. Not everyone will enjoy the sight of the alarmingly-proportioned syringes and other surgical instruments displayed in vitrines, though it's hard to tell whether they're quite as offputting as the clientele, which on the night I visited consisted largely of braying suits, Chardonnay harpies and National party politicians.

I've already mentioned Martha's Pantry, which offers coffee and tiny cakes alongside flowers and delicate knick knacks in the decidedly less delicate environs of Karo Drive. There's still little sign of anything else opening up among the polished and empty shells of Upper Cuba St, though there are some faint hints of work going on in the husk of the old Bodega over in Willis St. Does anyone know what may or may not be happening there?

That's about it for brand new places since February, though two that I was pessimistic about have since reopened. Mezzaluna had indeed closed, but has since returned as Dorall. The Old Bank Bar & Café looked dead, but has instead been split in two, with Higher Taste occupying the old pokies room while the Old Bank itself has reopened in the remainder of the space. What was Cabaret is still active (as an extension of Chow), but I'll no longer count it as a separate entity.

While two new places have opened, one relatively established business has closed. Coco lost its "Pacific Vibe" some time ago, and it finally closed its doors yesterday. Whether its demise had anything to do with recent reports of bad service, or whether that was merely a symptom, is hard to say. It now appears that the space will become some sort of "recycled clothing boutique" or vintage shop.

So, since my last accounting, we've had a net gain of only one, bringing the change since the last map in December to a loss of three. But things are about to get interesting, and I can think of at least six brand new places that are about to open in spaces that were previously retail or that didn't exist at all. Some of those are hardly exciting, such as Esquires Coffee (yet another chain) at the Holiday Inn and the café set to open in the base of the Central Stratford apartment hotel in Willis St. The website promises a licensed bistro with a "tapas style" evening menu, but it also promised an April opening, and from the cheap & nasty look of the building itself and its even nastier companion planned for across the street, I wouldn't expect an unmissable experience.

Others might be more welcome, such as Mojo and Caffé Italiano in upper Cuba St (thus making up for the loss of Coco). Habebie, which describes itself as an "authentic Lebanese bar and restaurant", should also be worth checking out when it opens in the Oaks complex opposite Dixon St Deli. Most intriguing is the prospect of a brand-new Cuban café, and not even in Cuba St!

There have also been some blink-and-you'll-miss-them transformations. Theo's Taverna is now Kosmos, and Spice Island has become Perrett's Corner, though given the history of that site it's hard to say how long it will last. Orchid Lounge has finally closed, after an unsuccessful half-hearted attempt to revitalise East West and a brutal (but probably justified) review by David Burton. The new owners are wisely steering well clear of "Asian tapas", and it will become a casual French bistro called Le Métropolitain. Given that the owners are from Normandy and Lyon, with recent experience at François and Pravda, that should really be something to look forward to.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cowardly New World

A while ago we were speculating about what would happen when Wellington's worst building, Chaffers New World, undergoes what had been touted as a major overhaul. Would Foodstuffs take the opportunity to bring a bit of urbanity to a site that had been blighted by outdated suburban planning? Would the carpark be shielded from the street by small shops, as at Thorndon? Or even better, would it be sent completely underground? Would the value of the site (both financially and urbanistically) be realised by incorporating the supermarket into a mid-rise mixed-use complex. Or, hoping against hope, would it be rebuilt on the eastern half of the site where it should have been in the first place, thus freeing up the viewshaft down Cambridge Terrace to the Waitangi Precinct and the harbour?

Fat chance. Here are some renderings of the planned redevelopment (which I've taken the liberty of adapting from DeepRed's post to SkyscraperCity):

It looks like some of the arbitrary postmodern gimcrackery will be removed, replaced by steel and glass vaguely in the style of the railway station Metro store. Of all the supermarket chains, New World have shown the most encouraging glimpses of understanding the value of urbanism, which makes this superficial makeover all the more disappointing. The images suggest that the result might look ever so slightly better, but I guess Hitler would have looked better with a decent haircut, too.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In Memoriam

I can finally mention what I've known about unofficially for a while: it's been publicly announced that New Zealand Memorial Park will be built in front of the old Museum on Buckle St. It's not quite what I originally speculated about when demolition of the service station first started, since it will be where Buckle St is now rather than on the north side of it, and there's an additional nice touch in that the "Greening the Quays" project will be extended up Taranaki St to the park.

There are a few weird things, however, and all are related to the bypass. First, since one of the purposes of the bypass was to ensure that traffic goes in a nice straight line, rather than having to twist and turn, isn't it a bit strange to realign Buckle St so that it will now presumably have to take a sharp dog-leg to match up with Arthur St? It also seems a bit of a waste to have just repaved the northern edge of Buckle St as a pedestrian and bicycle path, only to dig it up again. And what about this quote from the Mayor: "we are honoured to have such a poignant memorial in the middle of our city"? If it's a "bypass", then by definition it should bypass the central city. But this park will be on the side of the "bypass" that's away from the city, meaning that either this park won't be in the middle of the city, or that the "bypass" is a huge misnomer since it's actually ripped through the "city" rather than going around it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Shops that pass in the night 12

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The Wellington hotel & apartment complex nearing completionThe stretch of upper Cuba St shops being redeveloped as part of The Wellington apartment and hotel complex is now almost completely tenanted. As I noted a couple of months ago, Eyeball Kicks and the superette have already moved in, and Mojo coffee and Caffé Italiano are both supposed to be on the way. There's already a florist taking temporary residence in one of the units, but they'll soon move next door to make way for Mojo. A larger tenancy towards the southern end may still be unleased, but the last of the small tenancies is about to become the new home of Madame Fancy Pants when it opens this Friday.

So: a jeweller, a florist, a tiki/hot rod gallery, a couple of cafés and a dairy: is this the gentrification that some of us had worried would follow the redevelopment? Some of these are certainly a little more upmarket than their predecessors, but with the possible exception of Caffé Italiano none of them are national or global chains. It's not all tattoo parlours and anarchist bookshops, but it's an interesting cross-section of local businesses and far from inappropriate for Cuba St.

ALC HQ in Cuba StInterestingly, just up the road from here is an example of reverse gentrification (plebification? Bohofication?). Belle Vie was always a pleasant enough shop, but it seemed strangely out of place: dainty homeware and exquisitely catered designer weddings never struck me as being uppermost in the mind of patrons of the nearby Spacesuit clothing or San Francisco Bathhouse. After they moved to a new location in Willis St, the old shop was empty for a while, but as I wrote over on that other site, it's now ALC HQ. Clothes for skaties, punks and emos: now that's much more Cuba!

The old Eyeball Kicks site in Ghuznee St was empty for a little while as well, but it's just re-opened as Sweet vintage clothing. It would be even sweeter if they had some menswear, but I guess men hang onto their clothes until they fall apart. And the shop vacated by Madam Fancy Pants at the top of Plimmer Steps is about to become another jewellery boutique, this time one that's moving in from Eastbourne. No word yet on what will become of the space that housed Modern Love before the opening of their new Left Bank shop, but it raises the question: is the top of Plimmer Steps now the place to watch for up-and-coming new shops?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Playing favourites #1: Wellington City Library

Well, the Dom didn't quite get around to publishing the top ten list today, rendering redundant my unseemly rush to post my own list. I know what's on the "official" list, and there are a few there that made me think "damn, I should have chosen that one too". With the list due for publication some time this week, I might as well post about my number one favourite post-WWII building in central Wellington.

You may have gathered that I rather like Modernist architecture (though certainly not Modernist planning), so it may come a surprise that my favourite Wellington building bears many of the hallmarks of postmodernism. But the Wellington City Library is everything that postmodernist architecture was supposed to have been about: design as language and meaning, taking the best from history while being responsive to the needs of a changing society, bringing playfulness, delight and local relevance to the built environment.

Wellington City LibraryIn the corporate world, po-mo rapidly devolved into a debased quasi-classical Legoland of tacked-on anachronistic quackery. But the detailing here is anything but arbitrary. Take a simple column, one that plays a structural role and helps to define space. Note how a classical column erupts into a mass of acanthus leaves at the top, then look to the local flora for inspiration, and your columns become Nikau palms. Use them as a colonnade, then let them out of captivity to colonise the square and mark the gateway to the sea. This is a true integration of art, architecture and urbanism, not the tired old "turd in the plaza" as a cynical afterthought.

This may be the highest achievement of Athfield's "Mies meets Gaudí" phase, though it's perhaps more Foster than Mies (a sinuous curtain wall straight out of Ipswich), and more Rossi than Gaudí (all those rag-rolled walls, small square windows and heavy Bolognese arcades). The interior is more individual, playing airiness against containment while throwing in deconstructive in-jokes and bringing in the warmth of handcrafted and customised furniture. After only a few years, it's already easy to forget how radical it was to bring a café and neon signs into a library: what do you mean, libraries are supposed to be fun? Are you mad?!

It's still not perfect (the columns between the escalators are in exactly the wrong places, and the flow between public and library spaces is a bit awkward), but perfect buildings (Villa Rotonda, Johnson's Glass House) are perhaps too cold and aloof to thrive amid the jostle of an urban environment. This is a living, breathing building, and a vital part of the change that kick-started Wellington's metamorphosis from a grey and apologetic government town into a lively and confident city. It's a building that I always enjoy, as a passer-by or as a visitor. It may not be the most beautiful or elegant building, but it's my favourite.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Playing favourites #2: Racing Conference building

NZ Racing Conference building, WellingtonThis one's bound to be uncontroversial: surely everyone loves the Racing Conference building, even if they just know it as "that building with the Lido in it and the curvy verandah".

Sharp corner sites often bring out the best in buildings, but few have done it with such elegance and sense of fun. The fenestration is all proper, no-nonsense Modernism, but the curves look back a few decades to Art Deco streamlining. The materials are surprisingly rich and textured, and while the horseshoe motifs are as kitsch as ever, they're a constant reminder of the building's original purpose.

NZ Racing Conference building and Lido Cafe
But it's the sinuous ripple of the verandah that really lifts it out of the ordinary. Most people don't enjoy it quite as much as the kids I once saw somewhat gingerly skateboarding on top of it, but it's still something that raises a smile. Elegant, friendly and memorable: those are three qualities that are always welcome in a building.

Playing favourites #3: First Church of Christ Scientist

The First Church of Christ Scientist in upper Willis St is one of Ian Athfield's most enigmatic creations. Even if you don't like it, you'll have to admit that it's one of the most extraordinary buildings in town. Perhaps more than any other public building, it exemplarises Ath's apparently incompatible pairing of Mies and Gaudi: crisp glass volumes enveloped by organic forms, colourful glazed ceramics and impossible columns. New Zealand has few (if any) examples of the short-lived fashion for blobby buildings, so perhaps this will have to stand as an example of blobitecture avant la lettre.

On a larger scale this would have been a show-stopping, gobsmacking icon building. As it is, it's an elusive little gem of spatial metaphors, whimsical detail, domestic intimacy and resonant strangeness. It's a glowing white Rorschach test, like Hamlet's cloud "very like a whale". Every time I walk past, I'm astonished anew by the very fact of its existence.

Playing favourites #4: Rutherford House and Lambton Interchange

extensions to Rutherford HouseNumber four on my list combines the recent extensions to Rutherford House with the Lambton Interchange, so it's not so much a single building as a cluster or family of buildings; a diverse and exuberant collection of shapes, unified by a sleek palate of metal and glass. Some of the forms seem arbitrarily skewed at first, but they're merely expressing their underlying functions (the sloped floors of lecture theatres) with undisguised glee. What could have been awkward spaces underneath have been used intelligently for a ramp and a bookshop. Inside, light has been thrown about with almost profligate generosity: don't they know that bus terminals and pedestrian underpasses are supposed to be dank and forbidding?

The central building itself, the old Rutherford House, remains an undistinguished chunk of Ministry of Works construction no matter what attempts are made to dress it up, but the low-level additions have filled out the block to bring some urbanity to an area otherwise characterised by isolated buildings and lost spaces. Infrastructure, education and retail have been brought together to form a vital urban node, and the architecture not only reflects these mixed uses but lifts them to a level that recently has been all too rare in either public or private buildings.

Lambton Interchange

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Playing favourites #5: Umbrella Park apartments

Umbrella Park apartmentsThe "Umbrella Park" apartment building at 128 Wakefield St (I'm not sure whether they're officially called that: the umbrella in question has since been moved up to the corner of Cuba and Manners Malls) has to be one of the best purpose-built residential blocks in the city. I love it for the way it fits in with its neighbour: not by imitating its style, detailing & materials, but by following its pattern of solids and voids to define inset balconies, then riffing on them to project a daringly airy stack of decks. A verandah and glass stairwell stick out at jaunty angles, as if the building can't quite resist breaking out of the strictness of the city grid.

Slate-grey Zincalume and shiny diamond plate, combined with some surprisingly bright green, blue and orange highlights, place it firmly amid the mid-Nineties obsession with industrial chic. But I don't think it's dated so much as of-its-time, and there's nothing wrong with a building expressing the moods and fashions of the era in which it was built. It's not timeless, but timeful.

Stairway at Umbrella Park apartmentsI have slight reservations about the handling of the first-floor parking: no doubt there's some architectural intent behind the wire mesh and exposed wood, but to my eyes it just looks a bit sloppy and cheap compared to the rest. Felix café has helped turn a pointless and exposed "open space" into a lively urban corner, but the co-option of the sheltered colonnade as a smoking area has nibbled away at the public realm. Otherwise, it's an exemplary mixed-use inner-city building: tough yet playful, individual yet contextual.

Playing favourites #6: The Hannah Playhouse

The Hannah Playhouse (home to Downstage Theatre) is rapidly emerging as one of the popular favourites on the Architectural Centre blog, and it's certainly been one of my favourites for a long time. It's got all that textural shuttered concrete to appeal to fans of Brutalism, and it's handled with surprising delicacy, but the chief glory is the roof.

Hannah Playhouse
It's hard to see from this photo, but it's a simple yet boldly faceted form that marks this important street corner in a very memorable way. When it's lit up at night, it's like a geological formation or ancient pyramid, standing out just enough from the rectilinearity of the urban grid. If only something like Courtenay Central had had the courage to express the forms of the various auditoria within, rather than hiding it all behind a box of cheap cladding, Courtenay Place would have had an architectural icon at its centre rather than an embarrassing interloper from suburbia.

The various restaurant conversions on the ground floor may have detracted from its original integrity to some extent, but they show how such a supposedly "introspective" building type as a theatre can have active edges and contribute to the urban environment (hello Circa, we're looking at you). It's an enduring delight that looks great in black and white, and it's a vital part of the city. More details and CAD plans are available on the wonderful VenueWeb.

Playing favourites #7: Te Puni Kōkiri House

Te Puni Kōkiri HouseOkay, I'm rattling these out now because the DominionPost will publish the Architectural Centre's emerging best-of list on Saturday. This one is likely to be more controversial, since Athfields' 1990s addition to Te Puni Kōkiri House is very polarising: some people love it, but others (heritage fundamentalists in particular) can't stand it. Personally, I think it's a bold and exhilarating complement to Gummer & Ford's 1941 original.

I use the word "complement" very carefully, because it's so obviously different to the Art Deco building that it extends, and yet they come together to create a lively composition. I could extend the musical analogy by saying that the strictest preservationists would insist that any additions or alterations to heritage buildings must be in unison with the original. The downside of this can be seen across the road at Plischke's Massey House, which has had a sideways extension in identical materials, thus destroying its once elegant proportions. On the other hand, the worst examples of building additions (including several on the previous list) are completely tone deaf, as if someone started bashing away on their instruments without even bothering to listen to the original tune first.

This case is different: neither simplistic unison nor thoughtless clash. Harmony is a complex, subtle and very personal thing, and doesn't always exclude judicious use of discord. Rather than trying to replicate the original surface, Athfield Architects have looked for the bones of the building, and imagined how they might have grown into the future with contemporary materials. The result carries on the rhythmic angles of the corrugated façade and extrapolates them into a composition of shapes that is calm from some perspectives but striking from others. The original State Insurance building was a fine and innovative structure, and the new levels would make a fantastic building in their own right. But together they're something quite special: an intelligent remix rather than a note-for-note cover version.

The top of Te Puni Kōkiri House

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Playing favourites #8: Freyberg Pool

Freyberg Pool, WellingtonThere's been some debate over on the Architectural Centre blog about whether or not the Freyberg Pool belongs among Wellington's ten best buildings, but for me, there's never been any doubt. There's an elegance in the swoop of the roof that's all too rare, and it has structural and functional logic behind it as well. I've always been fond of its almost Niemeyeresque dynamism, but it wasn't until I was fortunate enough to have dinner one night at Martin Bosley's that the pool's beauty really hit me: the light flooding out of the glass walls and across the marina was breathtaking.

Imagine if the well-loathed TSB Arena had exhibited such élan! Sure, it's at least twice the size, but even a building of those dimensions should be capable of some grace. Concrete-and-glass Modernism gets a bad rap in some quarters, but the Freyberg Pool proves that back in the 1960s, at least some people saw the need for a long-span roof as an opportunity to create beauty rather than as an excuse to build a cheap shed.

Playing favourites #9: School of Architecture and Design

Victoria University Of Wellington School Of Architecture And DesignThe next on my list is Victoria University's School of Architecture and Design at 139 Vivian St. Strangely, the School's own "About Us" page doesn't mention anything about its architectural history, beyond that it was converted from a cargo building. I know that it was originally an Air New Zealand building from the 1960s (I think that one of the artworks at Olive cafe uses the letters from the old sign), and from memory I think that the architects of the conversion were Craig Craig Moller, but I'm open to correction.

In any case, it was one of the most radical building conversions in Wellington, and it's hard to remember the dull grey original. It looks like a huge glass spike has been driven through the front elevation, and this brutal slicing of the host building, together with the acute angles of the glass and steel elements, give it just the slightest hint of deconstructivist architecture. This is softened by the smooth curves along the top, and brightened up by the bold red paint job, giving a nod to postmodernism. Inside, there are hints of High-Tech and remnants of the late Modernist original, making this a mini-essay in the architecture of the last 50 years.

Victoria University Of Wellington School Of Architecture And DesignIt's far from perfect from an urbanist perspective, though. The entrance is tucked almost apologetically around the corner, whereas Cobblestone Park gets a dour stone wall as a backdrop rather than the active edge it deserves. I know that the park is supposed to be redesigned soon, and this would be a great opportunity to give the building a park entrance. Despite these niggles, it's still a bright and lively presence on Vivian St and a great example of how building conversions don't have to be timid and deferential to be successful.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tiki fiends, look out!

Voodoo Mambo @ Mighty MightyAloha, Tiki people: "Voodoo Mambo" is coming to Mighty Mighty this Friday. Hopepa and Rosco will bring mysterious rhythms back from the mists of time, and when you tire of their patented "Mighty Mai Tais", you can always sip fine rums from your shrunken head shot glasses. You do have a shrunken head shot glass, don't you?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Playing favourites #10: Jellicoe Towers

Following on from their list of Wellington's worst buildings, the Architectural Centre are planning a similar list of the city's best building, and they have a list of nominations and the beginnings of a discussion over on their new blog. I thought I'd add my own suggestions here, in the form of a countdown of my ten favourite buildings.

Note that I said "favourite" rather than "best", partly because I don't feel qualified to make such absolute judgements, and partly because these aren't necessarily the buildings that I think would be the best according to any rigorous analysis. They're simply the buildings that make me smile or look twice, that make me think or that simply add a bit of grace, excitement or good neighbourliness to the city. And they are very much in the city: I do have some favourite buildings outside the CBD (such as the Chapel of Futuna), but these choices reflect both my greater familiarity with the inner city and my interest in the way that buildings fit in to the urban environment.

They're also all post-WWII buildings, which was a conscious decision. Everything on the list of shame was built in the last 10-15 years, and I considered the same restriction, but too many of my favourites were from the Modernist and Brutalist periods.

Jellicoe Towers, 189 The Terrace, WellingtonMy number ten choice is definitely from that era, though it's debatable whether it really counts as Brutalist. Jellicoe Towers at 189 The Terrace was one of the earliest high-rise apartment buildings in Wellington, and is still one of the most striking. That's not due to its detailing or materials, and while its dark horizontal ribs and textured concrete have their own appeal to purists, the truth is that if it were half the height or twice the width it would be unremarkable at best.

No, it's the daring proportions that make it so eyecatching and even elegant. Rosemary Howell put it well when she wrote that "its exceptionally slender design was an attempt to minimise its visual intrusiveness, and yet it is precisely this which makes it such a spectacle on the Wellington skyline".

There's a lesson in that for today's high-rises: efforts to limit the visual impact of buildings by restricting their height often result in a worse aesthetic outcome for the city, and Wellington has more than its share of stumpy, bulky failed skyscrapers. There are, of course, parts of the city where a low- to mid-rise streetscape is more appropriate, but when we do decide to build high, we should have the courage to let that height express itself to the full.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Whose lane is it, anyway?

Example of dynamic lane lines in Constable StThe media reaction to the council's plans for bus priority measures was sadly predictable: instead of headlines like "Public transport to be improved", all the focus was on the loss of some parking. The first Dominion Post article was headlined "Residents resist bus lane scheme", Radio NZ's headline was "Bus lane plan bans parking at peak times", and the leading sentences in the articles were along the lines of "Proposal raises fears of congestion and a parking nightmare" and talked of a "bus lane policy that will strip residents of their rights to park cars on busy thoroughfares".

Excuse me? When did it become a "right" to store one's private property on a public thoroughfare? And I'm sure those residents would prefer it to one of the few other options for increasing the capacity of the roads: widening them by acquiring and demolishing their houses.

Proposed Wellington bus lane networkThe actual proposals (Report 1 and its appendices from last Thursday's meeting) are quite complex and subtle, and involve a staged implementation over many years. While the eventual 40km network looks very extensive, many of the suburban arterial routes aren't planned to undergo conversion for some years. The priority is, sensibly enough, to deal with the Golden Mile first, followed by the growth spine, and only then looking at other routes such as Karori and Island Bay. The lanes themselves would also be phased in gradually, starting as "transit lanes" (including taxis and high-occupancy vehicles) and only shifting to bus-only when demand has grown. Eventually more "radical" measures, such as removing private vehicles from parts of the central city and Newtown, would be considered, but in the interim it's actually a very measured and even timid approach to public transport priority.

What does this all mean for light rail? The Mayor has (of course) labelled it "unaffordable", and my council sources tell me that the idea is dead, though it was only eternal optimists like me who ever hoped that it was being seriously considered. The report itself only says "While in the future light rail may be a more desirable form of mass transport, now and in the medium term enhancing the existing successful bus service will offer more affordable and tangible gains". There's no real definition of what "future" or "medium term" means in this context, except that the proposal is part of the long-term plan out to 2016. If ten years is "long term", perhaps within five years it will be time to look at more serious mass transit.

After all, none of the bus lane plans preclude future conversion to light rail, and in fact many of the measures could be considered as pre-requisites for it. In the medium term, a fleet of refurbished trolley buses with dedicated lanes and signal pre-emption could offer some of the benefits of light rail, and as demand grows it could be converted into a light rail corridor with all its additional benefits (greater capacity, greater passenger appeal, lower long-term running costs, integration with the rail network). That, of course, presumes that the council doesn't blow all our money on extra roads and tunnels first.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shooting fish at the bottom of the barrel

The Architectural Centre has had a go at identifying Wellington's worst buildings, and the results are featured on pages A8 and A9 of yesterday's Dominion Post. While I might quibble about the precise rankings, I agree that they're all pretty hideous and deserve to be singled out for criticism. Here's the list:

1 Chaffers New World (279 Wakefield St), Foodstuffs internal designers
2 TSB Arena (Queens Wharf), Craig Craig Moller
3 Courtenay Apartments (120 Courtenay Pl), Calcott Design Ltd
4= Marickian Apartments (135 Taranaki St), Bruce Welsh Architects
4= City Lodge Apartments (cnr Knigges Ave & Vivian St), Peddle Thorp & Montgomery
6 Galleria on Tory (77-87 Tory St), Archaus
7 Renaissance Apartments (above Burger King, 79 Manners St), architects refused responsibility
8 Big box development (generic, but the Airport Retail Park was singled out)
9= Defence House (2 Aitken St), Craig Craig Moller
9= Environment House (23 Kate Sheppard Pl), Campbell Pope
11 Circa Theatre (1 Taranaki St), Ampersand Architects

The paper asked the architects to respond, and two themes emerged:

It's not our fault. Bruce Welsh replied "It's a bit rich for people to criticise a building without knowing the constraints of a brief". Perhaps the way it was presented in the Dom was a bit unfair, since identifying and inviting a response from the architect, but not the client or the planners of the time, implies that the architect had sole responsibility for the design and hence can take all the blame. But the article was about "Wellington's Worst Buildings", not "worst architects", and it's the result that's being judged, not the skill or otherwise of the architect. If a brief makes it impossible to design a decent building, then the brief is at fault, and people are quite within their rights to criticise the result.

There is some justification for passing on the blame in the case of heritage additions, where the council heritage rules of the time seem to have forced some hideous travesties of neoclassical architecture where something simpler would have been much more honest. On the other hand, just saying that the consent application was approved by the council (as Foodstuffs responded) isn't quite good enough: essentially they're saying "we got away with it". Architects and developers should be actively looking for ways to produce good buildings, not just relying on planners to fight the worst aspects of their proposals.

City Lodge apartments: Wellington's fourth equal worst buildingIt's okay on the inside. This is the most worrying argument, since it implies absolutely no grasp of the idea that a building should be responsible to its neighbours and the city as a whole. Revealingly, Richard Kay said of City Lodge: "We designed the building from the inside out", and it shows. In these designers' eyes, the apartments have "lots of light, good kitchens, rooms and amenities", and that's all that counts. The fact that the building is a ridiculous, poorly detailed, overbearing lump that detracts from the quality of the street doesn't seem to matter. I'd expect such attitudes from the most cynical developers, but not from architects, who should at least have some professional pride if not an actual social conscience.

While it's important to point the finger at buildings that detract from the environment, it's all a bit depressing to dwell on the negatives. I look forward to seeing a list of Wellington's best buildings.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Notes from the 'Naki

We spent Easter in New Plymouth, and while it's a city that has very little in common with Wellington, I thought it was worth a few quick notes, together with some local parallels or lessons.

Puke Ariki, New PlymouthPuke Ariki. Taranaki's shiny new museum and library complex has attracted some attention in the architectural press, and not without reason. Behind all the woven metal and spiky verandahs, though, it's a fairly conventional building, and an architectural purist might be wary of such apparently arbitrary decoration. I think it's highly appropriate, though, since it's hard to make a building such as a museum, which requires a bit of a black box approach, attractive and interesting away from the entrance. I can think of a fair few buildings (built or proposed) in Wellington that could do with something like this. It may be just set dressing, but it's thematically appropriate, visually links the building to its surroundings and gives it some texture and drama. I'm not so keen on the surface parking along the waterfront side and the rather pointless assimilation of a historic façade, but overall it's well scaled and brings life to the city and waterfront.

All of which is more than can be said for Centre City, Roger Walker's vast shopping and parking complex that glowers at it from across the park. Plenty of people find it hideous, but while I'm actually rather partial to the madder aspects of the interior spaces (a collision of high-tech & 80s kitsch - Roger doing Rogers), it's its complete rejection of the public realm that I find so loathsome.

Centre City complex in New PlymouthIt makes no acknowledgement of the adjacent waterfront whatsoever, and its sheer bulk is out of place for such a small city. Most of Walker's work in Wellington has either been housing, or retail at a domestic scale (such as Willis St Village), so it's interesting and perhaps a little frightening to see what his approach to large-scale retail has been in the past. It was a long time ago, of course, and he should have moved on to a more urbanistic approach by now. Let's hope so, because otherwise his upcoming collaboration with Terry Serepisos (which seems to be getting closer to reality) might be real cause for foreboding.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Drink of the month: amari

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A bitter shotThe drink of the month for April is running a bit late (sorry about that), but should make up for it in flavour and alcoholic intensity. After the mellowness of wheat beer, autumn calls for something more bracing to round off a hearty meal, which is why I've chosen the broad category of bittersweet after-dinner liqueurs known as amari.

I was originally going to choose digestifs, but since that covers everything from madeira to Scotch to grappa (as long as it is imbibed after a meal with the excuse intention of improving digestion) it was too broad to write about. Amari form a small subset of that, and with their fiercely herbal and often medicinal flavours, they are very much an acquired taste. I'll leave it to others to sing the praises of Campari and its well-known cocktails, and look a little further afield.

After Campari, the most well-known and fashionable amaro at the moment is Fernet Branca. It's trendiness no doubt has something to do with its powerfully astringent taste (it makes Campari taste like an RTD by comparison), making it something of a test to separate serious drinkers from mere dilettantes. The fact that it became the drink of choice for the hospitality industry, first in San Francisco and now here, also gives it scenester cachet. Unsurprisingly, Motel and Matterhorn are Fernet central, though it seems to rarely drunk as it was intended (as an after-dinner digestivo) but taken in shot form instead. If you want some variety, you could always try it the San Fran way (with a beer or ginger ale chaser) or the Argentine way (mixed with Coke).

Beyond Fernet, there is a wider world of Italian amari with more subtle and varied flavours. Brands like Lucano and Montenegro are widely available, but one of my favourites is the slightly mellower Alchermes, which I've only come across so far at Scopa. When served with ice and a slice of lemon to take the edge of the bitterness, it can work just as well as an aperitivo as a digestivo.

The Italians seem to love making liqueurs from all sorts of unlikely ingredients, such as unripe walnuts (Nocino) or artichokes (Cynar), but the most delicious and individual after-dinner liqueur that I've tried in Wellington was Maria Pia's own secret recipe, with an elusive flavour derived from herbs and flower petals. It probably doesn't quite count as an amaro, but it's worth going back for (as if the food weren't enough).

Obviously enough, bars and restaurants with an Italian theme or origin are the natural home of amari. Serious cocktail bars can usually be relied on for a decent selection, and some other places with Europhile tendencies have comprehensive ranges: Capitol is a great example. Other than the places and brands mentioned above, where and what else should I be drinking this month? And are there any other interesting ways of drinking amari that you can recommend?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Deco delights

The development of Chaffers Dock may be dragging on interminably (the ground floor shops and public area have been "just about to open" since last year), but there's recently been a very welcome little bit of progress. The long-promised public viewing platform on the roof is finally open, and it provides wonderful elevated views of the harbour, city and Waitangi Park.

View from the top of the Chaffers Dock buildingAt the moment, there's still a bit of construction work going on, so until all the signage is ready in a few weeks' time you'll have to find your own way, and the final door to the roof was locked when I visited at lunchtime today. Nevertheless, I was able to take a few good photos of the harbour and park, and the lift lobby and glorious staircase of Edmund Anscombe's most significant Wellington building are worth it in their own right.

To reach the top, enter through the doors at the southeast corner of the building (beneath the "cascade") between 9am and 3pm and take the lift to the fifth floor. From there, find the stairs going up to the roof, and even if the last door is closed, you'll get some great views through the windows.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Wheat beer roundup

Given the mild and balmy March we've just had, wheat beer turned out to be a refreshingly appropriate choice for drink of the month. However, not all wheat beer experiences are equal, and depending upon where you go in Wellington, you can have everything from a delicious drink in pleasant surroundings to a flatly disappointing result. Or indeed nothing at all, since it's surprising to find how many otherwise praiseworthy bars have no wheat beer on their lists.

The new MalthouseSo, range is the first variable. Unsurprisingly, beer specialists like the recently reopened Malthouse (yes, that was the far from mysterious mystery bar) and Bar Bodega have plenty to choose from, and I think I counted over a dozen wheat beers on the Malthouse's liver-boggling list, so I might have to take a few trips back to sample some of the more obscure brews. Where only one wheat beer was on offer, it tended to be either Hoegaarden or Tuatara Hefe, though there were a few more interesting drops around: Limburg Witbier at Nikau and the excellent Three Boys Witbier at Tupelo.

One class of bar that one might expect to do well is brewery bars, but my experiences were disappointing. The Brewery Bar at Shed 22 used to serve up their own Verboden Vice, but that's been replaced by Mac's Great White, which seems bland by comparison and had virtually no head. The Loaded Hog (not strictly a brewery bar, but one that promotes its own brews) was worst of all: their Hog Wheat was thin and acrid, more like a stale lager than a wheat beer.

There were a lot of variations in serving techniques. A few places have wheat beers on tap, though that doesn't guarantee a good pour. St Johns' served up a tasty Erdinger, but it was as if it was married to Henry VIII: it's head didn't last very long. The Southern Cross sells Tuatara Hefe on tap, and while I prefer the White Rock they used to serve, it's still dangerously quaffable for such enormous pitchers. Many beer connoisseurs prefer tap beer to bottled, but with wheat beer there's often some satisfaction to be had from swirling the last mouthful at the bottom of the bottle to stir up the yeasty residue, pouring it into the glass along with the especially creamy head that it delivers.

The glass itself also makes a difference, and while I wouldn't necessarily go to the Belgian extremes of having a special glass for every brand, the glass should at least be the right size. Mighty Mighty served their Schofferhoer Hefeweizen (a special selection for Berlin Bonanza) in a bog standard Kiwi beer glass, and while it's in keeping with their quasi-ironic retro approach, it was far too small for the beer. Lido did even worse, accompanying their bottled Tuatara Hefe with a short tumbler, which is wrong for any sort of beer. Leuven, as could be expected, go to the opposite extreme, with enormous buckets of Hoegaarden that require some dexterity to hold, not to mention a great thirst to finish.

As to the vexed question of lemon vs no lemon, it was rarely an issue. The only place that proactively offered me a choice was Matterhorn, and then they went one step further by offering orange peel as an option. I tried both, and was pleasantly surprised by the orange: it seemed to bring out the botanicals in the Hoegaarden very nicely.

Now that autumn is making itself more keenly felt, it's time for a very different drink of the month for April, so I'll write about that soon.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


In a surprise decision, Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast today announced that the inner-city bypass will be scrapped. "We had faith in roads to solve all life's problems, but it hasn't turned out like that at all. It seems that while east-west commuters are saving a few minutes, north-south commuters have had to pay for it with increased delays, and overall, the project hasn't been worth all the money and hassle."

The council and Transit NZ are now working to repair the damage. State Highway 1 traffic will return to the old route, but with a small toll. "We saw from the last few year's figures that commuters will switch to public transport when petrol prices are high, and that the only way to reduce congestion in the city is to make public transport more attractive than private cars," said a Transit spokesperson. "The toll will help fund a 50% reduction in bus and train fares, effective immediately." Karo Drive will be replaced by narrow streets with pedestrian priority, flanked by mid-rise medium-density housing, workplaces, shops and Tiki bars. At least half of the development will be affordable housing, and every new building will be built to the highest ecological and energy efficiency standards, including small-scale wind turbines, solar power and green roofs. Transit are actively seeking out the former inhabitants of upper Te Aro to offer them free rent for the next five years, in atonement for the disruption that they have faced.

The final stage will be to put into place a long-term vision for sustainable Wellington transport, including light rail to the airport, powered by a small new wind farm on Mt Kaukau. "We can't keep talking about sustainability and carbon neutrality without doing something bold about it," said Ms Prendergast, while enjoying a cup of freshly-roasted coffee at Havana with her husband. "People will look back to the first of April 2007 as a great day in Wellington's history."