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

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Building rumours 15: Forest and Turd

Thanks to DeepRed for pointing this out: the so-called "Te Aro Towers" on the former Forest & Bird site on the corner of Taranaki and Wigan streets.

Perspectives of the proposed Te Aro TowersOh god. I'd been forewarned of its awfulness, but with higher-res images now available it looks worse than I expected. It really doesn't make it easy to promote high density urban living when unimaginative crap like this is what the market provides. I'm all for greater density, and not averse to the odd tall apartment tower, but this is a bad building in the wrong place.

The use of retail on the ground floor is good, and there are some half-hearted attempts to vary the fa├žade in the bottom six storeys. If they' stopped there, the results might have been half-decent, and even though the architecture is banal its urbanist virtues might have made up for it. But they've continued by repeating exactly the same floor all the way to thirteen storeys, resulting in two "towers" that neither fit in graciously nor soar gracefully, but loom balefully over what could and should be one of Wellington's most important streets.

The question that has to be asked is: how the hell did they get away with thirteen storeys in this part of Te Aro? The height limit here is supposed to be 27m, and while it was always naive to believe that this would equate to six storeys as the guidelines suggested (a floor-to-ceiling height of 4.5m is very generous), anything over 10 storeys would surely have to breach the plan. Either these apartments will have a 2m stud, and they're aiming at the hitherto-unexploited Oompa-Loompa market, or the developers have the council well under control.

Elevations of the proposed Te Aro TowersThere are supposed to be dispensations for buildings of exceptional design quality, but this doesn't even aspire to mediocrity. The world's greatest architects would struggle to produce something beautiful given that basic mass, but it looks like our old friends at ArcHaus haven't even tried. The real estate site and home page for the development laughably claim that "this building brings a significant design and style element to the Te Aro district", but I can't believe that they even believe that themselves.

Even ten storeys, while legal, would not be what I would think is ideal for Te Aro. Not only is six or seven storeys more like the norm for human-scaled mixed-use and residential urban areas around the world, it's much easier to achieve spatial interest and variety at that scale. For instance, even by taking the fairly poor design of the lower storeys of this development as a starting point, notice how much more humane and detailed it would look if it stopped at seven storeys:

Mock-up of a 7-storey version of Te Aro TowersThat provides much less residential density, but there are still many hectares of Te Aro that are wasted on car parking, bulk retail and car sales yards. How much better it would be to develop all that poorly-used land to a similar height, while still allowing the odd tall and slender tower near the middle of large blocks or closer to the "high city". It is possible to significantly increase the residential population of Te Aro while retaining the elements that make it special, and without ugly, cynical developments like this.

Of course, I'm thinking like an urbanist rather than like a property developer. But isn't that exactly what the council should be doing?


At 2:50 pm, July 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it is an awful development - no, i don't believe it has Resource Consent yet. You ask how it could be that 13 floors could be approved in a 6-9 story area, and perhaps this is the reason why the Council may be in the developers pocket: the Chair of "Merge", the developer, is none other than:
"Fran Wilde - Fran is a professional company director and business advisor. A former Cabinet Minister and Mayor of Wellington...."

You'd think that for a woman who is / was on the board of Wellington Waterfront, that she might have some shreds of design integrity left, but apparently not, if she's prepared to be seen backing shit like this.

At 5:33 pm, July 08, 2007, Blogger Alan Wylde said...

The development proposal appalls

At 6:27 pm, July 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

so the words "Under Construction" on the proposal drawings are just pure speculative bullshit - lying estate agents as usual - can't they be prosecuted ?

At 12:19 am, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Naff. I hope someone stacks a plane into them.

At 2:06 am, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fran Wilde...I dunno...she offered you a job didn't she Tom? She can't be completely clueless.

At 1:06 pm, July 09, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"You'd think that for a woman who is / was on the board of Wellington Waterfront, that she might have some shreds of design integrity left"

She still is the chair of WWL, if their website is up to date. Sometimes I wish that the waterfront development process would run faster and more smoothly, but at least the level of scrutiny has resulted in buildings like the Meridian HQ and Boathouse apartments at Chaffers Dock, both of which are miles ahead of "Te Aro Towers" in terms of design quality. Hell, even the Hilton looks like a masterpiece by comparison!

"I dunno...she offered you a job didn't she Tom?"

Not exactly. I took part in an "ideas day" about the OPT and Waitangi buildings, and I think I'd said something passionate about my vision for the waterfront. She said something like "you should work in marketing for WWL", but I think she was (at least half) joking.

"so the words "Under Construction" on the proposal drawings are just pure speculative bullshit - lying estate agents as usual - can't they be prosecuted ?"

I'm not sure whether the words "Under Construction" apply to the website or the building. Since the old Forest & Bird building is still palpably there (at least when I went past on Saturday), the building is clearly not "under construction", so one would have to assume it's the former.

Such misleading statements wouldn't be unprecedented. Someone from Richmastery assured me more than once in reference to the "Q" apartments across the road that "construction is still being planned to begin mid this year.
I know of no risks relating to the consent." Patently bollocks.

At 1:48 pm, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Te Aro Towers are designed with investors in mind"

Says it all really. They don't expect anyone with the money to buy one would actually want to live in it!

At 2:22 pm, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Appalling, an architectural travesty , displaying in all its awfulness the same architectural flare and sustainable quality of the British 1950s council flat. These buildings are the spiritual equivalent of the disposessed's carboard box, a temporary refuge from the elements, and a prison for the soul.

At 2:48 pm, July 09, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Appalling, an architectural travesty , displaying in all its awfulness the same architectural flare and sustainable quality of the British 1950s council flat."

Actually, it looks much worse than some of the British council flats: buildings like Trellick Tower and Keeling House look fantastic now that they're being looked after. My main argument against the sort of post-war housing estates you're referring to has never been architectural but urbanist: it's the rejection of the public street in favour of hostile, ghetto-like "estates" that makes them so soul-destroying.

"These buildings are the spiritual equivalent of the disposessed's carboard box, a temporary refuge from the elements, and a prison for the soul."

That's very poetic, but I have to say that at some stages of my life all I wanted from a flats was a "temporary refuge from the elements": if the only time I spend at home is sleeping, why bother with lots of space and "homely" touches? Even our current apartment, which is in a building at least as ugly as this proposal (a 60s/70s concrete & glass office block, converted to apartments in about the 90s), is actually really nice to live in. Without having looked closely at the floor plans for these apartments (and 30 sq m for a studio could easily be about right for a lot of people's needs), I'm reluctant to use terms like "a prison for the soul" or otherwise speculate about the effect it would have on its occupants. What I can say is that it will look butt ugly from the outside and probably set back the cause of high-density urbanism.

At 3:09 pm, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael Fowler was a guest on National Radio this afternoon, and said he considers that Wellington is by far the best city in NZ architecturally speaking, and specified Athfield, Walker and Archaus as examplars. Surely the latter is up for debate, at least if the comments on this blog are justified.

At 3:20 pm, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In terms of inappropriate residential developments and a list of non-complying activities as long as your arm, get a load of this...


Interesting to see how they (both developers) in getting their consents.

At 3:21 pm, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That link should be:


At 3:23 pm, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm strange cutting-off thing happening here...



You'll have to be creative and paste both parts of the above link to get to the Council pdf

At 3:40 pm, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, I was getting a bit poetically carried away, BUT.....

1) the buildings are unimaginative, boring, ugly, trite, ordinary, tasteless, cheap....rather than contributing to the urban scene they are nasty distraction. They look like future slums already.

2) they are too high and out of context of the human scale and the area. They look as if they have been designed by a computer, not on one.

3) the buildings almost certainly, as "investment properties", will be built to minimum standards, especially in insulation and energy effficiency. These standards were inadequate forty years ago, to think we are still building to such standards in this age, with oil depletion and global warming is appalling. Wellington and New Zealand are sleepwalking to a poverty stricken future.

4) I have just walked 850 kms through northern Spain on the Camino Santiago, passing through such beautiful cities as Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Astorga and Santiago. 500 years ago our mediaeval predecessors just about solved the problem of high density urban living, providing quality buildings of permananent natural materials in a human scale, with detail and proportion, which can be adapted to new uses as needed. Also absent in these areas is the car, the destroyer of the urban quality of life. It seems we now no longer know how to provide such a beautiful and lasting environment. In many ways, our society has regressed, this building, and much of Wellington redevelopment, is a very good example.

5) some British council buildings indeed have polished up reasonably, the few that haven't needed to be demolished, that is.

6) Perhaps the best way to judge the quality of a building, at least externally, is whether it would be worth floodlighting at night. If the answer is no, then the building isn't worth putting up in the first place. These buildings wouldn't be worth a 40 watt bulb.

At 3:47 pm, July 09, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Kerryn: ArcHaus have produced some decent stuff - I really like the Kate Sylvester building; the new Audi/Porsche dealership in Cambridge Tce looks nice in a high-tech way (even though it's a poor use of space); and I even quite like the Museum Hotel Apartments. But most of their stuff has been cheap, bottom-line driven envelope-filling lumps, and I certainly wouldn't include them with Ath & Walker. Architecture Workshop, Studio Pacific & Melling:Morse would go way, way ahead of them on my list.

At 3:52 pm, July 09, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Michael: hopefully this link will work. With that list of breaches, one would hope that the council would have no option to reject it, especially since the site is outside the area being suggested as suitable for townhouse development in the Johnsonville Town Centre Plan.

At 3:57 pm, July 09, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

John: I agree with all those points, and from an aesthetic, urbanist and environmental point of view this is a very bad building all round (though even with poor insulation, the inhabitants would still use far less energy than if they were living in detached houses in the suburbs and driving to town). I think, though, that a lot of people looking for a flat aren't particularly worried about living in an ugly building, as long as it's okay to live in: that's why I'd quibble with the description of "a prison for the soul". Personally, I'd love to live in a spectacular piece of architecture, but would I pay $50 or $100 more a week in rent for it? Probably not.

At 6:00 pm, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re the "Under Construction" comment - it is on the drawings on the real estate salesperson's website.

If you look closely at the drawings, you can see that:

a) the bedroom floorplan is about 2.5m long internally.

b) there is a big steel column smack in the middle of the "living room" which projects out from the wall. Its a bloody small room to start with: crap structural planning like that won't help matters.

c) The drawings are labelled as design by HP and drawn by TP. Neither of these sets of initials appear on the Archaus website as their named architects/designers. Are they done solely by the office junior? The cleaner? Or have they made up initials as they are so embarrassed and don't want to put their name to the building? Archaus should be ashamed of themselves for letting the developer bully them into designing such crap.

At 6:42 pm, July 09, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Or have they made up initials as they are so embarrassed and don't want to put their name to the building?"

An Alan Smithee building?

Or maybe HP stands for Hewlett Packard, and it was designed by a computer. Not sure what the TP stands for: Total Pants?

At 8:20 am, July 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really liked the

"each 60m2 apartment offers two investment units on the same title to maximise return without compromising quality or appeal."

So you get 2 30m2 apartments?, sounds like shoeboxes to me...

At 9:05 am, July 10, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Yep, that's pretty tiny. Actually, looking at the plans, it would seem that each space divides up into one one-bedroom apartment and one studio: I haven't calculated the areas, but I'd say that the ratio is more like 40-20 or 35-25.

20 square metres sounds like a shoe box by traditional Kiwi standards, but it would seem pretty generous in central London, Manhattan or Tokyo. A single person without many possessions (a student, recent immigrant or someone on a short-term contract, say) should be able to live in 20 sq m without too much trouble, especially if they don't spend much time at home. Having said that, living in such a small space usually requires good design (lots of built-in storage, clever space planning etc), and I don't have much confidence that that is the case here.

So, personally, I wouldn't attack this design for having small apartments. There's definitely a market for this (a couple of years ago I was looking for something very similar, but couldn't find anything in the CBD), and if people want to live in small spaces I don't think we should stop them. However, I think that we (as residents of the city) do have a right to criticise it for the negative effects it will have on the public realm.

At 10:06 am, July 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and if people want to live in small spaces I don't think we should stop them."

possibly but in Auckland you could not build this now, with a Studio minimum of 35m2 and a one bed min of 45m2,

Wellington is not Tokyo, London or Manhattan, our population densities are miles from that, this is just a developer trying to screw as much $$ from a site as possible,

At 10:24 am, July 10, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"in Auckland you could not build this now, with a Studio minimum of 35m2 and a one bed min of 45m2"

That seems ridiculously restrictive: I live with my partner in a 55 sq m 1 bedroom apartment, and while it could certainly do with more storage there's a lot of wasted space. When I was single I lived for a while in a 1 bedroom apartment that was about 45 sq m, including a huge kitchen that I never used: it seemed like a terribly poor use of space. I would happily have lived in a space half the size if it had been $100 cheaper a week, but I just couldn't find any decent, compact studio apartments. If all you're looking for is a crash pad, you don't need any more space than a hotel room.

"Wellington is not Tokyo, London or Manhattan, our population densities are miles from that"

More's the pity, in many ways. Just because we haven't yet learned to live in compact spaces, doesn't mean we never will.

"this is just a developer trying to screw as much $$ from a site as possible"

In this case, I'd agree. But small living spaces per se are not the problem.

At 10:54 am, July 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally given the choice between a bigger place in Johnsonville or a small space in the city I'd go for the city option every time.

Those small spaces provide more affordable options for people to live in the city.

If all apartments had to meet "suburban" space and parking standards only the wealthy would be able to afford to live in the city.

Like you Tom my issue is that the building is overheight for the area.

At 12:24 pm, July 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, i disagree with you on this one re the size of flats. There has been a lot of research done on size of flats and declines in social behaviour - there is a strong slum effect when building tiny places for people to rent - somewhat different when people own their own flat, but no one who buys these shoeboxes is going to live there unless their spouse kicks them out and they need a crashpad.

There was a very good article a couple of years ago in Arch NZ called "No Swinging Cats in Inner City Flats" which went into the figures on square metres per person, and the shockingly tiny flats being built in Auckland. Soon after that, Auckland City Council changed its rules, making 35m2 the minimum size. Wellington has not done that (yet) as they have been relying on the market to be sensible and not deliver shit. With this proposal, it would seem that WCC will need to revisit their strategy.

Its ironic: the Brits looked at this in the 1960s and have based all their housing standards on the result - the "Parker Morris Report" which set out minimums. Its still setting standards today, although of course all the developers build to the minimum when designing social housing ie the min is also the max. But here in NZ? No such figures. Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it....

At 2:04 pm, July 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in upper Cuba Street, and know people who work in Wigan Street. This area is being crowded out by bad designs that don't take into account enjoyable use of public space, and sunlight.

Wigan St has the Victoria library (half decent size, but ugly) - now Rex's new hotel, also blocking light to some businesses, and squeezing out all available ground space (not to mention the dismal effect on Havana).

Personally I blame the Southern Cross Apartments for setting a precedent. That project was not publicly notified, over reaches various contraints...and was left to sail through the consent process, ending up being rather a cheap looking eyesore.
The Council deemed in this case that the design seemed to fit in with the Cuba Quarter design guide. HUH?? Hmm, yes, lovely....tonnes of 'character' - fits right in. Not.
It was also deemed not to block any important view corridors, which is fine if you live up an affluent slope, right? Never mind the wind tunnels created, the sunlight blocked and the blotting out of a street level view to Mt Victoria.

The overall effect of all these buildings is one of closing the area in.

I'm not that up to speed with the District Plan changes, or the consents process currently, but from a purely layperson's point of view (and a concerned inner-city dweller) - it looks to me as if developers feel that Te Aro is ripe for picking in any way whatsoever, the justification perhaps being that *any* new development is an improvement on it's semi-industrial general mish-mash.
I can't say I agree.

I have heard a rumour (not substantiated - anyone know any more?) that the new owner of the site on the corner of Abel Smith and Cuba, that used to be Aro Cars - is planning a tall block of apartments there too. This seems impossible almost because the land size is so small....but what is the bet in a year or two, there will be some skinny pile of shoeboxes there as well?

I thought there was a DP thing about not covering more than 75% of the area of a site....or am I completely wrong about that....is it 75% of the space - or niether? Wouldn't that stop some of these solid blocks happening?

It's a shame developers can't see beyond their own greed, to design appropriate buildings, and have a more sensible and all-inclusive vision of the future of the whole neighbourhood.

It is quite easy to imagine a worn out slum occuring in the Te Aro flats in years to come - between the ugly, unfriendly bypass, and the unstoppable overly-tall, not very long-lasting looking boxes crowded with folk....we can kiss goodbye to any sense of community, and 'character' - I'm pursing my lips for a big air-kiss as I type.
Wish I could be more positive - but can't see how it can all be improved, the way things are going.

At 7:34 pm, July 10, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Maximus: is the research specific to social housing, or does it apply to all types of tenant? I'd agree that it would be terrible to cram families into that sort of space, but for young, single, mobile people (which is presumably the market for the studios) it could be a reasonable option. Based purely on anecdotal evidence (I should dig up some numbers), it seems that Wellington has a high proportion of such people (lots of fairly well-paid professionals only in the city for a few months on contract) and thus quite a market for small inexpensive apartments.

There's a bit of a no-win situation for apartment developers in Wellington. When someone proposes large luxury apartments, the reaction is "more bloody yuppies taking over the city"; when someone builds small cheap ones, it's "oh no, it'll be a slum!" So are developers missing out the middle of the market (for modest, affordable yet relatively spacious apartments)? Or is it just that you can't please everyone?

At 3:26 pm, July 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a lot of space in Te Aro to build on, I'm not sure that you need to go to such small unit sizes in order to achieve the desired density, or to provide affordable housing. Developers make killings on these things anyway.

Again, the fundamental design criteria should be "demonstrates actually gives a damn", i.e. the developer has shown in his design that he cares about the quality of the urban environment and the quality of life of his residents and neighbours. It is clear designs like this don't stack up.

The problem is hard to solve though because how do you get developers to care? Whatever design criteria the council come up with wont change it, the developers will just build to the limit of the criteria (thats why you see fake balconies and such on some buildings in order just to meet criteria but not actually offer anything better for residents). If you make things a matter of judgement, e.g. a panel then who do you get to judge?

The only solution I can think of?

If residents don't buy crap, it wont be built. Why do residents buy crap? Lack of choice. How to make more choice? Demand more be built (supply) by putting timeframe requirements on land being developed, putting council money into developing areas/land/masterplans (e.g. Pipitea, big opportunity there, will be wasted as it is developed ad-hoc harbourquays style).

Is there another solution?

At 1:04 pm, July 13, 2007, Blogger Rich said...

If you're going to have high buildings, does it matter how high? Personally I think a hundred story tower would be quite cool - they have them in New York. (although I suppose NYC isn't seismically active)

At 1:41 pm, July 13, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Rich: I think proper high-rise residential buildings can work, but they have to be in the right place. Wellington has an established distinction between high and low cities, and a few more apartment towers (if not 100 storeys, then at least 30 storeys like Terry's Tower is supposed to be) would fit in nicely in parts of Willis St or Lambton Quay but look out of place in Te Aro.

Personally, my ideal would be for most of Te Aro to have a consistent height of about 6-8 storeys, dropping down to about 4 storeys in the most established and historic parts of Cuba St, and allowing for the odd taller tower in the middle of large blocks (where they'd have less effect on the streetscape and sun access to public spaces). The existing "high city", and perhaps its fringes, is the right place for high rises (over ten storeys, say). With that combination, Wellington could have really good density and a spectacular downtown skyline, while still allowing distinct neighbourhoods with their own characters. The ad hoc approach that seems to be evolving, on the other hand, will just result in a mess.


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