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

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mystery bar number 63

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Jonny picked the previous mystery bar as Trade Kitchen. It's much more of a restaurant (a very, very good one, as it turns out) than a bar, but it has a casual café area that is quite well suited to a casual glass of wine after work. At the moment, their bar snacks are limited, but they're toying with the idea of adding a tapas-type menu. That would be a very good idea, since while their location is a bit isolated at the moment, it's strategically sited between the core CBD, waterfront and railway station, making it an ideal spot for corporate drinkies.

Today's mystery bar doesn't do much in the way of food, beyond a few counter-top sandwiches and nibbles, and instead it straddles the divide between café and bar. During the day, it's very much oriented towards a quick coffee and slice of cake, augmented by a range of cold soft drinks that go beyond the normal selection. But it also has a more bar-like side to its personality, complete with a short but quite inventive cocktail list (e.g. rosemary Martini, pear and vanilla punch). The shelves are full of premium spirits and other goodies (Ketel One vodka, Hendrick's gin, Peychaud's bitters) that suggest the mind of a connoisseur.

It's cosy and cute, with a couple of flamboyantly decorative touches, but otherwise it's been pared back to the basics. Some of the elements, such as the dark wooden bar, are reminiscent of the now-familiar Mojo look, but they use another brand of coffee so it has nothing to do with that chain. Instead, it seems to be a resolutely individual little place bringing a touch of character to some drab surroundings.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Intense sunshine

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aBc competition winners at the IntensCITY exhibitionCongrats to Jesse Matthews and Matt Lee for their winning entry in the aBc competition, which, as the judges said, "offers a visionary plan for Wellington over a 30 year timeframe, which uses an investment in high frequency public transport to direct urban growth. It placed a strong emphasis on public space, and broadening the structure and density of the CBD to Te Aro and other important town centres." Advanced transit systems such as light rail (and occasionally monorails) featured in most of the entries, as far as I could tell. An amazing amount of effort went into many of the entries, and the exhibition is well worth checking out (in the State Insurance Building atrium until next Friday). The other winners have been posted here.

Capital Centre: Look AgainIf you're up the government end of town, one exhibition you can see while enjoying the sun is Capital Centre: Look Again. At the basic level, it's just a simple set of posters with images and historical descriptions of significant government buildings, but by closing off the corner of Aitken and Molesworth streets and setting the exhibition on a raised platform accessed via grassy slopes or steel stairs, the designers have given it a point of difference. Those thin Cor-Ten steel uprights could get a bit dramatic in a proper northerly, though!

But while it's both sunny and (relatively) calm, the space currently known as Wharf Plaza looks like the place to be. I popped down at lunchtime to eat a sandwich, and lots of other people had the same idea.

New public space at KumutotoThe new benches, while lacking in lumbar support, allow people to sit in a variety of configurations, and the parallel rows of lights and pohutukawa provide some linearity and definition to a space that might otherwise have rather vague proportions. This is one of the spaces that Waterfront Watch would have us believe to be "narrow, sunless alleys" (they must hate Melbourne!), whereas in reality it feels wide and spacious with a variety of harbour views. Now, if we could only do something about that ugly shed on the outer T...

Thursday, September 27, 2007


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After a tantalising build-up, IntensCITY Week finally kicks off at 11:15am today, with the launch of the Capital Centre exhibition at the corner of Aitken and Molesworth streets. The details are all on the web site, with the full brochure available at cafés, libraries and random spots around town, but I thought I'd post a list of the Wellington 1990-2040 lecture series at the City Gallery lecture theatre, as that constitutes the bulk of the specific public events.
Friday 28 September, 12.30pm - 1.30pm
Views from up north: How others do it
Presenter: Ludo Campbell-Reid

Ludo Campbell-Reid is Manager Urban Design at Auckland City Council. He was appointed as a result of Mayor Dick Hubbard's mayoral task force. Prior to that, he was chief executive of Urban Design London, giving advice to London's 33 boroughs.

Monday 1 October, 12.30pm - 1.30pm
Looking Back with Fondness: The genesis of urban design in Wellington
Presenter: Stuart Niven

Stuart Niven was the first Wellington City Council urban designer. He is currently Director, Urban Design for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in the Victorian State Government in Melbourne. Stuart will share his knowledge of how Wellington has changed since 1990, and ignite the debate over where Wellington should be in 2040.

Tuesday 2 October, 12.30pm - 1.30pm
Our Evolving Waterfront: Wellington's growing connection to the harbour
Presenter: Ian Pike

Ian Pike, the chief executive of Wellington Waterfront Ltd, talks about the progressive reshaping of the city's waterfront.

Wednesday 3 October, 12.30pm - 1.30pm
New Zealand's Capital Centre: Matching the urban landscape to its national importance
Presenter: Gerald Blunt

The Council's Manager of Urban Design Policy, Gerald Blunt, will discuss what can be done to make the central city better reflect its symbolic importance as the heart of the nation.

Friday 5 October, 12.30 - 1.30pm
Wellington in 2040: A summary of ideas

Design and development professionals from Australia, Auckland and Wellington will present their ideas on the future of Wellington's public spaces.

The rest of IntensCITY consists of continuous installations and exhibitions, rather than events at fixed times. The Spaces through Time video installations have already started popping up around town, as have the Urban Critique posters, but the best time to see the INSite projects will be this weekend, as the artists will be "in residence" from 10-5 each day.

The heart of IntensCITY will be in the atrium of the State Insurance Building at 1 Willis St (it's hard for some of us old-timers not to call it the BNZ building). It's a rather magnificent space, though it tends to be overlooked by those who don't either work in the building or have an addiction to Mojo, and should provide a wonderful home for exhibiting the entries in the Just Imagine and aBC competitions as well as With My Little Eye. The last is an opportunity for the public to vote for their favourite public space in central Wellington, and should provoke some lively discussion. I'll post more about that soon, and in fact it won't be much of a surprise that IntensCITY events will probably dominate my posts for the coming week.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Wharf Plaza

The public spaces at Kumutoto are gradually being reopened after their revamp. This week the area between the Steamship Wharf and Meridian Energy buildings, which according to Wellington Waterfront Ltd is to be called "Wharf Plaza", is having the last finishing touches applied. While the "spring" weather may not exactly be conducive to lingering outside, the green lights under the new benches look especially good at dusk.

Benches and lights at the newly-opened Wharf PlazaThe heritage gates have been reinstalled at the much more inviting intersection with Customhouse Quay, with new shelters integrated into the gate design. That will make waiting to cross a little bit easier, but it will really require something more drastic (such as removing lanes, or at the very least adjusting the crossing phasing in favour of pedestrians) to make the flow down Johnston St to this plaza as seamless as possible.

The construction is steaming ahead for the main public space, Kumutoto Plaza, but while much of that is expected to be accessible in time for Meridian to move into the building at the middle of next month, some of the work will still be going on until December. There's no confirmed date for the opening of the ground floor tenancies, but I've heard from two different sources now that the western, wooden-slatted portion of the building will become a branch of Mojo. I know, another one. But it will certainly be good to have some better options for coffee and informal lunches in this part of town, and with any luck it'll be one of those branches that opens in the evenings as well, doing just that little bit more to bring some life back to what was once, not all that long ago, a barren car park.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

All at sea

Te Raekaihau PointI'm disappointed by the outcome of the Environment Court decision that rejected the Marine Education Centre at Te Raekaihau Point. I've never been a hard-core supporter of the project, but I was convinced that for the particular vision the proponents had in mind, there was no better site. The concept of an education centre embedded in and entwined with the south coast environment was unique and appealing, so building it in the inner harbour would have made as much sense as building the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary visitor centre in Glover Park.

While the opponents are of course ecstatic that no nasty tourists are going to come and invade "their" patch of coast, and that only those lucky enough to already live nearby or hardy enough to trek around the coast will get to enjoy it, the Dominion Post has taken the opposite tack in its editorial by attacking "naysayers". I don't agree with their implication that anyone who opposes something is automatically conservative and lacking in vision: after all, I'm one of those who still maintains that the bypass was "not worth it" and that it did indeed "damage the fabric of the city". People can and do have divergent visions for the city, but the issues should be debated rationally and with an open mind. I tend to agree with the dissenting opinion from Judge Thompson that it would have added "an entirely complementary and interesting asset to the south coast". We've missed an opportunity to open up the coastal environment to people who don't believe that the only way to learn about the environment is to do it the hard way (and I did detect a hint of puritanism in some of the opponents).

The DomPost believes that another south coast site must be found, but now I'm not so sure. The extensive site investigations (1MB PDF) show that other south coast locations are either much more environmentally sensitive, subject to poor water quality or too small. Besides, I'm willing to bet that as soon as another site is proposed, a brand new bunch of NIMBYs will appear claiming just how unique and world class their own particular patch is.

So, while an inner harbour site will lose most of the uniqueness of the original concept, a new concept will have to be found. Rather than just another aquarium, perhaps it would have to concentrate on the particular qualities and activities of a working harbour. Shipping, tides, containers, weather, climate change, energy and immigration spring to mind, in addition to marine flora and fauna. The Museum of Wellington City and Sea already deals with much of that very nicely, but it would become free to concentrate on the history of Wellington while the new institution immerses itself (perhaps literally) in the watery stuff.

A letter writer in today's Dominion Post suggested the Tug Boat site next to Freyberg Pool would be ideal (anything that replaces the Tug Boat is fine with me), and many of the waterfront sites between Oriental Bay and Harbour Quays could conceivably combine an aquarium-like attraction with other uses. Perhaps Shelley Bay or even Somes Island would be interesting locations, with the right ferry connections, combined with some resort or spa elements.

Any other ideas? Underwater bars? Urban dive experiences ("And here we see, in all her glory, the rare Shoppingtrollius Novaterra") and submersibles? Something more abstract, like the Saltwater Pavilion by Oosterhuis Lenard? A Maritime Museum? A South Seas Tiki Adventure?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lessons from across the ditch

I've just returned from a quick visit to Melbourne, which for reasons I've outlined elsewhere, may be the Australian city in which Wellingtonians feel most at home. Without claiming to be an expert (based on a handful of trips over the last decade or so), I'd like to point out a few things that Wellington should look at closely.

Building bold

Apartment facade at NewQuay, MelbourneWhile Melbourne has its share of uninspired office and apartment blocks, it's striking just how much their contemporary architects have been able to experiment with form and colour. Beyond the obvious showpieces such as Federation Square, Storey Hall and the Exhibition Centre, it's noticeable that even otherwise ordinary towers sport inventive cladding, bold colour schemes and spiky details. Forms tend towards the folded and faceted rather than organic and sinuous, but the overall effect is one of brash inventiveness, sometimes overwrought but often invigorating. Is it the result of enlightened planning, ambitious developers, or just loud Aussie self-confidence?


Melbourne has only started rediscovering its river and harbour edges over the last couple of decades, with mixed results. While the Southbank and Crown complexes are undeniably touristy, it's equally hard to deny that they're lively and popular, not just with tourists and diners but also with joggers, cyclists and local workers.

NewQuay, MelbourneThe public spaces at Docklands are much patchier, and while that may partly due to their current isolation, their design might have something to do with it. The wide plaza around the "Cow up a Tree" sculpture is bare and windswept, while the adjacent NewQuay may be overly shiny and new, it felt like a much more comfortable place to be. The well-defined series of transitions (from apartment towers to well-detailed mid-rise apartments, to restaurant terraces, via broad promenade to water's-edge pavilions and marina) creates a legible, intimate and sheltered linear space.

Federation Square is a different beast again, and while it hasn't really become an extension of the urban fabric, it benefits from proximity to the CBD and was always a lively place. The dimensions and colours remind me a lot of Civic Square, and while the architecture couldn't be more different, it's also interesting as a spatial experience. Views of the Yarra and South Bank are limited to glimpses and viewshafts rather than panoramas, but the river is a constant presence and there are plenty of pathways to the water as well as views from ground floor pubs.


Centre Pl, MelbourneThe famous lanes, arcades and alleys make Melbourne rich with shortcuts, secrets and spatial contrasts. We should also be making the most of narrow lanes like Holland and Egmont streets, and perhaps in time we'll learn to treasure and enliven them. It's interesting that the developers of Chews Lane are taking Melbourne laneways as their explicit model, and while the renders of that project make the lane look uninvitingly dark due to the looming buildings on either side, similarly-proportioned lanes such as Degraves St and Centre Pl absolutely buzz with activity. A note of caution though: while those and other lanes have history and character on their side, "contemporary interpretations of laneways" such as those at QV have a tendency to be more like malls than organic expressions of urbanism.

Movement as experience

Pedestrian Bridge and Southern Cross Station, MelbourneMost of Wellington's recent transport infrastructure is dull and utilitarian, and we seem to have lost the sense of occasion that accompanied transport back when our Railway Station was built. Instead, Melbourne has in many cases decided to celebrate such structures, from pedestrian bridges to railway stations and freeway gateways. We could gain a lot from a similar celebration of journeying.

Other things that Wellington could do with:
Eureka Tower, Melbourne
  • a covered food-market
  • specialist bookshops
  • more trees
  • at least one proper residential skyscraper
  • trams!
  • terraced houses on the city fringe
  • more people (an extra three million would be good, but I'd settle for less)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


It will come as no surprise to most of you that I don't do "burst culture" very well, but since I'm in a rush between putting together my aBc entry and heading out of town for the rest of the week, I thought it was time for some quick snippets before I left.

Wind turbine at Waitangi ParkThe long-delayed Waitangi Park wind turbine has finally arrived, and I don't think it'll be keeping any Mt Vic residents awake. It's a tiny little thing with an output of 1.5kW, and will be supplementing the water pumps, lighting and UV water treatment in the park, while acting as a trial for Vector. They may not get as much output down near ground level as up on top of buildings, and it may be a little ironic that as soon as it was installed, Wellington's wind died (not that we're complaining).

On Sunday I went to the mayoral candidates' forum on the built environment, and was frankly more than a little disappointed at the general waffliness and lack of preparation in the responses, given that such hot button issues as infill, the waterfront, transport and heritage all fit into that category. The Architectural Centre will have a media release out shortly to summarise the event, but I have to say that while it underlined my resolve never to vote for certain candidates, and helped rule out some others, it didn't give me confidence that any candidate can deliver the Wellington I want.

Caffe Italiano openingOne thing I do want from Wellington, as most of you will have figured out by now, is a better choice of shops, bars and cafés. On that count, this week looks like providing a bumper crop, with two or three about to open. I'll be particularly interested to see how Caffé Italiano turns out, given my earlier speculations about the development of that stretch of Cuba St. They were having their (private) opening when I walked past this evening, and some of the deli produce on offer looked very tempting indeed.

Finally, the build-up to IntensCITY week continues, with INSite shipping containers and Urban Critique posters popping up all over the place. I've written a short piece about it for Texture, and created a ZoomIn group of the INSite locations, where it's my fond hope that people (i.e. you) will add their photos and thoughts. I was especially intrigued to read this council news item about one of the containers which will be turned into a replica tram, where the artist apparently "notes that many European cities have banned private cars from city centres and now encourage public transport systems based on the electric trams. He wonders what it would be like if that scenario took place here?" Could it be? A council-funded art project promoting light rail and pedestrianisation!

Monday, September 17, 2007

The meaning of Where

A snapshot from my BarCamp presentationI only stayed at BarCamp for the morning, which I guess is a bit rude, but I had one or two other things to be getting on with at the weekend. My presentation seemed to get a good reception (and Marica has some kind words to say about it) so if you're interested, you can download it over at the ProjectX blog, along with my colleagues' talk on website optimisation. On its own, my presentation makes limited sense (I deliberately went for a presentation that was a visual accompaniment to my speech, rather than the usual "read out the bullet points" approach that everyone hates), but if you were there and want to see the images again, there it is.

As for a general summary of BarCamp, you can't go past the blog of BarCamp organiser (and fellow Wellingtonista) Miramar Mike. More commentaries are floating around the net, but most of them seem to be linked to from Mike's post.

By the way, I got there a bit before the doors opened and felt in need of a coffee. None of the waterfront cafés were open at that ungodly hour, so I wandered off and the nearest one I found was at Chameleon in the Intercontinental Hotel. Now if only someone would open a five-star hotel somewhere on the waterfront... oh, wait, they are.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Building rumours 18: Willis Central

Possible site of Willis Central developmentThere have long been rumours about the Airways House site on Willis St, and the site behind it which extends all the way through to the temporary townhouses on Boulcott St. This picture shows these two parcels in red, and some adjoining parcels, that some have suggested might also be involved, in orange. More recently, Moveax at SkyscraperCity spotted some site investigations underway, hinting that development might not be far away. And now, at the bottom of an August press release on a different subject, there's this statement:
Meanwhile, The Wellington Company was working on a feasibility plan for a 4000sq m "mega site" to be called Willis Central. The plan was for a mix of apartments, offices and retail big enough to spend a day in, [Ian Cassels] said.
Searching further afield, I came across this article from NZ Construction News that makes it sound like much more than a "feasibility plan":
Ian Cassels, proprietor of The Wellington Company vows to create a new centerpiece building for the capital ... he has more than just words and concepts to offer. He has the two frontage site safely in his hands in order to build his new alternative civic epicentre.

As Australasia's first inner city vertical village it will comprise apartments, offices, recreational space, in fact everything that anyone might normally find in a community. One feature not normally found in villages, though, will be a helipad.
Vertical villages? Helipads?! Holy city of the future, Batman! All that's missing is a monorail and a spaceport.

I shouldn't be quite so cynical. In some ways, all that a "vertical village" means is a mixed-use highrise, and such things have been around for decades (Chicago's John Hancock Centre is a classic example). I'm always a bit uneasy with statements about residents "never having to leave the building": mixed use is fantastic, but I'd rather it was distributed around the streets a little so that the coming and going can enliven the public realm, rather than restricting it all to a single hermetic building. And while it's good to hear statements about minimising car parks to encourage car-free living, it won't take too many helicopter rides to blow one's carbon budget for the year: hardly consistent with The Wellington Company's otherwise admirable environmental record.

Old rendering of a proposal for 16-42 Willis StIt's certainly a suitable site for a high rise (much more so than some other contentious locations), and I'm eager to find out how tall it will be and what it will look like. I'm pretty sure that this old image was only ever intended as a massing concept for sales purposes and has nothing to do with the current proposal. In fact, the logo at the top is a strong hint that this was an attempt to keep the BNZ HQ in a downtown office rather than heading out to Harbour Quays. What it does show is the potential for a very tall building (by Wellington standards), though the effect on the existing heritage buildings at 16-42 Willis St could be major. There aren't many hints in the articles, beyond the facts that it will stretch from Willis to Boulcott St and be "based on the existing Airways House" in some way. In that case, a 4000 sq m development would only require the red area shown earlier, meaning that the adjoining low-rise sites in orange could remain untouched.

The article also says that "it is expected that work is imminent". One thing's for certain: if it in any way approaches the grand claims, it will be a hugely significant development.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

No, not that kind of bar!

This Saturday I'm off to BarCamp with a bunch of Wellington's finest geeks.

BarCamp logoI'll be giving a presentation called "Space, place and the meaning of 'where'", which is a broad enough title to let me sneak in a few references to urbanism along with all the ProjectX-related topics about mapping, GIS technology and social networks.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How is the air up there?

Wind turbine on office building in Manners St, WellingtonUrban turbines seem to be catching on. This vertical-axis turbine has recently popped up atop the "i-Centre" at 50 Manners St, there's a smaller one on top of the already environmentally-advanced Conservation House down the road, and the Vector Energy trial turbine that I wrote about in June will be installed on The Terrace. In addition, The Wellington Company plans to go beyond their installations at i-Centre and DOC to add turbines to six buildings along the Golden Mile "within the coming months".

My previous post attracted some sceptical comments, and there has indeed been some debate over the benefits or otherwise of microgeneration. My take on the issue is that it's wise to keep it all in context, beware of over-optimistic projections, and not think that they will obviate the need for large-scale wind farms. As part of a wider package of grid-based renewable energy, reverse metering, photovoltaics, solar water heating and efficiency measure, they could indeed become a viable small part of the solution, especially if the cost of large-scale generation rises.

Much of the criticism of roof-based turbines is based on the problems of "suburban turbines". Of course a turbine located close to the ground among all the roofs of a suburban street is going to have an unfavourable wind regime, and I can certainly imagine vibration problems coming from a turbine on a single-family home. But (without any real analysis), I'd suspect that a turbine mounted fifteen floors up in downtown Wellington is not going to struggle to get enough wind, and that you'd need a lot of vibration to affect a concrete office or apartment block. I look forward to seeing more of these, and getting some actual data on how useful they'll be in Wellington's very particular situation.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Q on Taranaki - revised proposal - from above Taranaki StI've had a go at the Q on Taranaki proposals several times before, and while the version currently being submitted for resource consent has been cut back from the original design (I won't call it architecture), it's still a dreadful piece of crap. The changes that have been forced upon the complex have resulted in a pair of buildings that are slightly less overbearing and marginally more articulated, but that still fit very badly into the Te Aro context and, while it's hard to tell too much from these photocopied renders, exhibit virtually nothing in the way of imagination or delicacy.

Q on Taranaki - revised proposal - from Frederick StI have quite a lot of sympathy for the neighbours, who have spoken out publicly against it. After all, I've previously hailed the Croxley Mills building across the road as an excellent example of the sort of apartment development that is not only appropriate for the neighbourhood but positively inspiring. While I can't quite see how Q could be three times taller than the 5-6 storey Croxley Mills (as claimed in the article), and I've always said that city residents shouldn't expect their streets to stay the same forever, it's still clear that these are bad buildings in any context and even worse here. I still can't believe that the developers had the gall to ask for "exemptions to the height limit based on the development's design excellence"!

Where I disagree with the objections is on the subject of apartment size. Guy Marriage is a good friend of mine, and I believe he even reads this blog occasionally, but I don't agree with him that 26-29 square metre apartments are in and of themselves a bad thing. I've been through this argument with many different readers about a nearby proposal involving the same architects, and while there are arguments to be made on both sides, I don't believe that apartment sizes of under 35 or 45 square metres (the suggested minima for studio and one-bedroom units respectively) will automatically result in slums.

What defines a "slum"? Poor health from cramped and badly ventilated conditions? Crime, drugs and social exclusion? Or just the fact that poor people live there? It could indeed be the case that the design of these apartments is indeed substandard in terms of insulation or weathertightness, and that is the sort of thing that could indeed lead to squalid living conditions, but I don't believe that apartment size alone is enough to base that decision on. If you're single, without a lot of possessions and no desire to spend a lot of time at home, then I think that you should be able to spend your money on something other than square metres.

I've also said before that to live comfortably in such a small space requires really good design (multi-functional spaces, clever storage), sensitivity to location, space-saving fixtures, judicious use of light and high-quality shared space and facilities, and I see no reason to believe that this proposal exhibits any of that. A greater mixture of apartment sizes and tenures would be more appropriate than 233 low-end investment units, and even if the 35/45 square metre figures aren't adopted as limits, anything smaller than that should certainly be made to demonstrate that it makes extraordinarily good use of space. On those points, as well as on its risible urbanist and aesthetic qualities, this proposal should indeed be strongly challenged

Friday, September 07, 2007

Urban September

It's a big month for those interested in the urban environment. First of all, you still have time to register for the aBc ideas competition: just send an email to intenscity@wcc.govt.nz with the words "aBc Design Competition" in the subject line. As Erentz pointed out, there is indeed a slight discrepancy in the entry form, and the deadline for entries is actually Monday the 24th of September. The organisers have now made high-res aerial photography of the area (4.7MB PDF) available for entrants' use.

IntensCITY logoThe aBc competition is just part of IntensCITY week (27th September - 5th October), details of which are gradually being added to the site. As well as all the installations, exhibitions, artists in residence and competitions, there will be a series of lunchtime talks about the past, present and future of urbanism in Wellington. I'm also gradually getting around to adding ZoomIn places for all the relevant venues and locations, with an interactive map to link them all together, and I'll promote the idea of using those ZoomIn place pages as fora for discussions, adding images and so on.

Next weekend (Sunday the 16th), there will also be a Mayoral Candidates' Forum on the built environment, in the Board Room at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea at 2pm. So far, the confirmed candidates are Ray Ahipene-Mercer, Kerry Prendergast, Helene Ritchie, Bryan Pepperell and John McGrath, so given the widely disparate views that those candidates hold on the subject, it could be a lively debate to say the least. Is anyone going to put up their hand for a combination of dense urbanism and world-class public transport? Hello? Anyone?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Drink of the month: Gin & Tonic

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G&TFor September I thought I'd choose something simple and classic; something that looks forward to the sunshine without being overtly tropical; something refreshing but unfussy: the gin and tonic. Now, you may think that the G&T is a bit naff, redolent as it is of 1970's Anglophilia, yacht clubs and estate agents, propriety and middle-class social climbing. There's a wonderful line from Notes on a Scandal when Judi Dench's character says of Cate Blanchett's: "Her fetish for the boy was simply her snobbery manifested. 'He's working class and he likes art'. As if he were a monkey who'd just strolled out of the rain forest and asked for a gin and tonic." Doesn't that say all you need to know about the G&T as social signifier?

But really, we should look beyond such vagaries of fashion, and the more open-minded among us realise that it's a classic for a reason. Unlike some long drinks, the tonic provides a bracing bitterness that imbues it with a complexity that mere citrus cannot replicate. It's very adaptable, with long and short versions, lemon and lime options and the addition of bitters to adjust it to suit the weather and mood. And being so simple, it's impossible to get wrong.

Or is it? You'd think that of all places, a bar called "Juniper" would know what to do with gin, but as my good friend Che discovered, they're no better with that than they are with a Rob Roy:
I was a bit shocked when the barkeep looked at me sideways when I asked for a gin and tonic.

"What's in that?" he asked.
Leaving aside rank ignorance of that magnitude, the easiest way to muck up a G&T is with bad tonic. Ideally, it should be well-chilled and fresh from a small glass bottle to ensure that it's crisp and hasn't gone flat. A squirt of the ol' Postmix is a guarantee of disappointment, and really, is there any substitute for Schweppes? It's interesting to read that the distinctive fluorescence shown by tonic water under UV light is actually a sign that the quinine is being degraded into a tasteless and possibly carcinogenic chemical. Thus, you should never store your tonic in direct sunlight, and it's a good excuse when you're drinking in the sun to knock the G&T's back as quickly as possible!

Poor quality limes can also be an issue, and as the photo above illustrates, a lot of the limes we've been getting recently have yellow lemon-like skins and very little lime flavour. Often a quick wipe around the rim of the glass is enough, though a little squeeze won't go amiss. Some would argue that a dash of Angostura bitters is unnecessary given the bitterness of the tonic, but I think it has quite a different flavour profile and can often add a nice earthy depth to the mix.

From the above, it should be possible to work out where one can expect a good rendition: anywhere with decent gin (though super-premium spirits might be overwhelmed by the tonic), competent staff and a commitment to high-quality ingredients should be able to satisfy you. But as always, any nominations for places to seek out or avoid are most welcome, as are any reports of unusual variations on the theme (such as Imbibe's quinine-reduction ice cubes).

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pass mark for the park

Among the various items on the agenda of the recent Waterfront Development Subcommittee meeting was a review of Waitangi Park. There are five separate PDFs to download there, including a survey of park users and an interesting quantitative study of which sections of the park were being used and when, but the guts of the report is a large tabular Design Quality Audit. The review is generally very favourable, complete with all the expected buzzwords ("Innovatively layered and multifaceted cultural, aesthetic, functional and ecological systems", "Rich contribution to the civic life of Wellington"), but some of the negative points that are raised are quite revealing.

Dead tree at Waitangi ParkThe actual organic elements of the park seem to have been handled rather poorly. Many of the trees have died, some due to vandalism but others due to the microclimate being even less clement than was planned for. The oak trees have fared particularly badly, though part of that seems to have been caused by an unseemly haste to get things ready for the deadline: "Many of the trees that have done poorly were planted in the summer as part of preparations for the 2006 Arts Festival. This was not a planting time best suited for horticultural requirements." Elsewhere, the audit states that "plant material such as the Kowhai which is lost or damaged needs to be replaced as it is spatially and environmentally important," and I certainly hope that this advice is taken seriously.

Poor drainage and tiny waharoa at Waitangi ParkIn my earlier comments on things that could be improved in the park, I mentioned the drainage problems at the northern edge of the field, but it looks like the compaction due to Festival events was not the only cause of this. Among other things, the audit mentions that "value-engineering led to omission of construction of a drain along edge leading to poor drainage." It appears that "value-engineering" is used here as a particularly odious euphemism for "short-sighted panicky cost-cutting", and it appears depressingly often throughout the report.

Many of the cultural, historical and artistic elements originally planned had also been postponed or scaled down for the same reasons. These include the Graving Dock interpretation (botanical information blasted into the stepping planks), archaeology boxes, wind screens, Writers' Walk, Cable Corner (shoreline artwork) and waharoa (which the auditors agrees "is low (a safety issue) and visually out of scale"). While it's disappointing that these haven't arrived yet, in some ways it's good that the main park has been allowed to settle down first: there's a lot going on in the park, and if all of that had been delivered in one go it might have been hard to take in. As it is, the delay not only gives the artists a chance to get things right (rather than rushing things like the oak trees), it gives us something more to look forward as the park evolves. I agree with the authors, though, when they caution that these need to be executed in a way that is consistent with the original vision for the park, rather than treating the park as a dumping ground for random artworks.

Many of the other niggles in the report appear to have been rectified since it was written, and the gradual opening up of the Chaffers Dock complex is doing wonders for the levels of activity around the clock. Until the John Wardle and UN Studio buildings are built, the park will nevertheless remain a bit drab and nebulous around the edges. There's still no definite timeline for these, though, and combined with the immaturity and ill-health of the trees, this means a shortage of not only activity and spatial definition but shelter and shade. The report suggests a temporary "built shade structure/kiosk" on the western side of the park until these issues are fixed, and I heartily agree. How about a series of temporary architectural gems along the lines of the Serpentine Gallery pavilions?

It's also interesting to read the quantitative usage study to see which parts of the park are actually popular. I've taken the liberty of rearranging some of the graphs in that study so that they have the same vertical scale, and they show some very strong patterns of use across three moderately clement days in May:

Usage patterns observed in Waitangi ParkAccording to this, Waitangi Park could perhaps be described as a popular skate park and playground, linked by reasonably popular promenades, and with a big empty paddock in the middle. The fact that there only seems to be about 16 hours a week when there are more than ten people on the entire field seems to back up my very early prediction that "such a large space will be 90% empty 90% of the time". Even on a pleasant weekday lunchtime, any one of Chaffers Dock's cafés will often attract more people than all 6,000 square metres of grass.

I'm not saying that the field is a complete waste of space and should have been filled in. It's a vital venue for large events (however infrequent), and I agree with the auditors that "although there are times where fewer users are observed, value, as an experience of space, remains". What it does tell me, though, is that those who think that there's not enough grassed area in the park, or that the waterfront is crying out for more green open spaces, are not backed up by actual demand. While the park will definitely be improved by the eventual growth of some taller trees, with the softening that will bring to the harder landscape elements, it is exactly those latter areas (derided as "concrete wasteland" by Waterfront Watch) that are most popular.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Mystery bar number 62

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The previous mystery bar (way back in July - I know, I've been slack) was quickly identified as the Buena Vista Social Club, the latest offering from mayoral candidate and "Gramma"-spammer John McGrath. It has great décor (despite the carpet) and an impressive spirits list, but sadly the owners seem to have spent all the budget on chandeliers and rum and not left any over to hire or train decent staff: I've had about four cocktails there over several visits, and only one of them was drinkable. Besides, does anyone else agree that it's time to call a moratorium on mock-Cuban names for bars and cafés?

Mystery bar #62 - banquettesThis week's mystery bar also has an impressive interior, though rather than projecting an air of deliberately-distressed glamour, it exudes slickness and modernity. Furnishings and art by the likes of Tom Dixon and Richard Killeen combine with a stark palette of black, red and white to give a high-design aesthetic straight out of an Urbis photoshoot. But there are also a few more comforting touches, such as padded banquettes and a large wooden table, that combine with light flooding in the windows to create a feeling that is more welcoming that clinical.

It's primarily a restaurant and café, but quite laid-back enough to visit just for a drink. Given the limited range of spirits, that's unlikely to be a cocktail, but the wine and beer lists are reasonably extensive and have some interesting offerings among the more predictable choices. As a bar, it would definitely fall more into the "long lunch" or "couple of drinks after work" categories than the "raucous partying" or "late-night watering hole" camps, and the style and prices definitely suggest a mature and corporate clientèle. But the décor, which is more considered and inventive than the usual "minimalism by numbers" approach, makes it an attractive spot for a quiet glass or two in the sun.

Mystery bar #62 - the bar

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Whisky roundup

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ScotchAugust was a good month for whisky, with enough cold snaps to justify hunkering down with a dram of something peaty, yet with enough mild evenings to encourage the consumption of Whisky Sours. I've already written a little about Scotch over on Texture, but since then I've taken Raffe's advice and tried out Motel's excellent selection. The highlight of that evening was a subtle and obscure malt called Ledaig (which we cleaned them out of), but there were many other excellent malts consumed on that night. I just seem to have mislaid my notes: I can't imagine why.

Of the whisky cocktails, you would have thought that a sour would be simple enough, but no. As with all simple drinks, it's a matter of balance, and in most cases the result was not enough whisky and too much sour. Buena Vista Social Club was a particularly bad offender on that score, as their attempt was so overwhelmed with acidic citrus flavours that it tasted like a bad mojito. Come to think of it, every cocktail at Buena Vista tastes like a bad mojito.

A Rob Roy should be pretty straightforward too, but the bartender at Juniper (once a half-respectable cocktail bar) had to be told that a Rob Roy is a Manhattan with Scotch instead of American whiskey. He then had to be instructed in how to make a Manhattan, and finally had to be gently reminded that bourbon isn't from Scotland. The result was actually acceptable, though the process was so stressful I could have done with two by the time it was finished. The staff at Manhattan Lounge, while also a little unsure, delivered a very pleasant one without too much fuss. The best one I had was from Plate, who continue to quietly impress with their professionalism.

A few places have their own whisk(e)y based cocktails, and while Matterhorn's Mandarin & Laphroaig Sour was perhaps guilty of overcomplicating what should be a simple classic, Sandwiches came up with a surprisingly good concoction of Canadian Club, red vermouth, pastis and star anise. It's just a pity that they had it to saddle it with a jokey name: "Let's just call it a bum steer".

For September, I'll be sticking to a very simple and well-known drink, though who knows what weird variations local bartenders have been able to come up with.