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

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wooly Bully

Local body democracy doesn't end with the elections: there are always submissions and feedback processes going on. The submissions on plan change 58, which proposes to add 16 buildings to the heritage inventory, have now been summarised and are open for further submissions.

Old Wool House (centre), 139-141 Featherston St WellingtonThere's the usual mix of pro- and anti-submissions on many different buildings, but one thing that stood out for me was the number of submissions objecting to the inclusion of Old Wool House in Featherston St. To those without a specific interest in Modernist architecture, it probably never attracts a second glance, but here's what the Architectural Centre has to say about the building (taken from the brochure for Wellington Architecture Week 2005 - 7.86MB PDF):
Wool House was built for the New Zealand Wool Board in 1955-1957. It was designed by Johns and Whitwell in association with S. William Toomath. The articulated façade of the building avoids the "dullness of the regular curtain wall grid" Toomath had observed in buildings by second-rate architects in New York. It is, as Toomath has noted "a pure expression of the concrete frame ... the regular grid was the only solid surface in the façade."

Conceptually the building is a five storey box standing on two major columns, 26 feet (or 8m) high. These were spot-punched Coromandel granite columns. The projecting baywindows were carefully glazed with a green-tinted antisun glass, in beautiful bronze sashes. These are reminiscent of the villa baywindow, providing clear views up and down the street, designed for maximum views, maximum light, and ease of cleaning. They deliberately took advantage of a city bylaw intended for architectural features such as pediments and cornices which allowed projections over the footpath of up to two feet. Old Wool House was a recipient of a N.Z.I.A. Wellington Branch 2002 Enduring Architecture Award.
And here are some of the justifications for its non-listing, from the summary of submissions (231kB PDF):
"it is a modern building and has no decorative value interest. It is better to conserve actual old buildings of value."

"it looks far too modern to be considered a heritage building"

"it shows no architectural value whatsoever and is of no significance to the city"

"it is so simple, plain and has no architectural features to be listed as heritage"

"the building has no architectural features, just a plain box with holes in the concrete walls. The submitter cannot see any hallmarks that this building has to qualify its heritage. It has no decorative features and has been wrongly recommended to be listed as a heritage building."

"it is simply an ordinary 1950's commercial building with no historic value and should not be given heritage status"

"it shows no sign or character of coming into the category of being a heritage building. There are buildings that have been erected in Wellington city with the same boring character – does the Council intend to turn these into heritage also?"
Is it not old enough to be heritage, at a mere half-century? That argument could have been used in the 1980s to demolish Art Deco buildings, and in the 1950s to dispense with Victoriana. But it's the use of terms like "simple", "plain box" and "no decorative features" that is most revealing: to some people, Modernism is not part of our heritage.

Many of the objectors clearly have a connection to the owners of the building, and some other names are familiar from the property industry, and thus one can spot the usual financial motivation behind such opposition. But others sound like they might just be members of the public or heritage enthusiasts bemused and angry at the idea that Modernist buildings might be considered worthy of preservation. To such people, "heritage" is all about wooden colonial cottages, or grand Victorian piles festooned with twiddly bits, rather than a recognition of the dynamic physical and cultural evolution of the city.

Old Wool House - detailIn Stuart Niven's IntensCITY talk, he spoke of heritage in terms of "a popular need for a sense of the continuum of time" and "meaningful evidence of where we've come from". There is more than a little irony that Modernism, which in its most extreme forms was actively hostile to "the continuum of time", is now part of that continuum. But of course it is, and Old Wool House is an early and notable example, with connections to one of Wellington's most influential Modernist architects. Even "ordinary 1950's commercial buildings" are a significant part of the architectural fabric and history of Wellington, and to those with a sympathetic eye for the period it's a handsome example of the most significant architectural movement of the last century.


At 5:22 pm, October 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I researched this building for the council a couple of years ago and I am quite confident that it deserves listing on architectural, historical and cultural grounds. The arguments you make for its inclusion are perfectly valid, while those of its detractors merely reveal their myopic ignorance.
On a related matter I was not impressed (to put it lightly) to learn the council has removed a number of buildings from the central area after caving in to the howls of outrage from owners. It makes a joke of the process and ends up being a waste of time and money that goes into the research and assessment component.

At 7:41 am, October 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I highly doubt that any of those opposing to the listing of Old Wool House are heritage enthusiasts. What those opposing submissions highlighted to me is the confusion over what heritage is. It is not only about aesthetics or architectural merit (which Old Wool House clearly has), but it is also about our history and culture. The wool industry is very important in New Zealand history, and this building has a very close connection to it. This aspect was not considered by those making opposing submissions, who only seemed to think heritage meant ornately decorated buildings.


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