The Eye of the Fish

April 29, 2009

National Library

Its taken a while for the groundswell of opinion to slowly rise up from the mire, but the Warren and Mahoney scheme for the reworking of the National Library is getting some flack recently. Does it deserve it? Isn’t the purpose of art and architecture to challenge? We’ve blogged about the proposed works at the National Library once before, and we had quite a few comments back, although once again: the architects in town all keep quiet. No-one in the profession dares to comment on other architects work, so it seems. Mind you, on certain occasions it seems like they should get up in arms, although perhaps they are all just concentrating on not rocking the boat. Perhaps, on certain subjects, architects should be getting upset, getting grumpy, getting vocal. Updated: Media statement put out by the Government shortly after this post went up states that current project is to be dropped, and less costly project is to be pursued. Refer to comments section for more info.
Regarding the Library, some of the Librarians certainly are getting grumpy. And that makes it obvious that there are two issues at stake here. One is that the building is getting redeveloped, which tends to get the Architects excited, and the architectural historians depressed: while the other issue is that the Library itself will be shifting out of its premises, and effectively putting itself out of action for a year or two while the building has a makeover. And when it comes back it will be a whole lot more digital. While head Librarian Penny Carnaby is all aglow with excitement at the thought of that, and not seemingly over-concerned at the disruption to its current researchers, and the Nat Library are busy making plans, it’s getting ugly out there amongst the punters, judging from Jim Traues report “From library to digital Disneyland” in the DomPost (read there for full text, or read here for abridged), where he ( Jim Traue is a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library) says:

The managers at the National Library want to change the purpose of the National Library and its culture and operation. They have come up with a strategy to raise the public profile and make it more like a local public library in order to get more feet through the front door. The strategy is “Te Papa-isation” with a twist. The library’s resources will no longer be geared to the needs of researchers but treated as a museum collection presented on-site in digital form. The proposed redevelopment of the building is a logical manifestation of this new strategy. More of the Turnbull collections will be displayed, but it is envisaged that the major drawcard will be the filling of the entire ground floor with computer screens to give access to the Turnbull’s books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, photographs, paintings and drawings, maps and ephemera, online within the building. The priority for the Turnbull’s staff will now be to provide popular “content” for these digital displays and the increased exhibition of original materials. That “content” is essential to attract the projected 400,000 visitors a year.

Chris Szekely, the Turnbull’s chief librarian (who also holds the new position of deputy national librarian), is assuring the public that the building makeover, mass digitisation and the restructuring of the Turnbull’s services will improve access and services for researchers. Yeah, right. …..

Traues’ article ends up with the following very barbed comment:

The staff have been pointing out these consequences but have been ignored. Senior management, convinced that they could not possibly be mistaken, have determined that such “negative” thinking is a result of the “Turnbull culture” and are determined to cauterise it so that a new “positive” culture can be grown in its place. An attitude change expert has been appointed, a “culture survey” compiled and a programme of “people change” is under way to rehabilitate the critics.

Welcome to the new digital museum experience. Pity about the research library experience. Welcome to the new digital museum culture. Pity about the research library culture. Once the barbarians were knocking on the gates. Now they are inside the walls and in charge. Now they are called managers.

Ouch! Bitchy! But then again, absolutely true. The world is awash in middle management, who are seldom the most qualified people to walk the face of the earth. I’m still surprised that the new National government, seemingly intent on cutting everything that moves with a government hat on (Tax department: cut. State Services: cut. WINZ: cut. Tax: cut. Oooh, no, hold it we can’t do that one. No cuts there).


But wait, there was more vitriol to be unleashed, best espoused in the Cultural Curmudgeon article in the Listener by Hamish Keith, where he noted that:

By the time this grumble is read, the storm clouds over the new National Library building may have faded away into an insignificant squall. Or they may have rumbled up to a real gale and blown the whole project away. The claims and counterclaims might just provide a cost-cutting Government with a reason to cut this cost. It has so far managed to trim the $47.4 million restoration of Government House by $4.7 million. The National Library has some equally telling problems; it leaks, not a good look for any library. But is the proposed rebuild over-egging the pudding?

It’s worth reading the whole article – as usual, Keith writes well. I was expecting more feedback, and there was – the following week in the Listener, there were a further 2 letters:

It says much about the dearth of informed public architectural criticism in New Zealand (and in the Listener) that the March 28 editorial fought shy of simply saying that, in public terms, the redesign of the National Library is unfit for that building on that site. There is no risk in saying that: the only litigious risk is in blaming the architects for making a bad design decision. In his 1960 Reith Lectures, “Art and Anarchy”, Edgar Wind pointed out that good public art depends on the public “client” having a just as well-informed grasp of what is “good” as the artist or architect he/she is commissioning. Without any soundly based aesthetic competence in our public clients, we are likely to get anarchic results of no enduring public value.

It is obvious to any architect that the perimeter area of this building could have been increased by first removing and then reusing the concrete facade units, so conserving its unique public presence on that site. The geometry of that solution offers the chance to make some major slots in the facade that could have opened the interior quite sufficiently to the passing public. I am confident that any of the architects involved would have presented that option to the National Library’s management, had it wanted to consider it. But, no, we must assume that, in this case, the architects have delivered just what this public client wanted: the total abolition of the image presented by its own fine public building, and its replacement by a monstrous see-through billboard with a crazily anarchic structure – which will date within 15 years. Librarians should see that this “unnecessary” action is the wanton “extravagance” that we are all really protesting against.
Roger Hay, Architect (Johnsonville, Wellington)

Roger Hay, being a (presumably) retired architect, is never afraid of getting up and speaking his mind. But is he the only one? The other letter was more about the contents than the shell:

I am relieved that the National Library building redevelopment project is finally in the spotlight. During the two to three years of the proposed building redevelopment, most of the Alexander Turnbull Library collections (excluding manuscripts) will be inaccessible to researchers or even staff. The colossal task of packing, moving and storing these valuable collections so the library can become an entertainment zone for bored tourists and teenagers is a ludicrous waste of taxpayers’ money. The primary reason mooted for change is the library’s need for space to house its collections, but allocating an entire floor to “digital experiences” and covering the building in glass seem more about appearances and gimmicks.

Digitisation is the key to making materials freely available and it would be wonderful to have everything I need for my research digitised and online. But the sheer volume of the collections I have used make this an unreasonable expectation in my lifetime. Creating a digital visitor experience at the expense of an entire floor and all it currently contains is not the digital solution users want. This new building won’t solve the problem of growing collections, nor will it benefit the research community. Although the theme-park concept may bring more visitors through its doors, ultimately it will serve only to dumb down our National Library and its reputation to the research community it serves.
Cathy Williams (Levin)

Definitely not a happy Cathy there. So: it’s time for you to have another chance to comment. Is the government right to pour money into this? Does the scheme have merit? Or is it a crazy “Te Papa-isation” as Traue alleges? Is it a Helen Clark mistake that National should bin, or is it the right thing to do to bring punters kicking and screaming into the modern age? The building was castigated for years – decades almost – with nobody liking it, and now does anyone want to stand up for it and say it’s good?

The architects of this town need to add their word. The Architecture Centre, I seem to remember, devoted a whole issue to the discussion, but I haven’t heard anyone else making a noise about it since. We can’t just leave it up to Roger Hay, Cathy Williams and Jim Traue to say something. Surely someone else has an opinion as well? Well, here’s your chance to speak.

Stephen Judd
29 - 04 - 09

Apropos the issue of transferring things to digital media, I have just two words:

Kölner Stadtarchiv.

29 - 04 - 09

Ouch – nice link!

My thought on the whole digitisation thing is that, if everything is available virtually, why the need for a physical environment at the library to access it. The beautiful thing about digitisation is that it provides the opportunity for the material to be available anywhere, and at any time. The need for a floor of computer stations is really a waste of space and budget. The physical building itself should be about the conservation and storage requirements, and meeting the needs of those researchers who need to see the actual original documents and artefacts. This may not be ‘sexy’, but libraries of this type deliver a social and cultural ‘need’ rather than a product to be marketed in order to gain more market share…

And the comment about the lack of architectural criticism is pertinent. Hay’s letter is great to read, and i can’t help thinking that the Arch Centre is letting itself and its members down somewhat here. Sure, there was a newsletter which presented a range of opinions, but this was generally soft, and not really even conclusive. The Arch Centre itself has not entered the public debate in the informed and carefully positioned manner which we might have expected of old. If it really is a matter of promoting good design for Wellington, then they should be all over it – raising the architectural debate in public (and their own profile in the process). In many ways, this post should have been an Arch Centre one!

Is the trepidation part of the architectural professional solidarity – especially given that the architects of the new scheme are (or at least were recently to the best of my knowledge) members of the Centre?

29 - 04 - 09

The changes to the library seem to me to smack of being a little bit different just for the sake of being different. To my mind the design changes should be driven first and foremost by improving the functioning of the building as a library and secondly improving how it relates to the surrounding area. On first look the changes fail on both counts.

I can’t see how all that clutter hanging on the outside of the building makes the building more enjoyable for the users inside looking out – are there any unobstructed views? And from the render it doesn’t look like a particularly aesthetic experience to walk past (walking past irregular and angular concrete or steel posts is just not that much fun).

Oh well, could be worse. Check out these changes to a nice old library in Cambridge, Ontario:

Andrew of Auckland
29 - 04 - 09

I’m no architect and I don’t live in Wellington these days, but I quite liked the old national library building. It is quite nice with all those stepped concrete wrungs going up. It is simply a nice shape. It is a bit baffling why they are demolishing it and starting again when it is quite a stylish building to start with. There are some similar era buildings in Auckland such as the medical school and the old science block at Auckland Uni that somebody has “jazzed up” recently and sadly lost the austere nature of the massive concrete forms that used to present themselves to the outside. So at least that is not happening to the National Library building because it just looks silly when this happens.

29 - 04 - 09

Most of all, I’m concerned that the tacky tacked on grille thing (just visible on the right hand elevation of the second illustration above), will become a symbol for Government buildings if they are used both here and at the Supreme Court. How sad would it be if all future Government projects were wrapped in these as a Government branding device (although to be fair, it might actually improve the Beehive)…

29 - 04 - 09

I am an architect and I really like the old building.
Always have.
I think it conveys it’s purpose and function very well – that is, the repository of our valuable knowledge. The sense of fortress-like massiveness implicit in the existing form & materials lives up to the (very easily read) intention of expressing “permanence” & “forever” and as a safe storehouse for our literary treasures.

I like Athfield’s addition to the front door.
That was one of the original building’s problems – the front door was not greatly defined. The addition was light and delicate and touched the original building lightly. This was obviously done by someone who appreciated the existing building and it’s presence in the government sector.

I am not a big fan of the WAM design. I think it is frivolous and light and silly. (Hardly the qualities one wants in a repository of knowledge…)
However (on the other hand) I do think they have followed the Client brief well.
And that is the problem.

I believe that the Brief is flawed.
Tommy Honey made this point on National Radio one day.
The brief has moved away from the core values of being the National Library. A National Library shouldn’t be about visitor numbers and “been there, done that… got the T-shirt….”
This is a building for scholarly research and awed respect for our history.

I hope that this “wanton extravagance” does not make it through the National Party razor gang, and that the powers-that-be come to their senses about what a fine public building that we have in our city.

29 - 04 - 09

This is fresh off the press:

It is what we all expected of an incoming National Govt. (especially in this climate) – the wonder is that it has taken so long to unsheathe the razor…

29 - 04 - 09

Well goodness me, teh Fish does have influence after all. No sooner than we speak, than the Government acts. Hmm, such power at the tips of my fishy fingers….

29 - 04 - 09

mmm, fish fingers…

29 - 04 - 09

As a person with some responsibility for a national collection in a (slightly) different part of the spectrum, I have to be circumspect in discussing this project. Nonetheless I think it is only right to point out that there is a third issue at stake.

In a rather loosely defined way this development is an outcome of the last government’s National Digital Strategy which promised (inter alia) a flowering of access to national collections via digital technology. David Cunliffe and Judith Tizard were particularly explicit about this aim:
“We must unlock our store of valuable content by putting it in digital form so its value can be rediscovered and renewed. As New Zealanders and end-users, we need to see ourselves on air and online, because this is the opportunity to truly promote our unique heritage, cultures and achievements, and find our place in the digital world.”—Html/Ministers-Foreword/

Something highly promising called the National Digital Heritage Archive was launched and many millions of dollars were committed to it and other developments. In the event, it turned out that the National Library was by far the major beneficiary – in the case of the NDHA one might argue the sole beneficiary. Other collections such as those held by Canterbury Museum, the Hocken or the Auckland Public Library, had to look elsewhere or cannibalise their existing funding to pay for the work of digitising their holdings. A vexing outcome after the initial fanfare, but perhaps not a surprising one.

But for those in the profession who had to watch the massive increase in investment in the National Library with very little so far to show for it, it is beyond vexing to watch many millions more slosh up Molesworth St ostensibly also justified by the “digital” tag. m-d is absolutely right to point out that using the virtuality of the collection to justify a whole lot more bricks and mortar is an oxymoron.

I have to join mobsta in hoping that the depressing recession causes a halt in proceedings before what might well be the last investment in national collection infrastructure for a generation gets used up on this project.

Seamonkey Madness
29 - 04 - 09

Your secrets safe with me Dr. Worth….oops, I mean Maximus. =)

In all honesty, bloody well played National government. What in the hell were Labour thinking spending all our money ($90m!) on shiny glass and Te Papa-erization? The pared back $52m option that they are going to implement shows the necessary cardigan-wearing, straight thinking that epitomizes what a National Archive is about. It is the rational decision, GFC or not.

I can only agree with others here that the concrete bulkhead façade should remain in one form or another, not removed and completely changed for whatever is in fashion, much as what was mentioned about Athfield’s rennovation.

29 - 04 - 09

Just a small and self-serving note to point out that my earlier post was trapped somewhere in the fish tank for some time before it appeared. It is not a case of being safely wise after the (blessed) event.

29 - 04 - 09

“my earlier post was trapped somewhere in the fish tank ” – you’re not a Russian Spammer called Vladimir, Vukovar or Frankovic are you? We have a little spam war being waged against us by those pesky russians. Oh, those Russians, as Boney M used to say.

But you’re right of course – the national digitising of our nation’s archives is, probably a good thing, but as you say, wholely at odds with a perceived need to then change the physical container as well as the product contained. Obviously fine outstanding institutions such as the Film Archive as well will also need massive amounts of cash to save their rapidly degrading glycerine stock before it all converts to nitro and takes out a large portion of Taranaki St (although in the case of the building next door, that may be seen as an advantage by some…). Perhaps with the reduction in budget of the Nat Lib scheme, there may be some increased availability for more budget funds for other similarly cash-strapped institutions?

29 - 04 - 09

“In all honesty, bloody well played National government. What in the hell were Labour thinking spending all our money ($90m!) on shiny glass and Te Papa-erization? The pared back $52m option that they are going to implement shows the necessary cardigan-wearing, straight thinking that epitomizes what a National Archive is about. It is the rational decision, GFC or not.”

There may be more to it than you allow for. Will there be more of a kurfuffle if they spend $52 million and have no physical changes to show for it, than if they were to spend $90 mill and have the look of a whole new building? Your later comment that ” the concrete bulkhead façade should remain in one form or another” is not necessarily a logical conclusion. The building still has many faults apart from an aging air-con system and a leaking roof, and there’s still going to be a hefty sum left over once the digitizing has been tackled.

Dr Worth’s press release comments that: “The scaled back project would require the design work to be revisited and a fresh resource consent would be sought” That implies that the designers have probably been working on the redesign for some time already for the revised costings to have been derived. My guess is that the order to redesign was probably given in – ooooh, say, sometimne in November last year?

29 - 04 - 09

maximus – on the subject of the freeing up of national liquidity for other organisations, I am obliged to refer you to your nearest Tui billboard.

I am also informed that the dangers of explosions in Taranaki St are greatly exaggerated…

30 - 04 - 09

DomPost now getting in on the story as well: “Library revamp cut by $30m” By BRITTON BROUN and KELLY BURNS
“A planned $82 million upgrade for Wellington’s National Library building has been slashed in the face of escalating costs and the global recession. The Minister Responsible for the National Library, Richard Worth, said the Government would put only $52 million into the project, which would now need a redesign and a fresh resource consent from Wellington City Council. Costs of the original proposal had skyrocketed to $90 million, which could not be sustained in the current economic climate, he said.

“The Government would focus on upgrading failing equipment, and dealing with water leaks and substandard storage that put the library’s $1 billion collections at risk. The renovations, to be done between November and 2011, were expected to extend the building in four directions with glass surrounds, add a five-storey atrium, 4000 square metres more storage space and interactive media suites and theatres. Library management believed increased visitor numbers could rival those at Te Papa.

“The Dominion Post reported in February that the library had suffered a $20 million budget blowout, but chief librarian Penny Carnaby then repeated that it would still be finished on time and for $70 million. Yesterday, she confirmed that the new building would be a “smaller construction” but said it was too early to say exactly what and how big that would be. “It’s a scaling back of the original concept but I’m incredibly relieved. Protecting the heritage collection has always been a driving force behind the building and there is a relief that that will be addressed and addressed very well.”

“Ms Carnaby said there would also be an increased focus on digitising the collections, allowing all New Zealanders access through the internet. Former Alexander Turnbull chief librarian Jim Traue said the initial redevelopment should never have been approved.
“It was a crazy proposal and this looks like a victory for common sense.” ”

—-Maximus again: so: a “scaling back of the original concept”. Hmmm, I wonder if a WAM representative would like to elaborate further?

1 - 05 - 09

I have a not so polite phrase for certain architectural clusterfucks, and I believe the proposed national library is a perfect candidate.
Eye Rape.

Someone must stop WAM and Roger Walker. They are a plague on the built environment.

2 - 05 - 09

? ?? ??????? ? ????????????????, ????????????? ????????? ???????. ? ??????? ?? – “??????????????? ????”. ?? ??? ??????, ??????? – ??? ???-???? ??????: ??????, ??????, ?????????, ???????????? ????????? ? ??????????. ????? ????? ??????? ?? ????, ?? ??? ?????? – ?? ???? ???????. ????.

2 - 05 - 09

which according to Google translate means:
“I would say about monumentality, the enormity of some plots. A would call – “unfiltered real.” In my opinion, the beauty – it does more: the best, clean, Favorites, forcing the thrill and amaze. You can find beauty in everything, but all together – not a beauty. IMHO.”

Now, i don’t know, but that doesn’t sound like an advert for Viagra to me. Is this a genuine international commentary on out National Library? All very odd. But to be safe, in the future, I think we will continue to delete these messages.

2 - 05 - 09

and for those needing translation for jayseatee’s words (i sure did):
clusterfuck: Noun – (plural clusterfucks)
(vulgar) A chaotic mess that might be compared to group sex, in which participants are so intertwined and intermingled that they might penetrate each other rather than their intended target. Its more precise usage describes a particular kind of Catch-22, in which multiple complicated problems mutually interfere with each other’s solution. The looser usage, referring to any chaotic situation, probably prevails. Reportedly coined by the hippie poet Ed Sanders in the 1960s, in the form Mongolian clusterfuck; it was frequently used in the military.

Weeeell, i just dunno. Call me old-fashioned, but I have a vague suspicion that the expression clusterfuck might be a little extreme for the generally more highly-regarded practices of WaM and Roger Walker. They are, to coin a phrase, just “trying shit out” – the question is, what happens when it goes wrong? Or should we trust them enough to give them the benefit of the doubt that it does not go wrong?

5 - 06 - 09

meanwhile, a mere month after that discussion, the Society for Aged Architects (NZIA) have been ruminating over the whole Nat Lib saga, probably spurred on by a rare letter to the editor complaining about the National Library. I think the issue came out about the day after the government announced it would not be going ahead. But it has sparked off some discussion, of which it is tempting to post excerpts. But I’ll resist that temptation for now. Still: good to see that the architects in town are still discussing things. Its just a pity that WaM aren’t joining in on the discussions