The Eye of the Fish

December 18, 2008

Boiling Blood

It seems to be such a shame to go off all ballistic on the eve of a pleasant Christmas week, but the announcement†today about the cost over-runs on the Supreme Court fair made my blood boil. While normally a left of centre supporter, and one who lives in sick apprehension about the mayhem about to be unleashed upon us by National’s unrestricted puppies of Doom, the whole sorry shameful saga of the new Supreme Court is symptomatic of the craziness of bureaucracy gone made. The newspaper gleefully announced that the cost of the Supreme Court had gone up from $65million to $80million. Personally, I feel like we should all be marching in the street, baricading the roads, and at the very least throwing shoes and sandals at both the Heritage lobby and members of the Legal fraternity. How ridiculous can our small country get? How pumped up and self important can both the Heritage bods and the Legal hoods be, to mandate spending that enormous amount of money on the combined new/old building?†


Despite sitting empty and unloved for 10 ? 15? 20? years, the old Court always had a Grade 1 listed registration, befitting its important heritage function. I don’t doubt that – it is a lovely old building, worthy of listing and restoration: †although if it had not been left to rot and decay for so long, it would not be in the perilous state it is in now – which is apparently the cause of a goodly portion of that horrendous cost overrun.

The new building, by comparison, going up smoothly next door, is progressing well, with a skeletal structure of curved studs inside showing off the interior of the hollowed pumpkin we will one day have as a Supreme Court. But hold on, you say: if the new part is the new Supreme Court, then what is the old bit?


Sadly, it seems, the old bit is just exactly that: an old bit, with no more use or function than a sack of mouldy potatoes. You see, the old court building (despite being a regular centre for Law for many years before decamping to the soulless lawpits nearby), can only seat a couple of judges abreadth on the bench. And the new Supreme Court requires 3. Or is it 1 and 5?

Whatever. I’m not the architect. Nor the heritage advisor. But what that has meant is that we are paying to restore a building, which at most is going to be used as a set piece of staid, dry, perfectly preserved and totally useless heritage architecture: that collectively we (the taxpayers) have all been paying for. Why not just enlarge the bench?

Optimistically, the old court may be used as a ‘education’ area for school children to ‘educate them’ in the ways of the law. But if only a modicum of common sense had been utilised, the old building could have been adapted, and fulfilled the functions of the new building alongside that we are also paying for. A building big enough for, say, maybe even 5 judges to sit alongside each other. And just how often do these judges sit? 8 hours a day? 5 hours a day? 3 hours?


How about 3 hours a week, or a month? Is that more like it? Our appeals to the Privy Council – yes, outdated, anachronistic, on another land far far away, do not happen often – but then neither do they last that long. A week ago, Joe Karam’s never ending battle to clear the name of David Bain resulted in a 45 minute presentation to Britain’s Privy Council, who then summed up their answer in a record 7 minutes, and then presumably went home for tea.

I’m not a legal expert (what? You guessed?) but it seems like a simple and cost effective scheme to me – certainly we’re not paying them $80 million. Court buildings are, by their nature, largely empty most of the time – except of course in the petty criminal District Courts and Family courts, where a steady stream of abused and abusive villains tread a well-worn route from remand to jail, via a few infantile gestures to their adoring and equally retarded family members before they disappear below deck once more on their way to another stretch on the inside.

But so we’re going to have one court building, beautifully restored, sitting empty for all time bar the occasional schoolchild in a mock jury; and another building, brand spanking new and curiously ovoid inside, sitting largely empty all year round. All to satisfy the whims of the Judges who require enough leg space and bottom width to pen their notes in comfort: denied the opportunity to enlarge the bench by the obstinate blockading by the Heritage lobby.

A bit of give and take was what was required here. Judges wanted roof-gardens, and separate entrances. Heritage advocates wanted no changes at all. Stenographers wanted a new audio system. Criminals wanted a fair trial. The public wants them all locked away. School children want to watch their class-mates put on a wig.

What do we want at Eye of the Fish? Well: not to be saddled with a ridiculously large bill for two under-utilised spaces for a start.

18 - 12 - 08

The whole thing sounds like a classic case of mission creep. In the case of the heritage protectionists, they seem to have over-reacted to the bulldozer mentality of the post-WWII period. Too much heritage, and the cityscape comes across as museumified. Too little heritage, and we end up with the crass mirror-glass of Dallas.

18 - 12 - 08

I’ve been involved with the heritage brigade and, whilst I certainly encounter the odd obstinate heritage lobbyist, the vast majority of them have been open to persuasion–especially when it comes to a building that is to be used rather than ‘museumified’. I do have particular concerns about their attitude to more recent ‘heritage’ and the calibre of some of the category 1 buildings, but that’s another topic.

IMHO WCC has a fair amount to answer for here also. Rumour has it they forced the architects on the Supreme Court to remove all the knob handles (heritage items in working order) and replace them with levers. If this is symptomatic of the council’s attitude, then we’re in trouble.

I’d also like to point out that the images posted above show an incredible amount of work going on–total re-plastering, removal (and, presumably, replacement) of windows, there is likely to be new services etc etc–all of this is known to be more expensive in an existing building than new, and even more so in an historic building with heritage protection. That said, all of the above should have been carefully budgeted for in the beginning. Someone got something very wrong here–and no, the state of the economy does not an excuse make.

RE: the need for the design itself. New Zealand has a particularly lacklustre approach to its legal structure, children don’t get taught civics in school and (in Wellington at least) the court buildings are atrocious–certainly they do not engender prestige or inspire pride in the judicial process.

It is good that one can see the process in action, or at least a (hopefully beautiful and prestigious) symbol of it. The integration of the existing building, however, is unconvincing–made more so by the ‘logical separation’ between the old/new, public/secure, ironically the same dichotomies one would think one was attempting to overcome…

An $80M project to provide a well-designed, visible and inspirational building to be the foundation of the highest court in NZ is not out of order. Unfortunately, it is not all that apparent that this is what the money is being spent on.

18 - 12 - 08

hear hear (original post) – pre-christmas ballistics warranted here… – now for the National Library…

18 - 12 - 08

Surely the National Library re-clad must be under scrutiny for an easy bit of credit crunching? Not least because of its close association with the former Minister for Auckland…

18 - 12 - 08

Don’t forget that most contractors have special “government pricing” which is inevitably 50-100% higher than normal commercial pricing…

I’m just happy that there is one more historic facade in the area; and that we will be free of the privy council; which was mainly used for tax dodge cases anyway IIRC.

This is far better value for money than the aforementioned Nat Lib job which was supposed to cost about the same amount for no real benefit.

18 - 12 - 08

So does the entire $15m blow-out relate to the restoration? Or does it also (in part) relate to the new structure?

Either way, the old girl is an impressive building (or will be when restored) and should be a great addition to the city after being neglected for so long. So a few extra coins, well worth it.

18 - 12 - 08

On the other hand…. one of the nice things about the new building (putting that dread question of cost aside for just one minute if we may), is that it looks as though from the front door of the new Supreme Court, you can look right through and up into the ‘pumpkin’ of space, as you call it.

Conceivably, you could be at the bus stop on Lambton Quay and look straight into the heart of the New Zealand legal system, and see justice at work.

Of course, if you’re a believer in the power of the drive-by shooting, then perhaps the doors need to be something other than glass…..

60 MPa
19 - 12 - 08

I gather that a great deal of work has gone into underpinning the older structure and that sort of work is difficult to price for – often you don’t know what lies beneath until it’s opened up.
Nonetheless that should have been planned and budgeted for.
Slow and expensive and Mainzeal..just saying

19 - 12 - 08

@starkdive: fingers crossed!

@electrtic: couldn’t agree more, on all points.

19 - 12 - 08

electric, “This is far better value for money than the aforementioned Nat Lib job which was supposed to cost about the same amount for no real benefit.”

Isn’t the main purpose of the natlib job to increase space, because they will run out by 2010? This is a benefit, though it could likely be achieved more cost effectively, the main controversy seems to be around the complete disregard for the building’s existing architecture. I understand the new improvements will take it through to 2029 or something like that.

New supreme court is going to look nice. If we weren’t in a recession I don’t think there would be much quibbling, it is nice IMHO to see the Government invest in quality civic buildings. Perhaps it was rushed through (well in fact it was), but at some point as we become a republic it will be nice to have a symbol of our legal system like this. (Still think we’d have been better off waiting until the High Court needed replacing, build that there with the old High Court, and the supreme court across the road from parliament. Yes it’s strange old school geometric way of thinking but there is something more meaningful about the building as a symbol when it’s siting is also included rather than just plonked onto some convenient vacant land.)

19 - 12 - 08

“Isnít the main purpose of the natlib job to increase space, because they will run out by 2010”

Politically, yes, that’s the driver. But total bullshit really. Judging by the drawings on display in the foyer of the NatLib, the new space will gain: meeting rooms, circulation atria, display space etc, and bugger all new storage space. Now that’s ok by me really – there is absolutely no need to provide more storage space actually on-site in the region of some of the more expensive rents in the country. Things could be simply, and cheaply, and much more cost-effectively stored off-site and retrieved when necessary.

So what is the real driver? From what I gather, the head Librarian Penny Cresswell? is the driver – and wants a swoopy, whizzy, glitzy, exciting new facade to gather people in, so they can look at computer images of things that flicker and bang around a screen, in preference to all the fusty older people who used to actually come in a read books and do research with pencil and paper.

Putting it even more bluntly: the current researchers are white, and the new target audience is both white and brown, 16-24, and with the attention span of a gnat. Much like those who frequent Te Papa, which is the hugely successful (in bums on seats / feet through door) museum, although lacking in any useful research capability for the casual visitor whatsoever.

The Supreme Court? I really haven’t a clue who their target market is, on the 300 days a year it is unoccupied. More gnats i suspect.