LeviathanMay 25, 2020
Note: Post updated – refer down to the end.
There’s been a lot of clamouring over on Scoop from various people all demanding that the Library is reopened forthwith, and that the Council stop mucking about with the secrecy over the Elwood report. The leaked snippets that we, the public, have seen so far include a range of options – for a 90% NBS strengthen and a 100% NBS strengthen, and rebuild (and fit out) costs ranging up to a maximum of $200 million, which certainly is a lot of moolah that we don’t really have.
At the public meeting organised by NZIA last year, we heard candidly from Adam Thornton (respected engineer with many years of experience in strengthening buildings) on how hollow-core spans are no longer being viewed as quite such a good thing, but also that they could be simply quake-proofed. Thornton outlined a possible process for remediation. He noted that:
• The existing columns would all need to be cut and base isolators installed. That is really hard on the Town Hall project as it is brick and doesn’t have a basement, but it is relatively simple on the Library – it has a basement. Still – expensive and very time consuming.
• All the existing floor slabs of hollowcore concrete would need to have steel shelf angles installed in case of movement / stretching of the reinforcing within them. Relatively simple. but time-heavy.
• The interior is a bit of an issue as it has a giant void in the centre, which structurally is never a good thing. Architects love that shit though. This could, maybe, be a place and a time for some change there.
• The giant black steel portico was a real problem, but that has been demolished, so life is a bit simpler. It was acting like a battering ram – and thank god it has gone.
• The wavy glass wall overlooking the Square is a bit of a nightmare in engineering terms, but has worked for years and Wellingtonians love it.
• He didn’t say, but I’m guessing that structurally the building is a bit lop-sided – massive “stone” wall on one side, very rigid almost down to ground level, while the other side is open and wavy and glassy. All of this is resolvable though, with good engineers. So what are the other issues?
I’m not an expert on basements but generally, Wellington doesn’t have that many of them, being basically stuck down at the waterline. Some of the high-rises have a small basement with car-parking tucked in amongst the columns below the offices above, but as far as I understand, the Civic Square project and Library is a bit different.
In what must have seemed like a good idea at the time, a massive underground basement was built back in the 80s, including under the Library, and under the whole of Civic Square. Using hollow-core concrete slabs to span the large distances meant that there were probably fewer columns and so other functions were slotted in there as well: underground entry to the back of the Michael Fowler Centre, an underground children’s playground (who the heck ever though THAT was a good idea?!?!?) with an aerial spy-hole to look down into the children’s Capital E experience (creepy!?!?), underground entry to the City Gallery, and of course underground access and parking to the Library itself.
That means that there is a large, floppy hole under water, down by the harbourside. Never a good thing to have: asking for trouble. So the problem with the Library is not just a problem with the Library – it is a problem with the whole Civic Square, potentially able to fall into a giant underground underwater hole. Not quite as dramatic as that of course – more that the hole is held up by elements that can rack and move and that already leak like a sieve. Any work in this region probably means that the whole hole needs to be wholly dug out and rethought, before being rebuilt and reoccupied.
There is also a problem with the planning, putting it bluntly. Let’s be honest: the entry into the Library was always a bit of a mess, with the cross-over between east-west traffic to Clarke’s Cafe and the Civic Square clashing wholesale with the entry to the Library itself. It worked, kinda, but only sorta. The escalators were poorly planned out, the offices above never really worked. The entry portico was demolished a few years ago due to being an earthquake hazard, so the connection from one side to another was lost. The lifts from the basement up to the offices above and the aerial walkways in and around the entry – it was ground-breaking and innovative at the time, but it was a bit of a dog of a solution in reality. Structurally it was probably a nightmare as well, creating a large void in the centre, where normally a core might be a stronger element, not a weaker one. I’d like to put down in writing the possibility, that despite Saint Athfield’s unimpeachable sense of design fun outside, the truth is that the Library needed an enema to clean out all the crap on the inside.
There is a bigger problem that the loudly clamouring few are not acknowledging: that our younger generations are not using Libraries. Being a book-lover myself I didn’t want to believe this but it is sadly, massively true: the actual use of Libraries as places to borrow books has suffered massive decline over the past ten years. Just as newspapers and magazines are closing through loss of custom and loss of advertising income, Libraries are also closing down all over the “developed” world due to lending rates tanking. Of one report I saw, a major Library in NZ had seen its borrowing rate go from 200,000 books a year down to 50,000 loans a year, over the last five years only.
That’s an almost direct line straight down to the bottom. It will level out of course – there are still older people alive who will keep on taking out books – but even they cannot stop the inevitable. Book-loaning habits have changed considerably and are changing still. Twenty years ago when I lived in London the Tube and the trains would be packed with people sitting reading newspapers – last time I was there a couple of years ago there wasn’t a newspaper to be seen. Every single person was sitting reading a screen. No longer could I look over the shoulder of someone to read the other side of their paper. Newspapers are dead: they just don’t know it yet. Stuff, for instance, has just been sold for ONE dollar – presumably that includes all the papers that contribute to it as well – so that puts the price of the Dom Post at about 30 cents… Libraries are also dead: like Zombies, they still keep on plodding along, mumbling and muttering about overdue books and borrowing rates, when in truth, the Library lending model that we have had for the last two hundred years is over. Finished. Kaput. Dead as a Dodo, a Moa, or a Stephen’s Island wren.
People don’t get books out of the Library like they used to – Shirley, Sally, Jo, Meredith, Barbara, Trish, Bev, Wendy, Adrina, Marion and Peggy (see a trend forming here?) – yes, YOU may still use a Library that way, and good on you to (so do I), but fewer and fewer other people do. Over on Scoop, Sally says: “Where in the world would you find a capital city without a Central Library. The present library needs to be strengthened – that’s it! Now just get on with it. The length of time and deflection to considering hubs or a different location is truly outrageous. I want priority given to fix the present central library and return it the people asap please.” But it is possible that Sally has not been doing her homework. All over the world, Libraries are changing and book-loaning habits are getting less and less. Yes, major cities are still mainly have Libraries, but they are not the same as they once were. Research, once the prime reason for specialist libraries, is more and more becoming an exclusively on-line thing. I do a lot of research by looking through on-line indexes of journals and articles, without leaving my chair at Eye of the Fish Towers, and I search newspapers from the National Library by using Papers Past, not by physically delving into a stack of yellowing newsprint.
The Library is, of course, so much more than just a place to get a book out, or to read a magazine article in the sunshine, overlooking a bustling Civic Square while gently snoozing over your lunch. The new, much-vaunted Tūranga – the new Architectus / Schmidt Hammer Lassen / Ngai Tahu designed Library in Christchurch (disclaimer: I’ve not yet been there) was evidently very-much liked by young Lester the Jester, but that is primarily because of things it did that were not book related: game playing, children caring, fun finding, music listening, activity organising, and more: an entertainment centre rather than a site for learned learning. And that’s all good for what it does – but c’est n’est pas une bibliotec. The one review I have read by an actual grown-up human was totally horrified at the lack of actual books: the New Zealand Fiction section was apparently on the bottom shelf of the top floor, with one of each: one Maurice Gee, one Ronald Hugh Morrison, one Margaret Mahey, etc. Is that what the Librarians want? Who cares. Is it what the public wants? Presumably so.
Lead architect Carsten Auer has said: “Libraries have moved on from being repositories of books to being multi-media hubs and social hubs. The modern library is the ‘third space’ between home and work. It’s a place where you can meet people or be ‘alone together,’ enjoying sharing a social and recreational space with others, even if you are not engaging directly with them.” I think that if the above-mentioned Shirley, Sally, Jo, Meredith, Barbara, Trish, Bev, Wendy, Adrina, Marion and Peggy were to go down there and visit, they may possibly be disappointed that books are not to the forefront. It’s a new concept, for a new time. But it is not a Library like the one we used to have.
So: new function, definitely. Does that also mean a new building? C’est possible. Certainly, before the 2016 earthquakes struck and caused realisation of the issues that have cancelled our civic centre, the librarians were hard at work with architects on a potential massive redesign of the interior. My recollection is that this was a proposed $25 million refit of the building and its contents. My wish is that this had been shared with the public, at whatever stage this got to. On top of this now sits a need for massive amounts of strengthening, taking the bill up to a rumoured $100 million or more. The question surely has to be asked, as well, is it worth it? My further wish is that the WCC fully embrace the openness and further share things with us all – we pay the rates that pay the wages and pay the bills. You, the WCC, work for US, the people, not the other way round, so yes we do indeed demand to see the Engineer’s report, pronto. Mayor Andy Foster, please note: hiding the report for another ten days helps nobody.
And finally but definitely not a small question to ask or to answer: is the building in the right place, not just horizontally, but vertically as well. We know our city is ridiculously badly sited, bang smack on top of the biggest baddest fault line of all time, poised atop the junction between the Pacific Plate and the Australian Plate, that has gone off repeatedly in the past and will undoubtedly do so again. The Wellington Fault runs right through Wellington, and the Library is sited on reclaimed land that is composed of mud from the sea floor and layers of town rubble, an unstable mess that no-one in their right mind would want to build on really. A bowl of jelly that wobbles when we stick our spoon into it. A jelly-tip without the chocolate icing. A Pacific Island with a capital poised on the edge of the rising sea, with the Library being a few centimetres below everywhere else on the CBD – the low point of something that is not terribly high in the first place. The question has been asked: how do we protect ourselves against rising sea levels? Well, quite possibly not by situating our main Library right on the water’s edge, next to a rising sea, on unstable ground and without base isolation, over a leaking basement and a crumbling structure, even if it does have a very cute facade composed of zinc and copper Nikau palm trees. Personally I am all in favour of a period of Public Consultation.
27 May Post-script – after the WCC meeting with significant public discussion about the Central Library. The following are some snippets I managed to note down during the meeting:
The WCC public meeting started off with a healthy amount of public participation – most of it quite sane and rational, which is a pleasant change. Evidently discussion about the Library brings out the best, not the nutters (mostly). Helene Ritchie, former deputy Mayor, argued strongly for doing the bare minimum of remediation and also demanded immediate action – decisions to be made within a week. She boldly stated that the Library CANNOT be demolished, as it is in a Heritage area.
Scoop Wellington’s Lindsay Shelton spoke next – forensically picking apart the Council’s report, paragraph by paragraph, noting that while the Library was mentioned, it was only briefly referred to in paragraphed 55, then 63, and then 93. Thanks Lindsay – I’ll skip the rest then! Lindsay Shelton noted that “what was disgracefully absent was any recommendation that the Councillors should note the ENORMOUS public concerns around the Library” and instead the Council Report merely notes demurely that “community interest has been high”.
Roger Walker spoke and referred to the Poetic aspects of Ian Athfield’s design – “a building is not just a structure with a roof” – the Library has poetry and joy and there is a feeling of joy to be there. Roger Walker is always a persuasive speaker, and he notes that his old mate Ath was one of only two architects to have been knighted and that the building is in a Category 1 Heritage precinct.
The Architectural Centre president spoke next – Kate Lindsay – and she was great – short and sweet. She noted that the building was ground-breaking at the time it was built and it is quite playful – it is a fun building. The Library is what you may term a “decorated shed” (in a reference to Venturi there that may well have gone clean over the heads of the assembled Councillors) but she also noted that this would enable the building to have plenty of scope to adapt into what we need for the future. Good point. Kate Lindsay argued forcefully that the building supported a significant diversity of people within and that it is an essential service and facility – “a living room for the people”. She stressed that Wellington NEEEDS a Library and that the Council could do a partial strengthen now if needed, but the City CANNOT have 10 years with no Library. We need a solution to reopen now.
The last person I took notes on was Adam Thornton, on his own, but formerly the leadership at Dunning Thornton Consultants. He is a pretty clued up engineer about strengthening work, so his word obviously carries a fair amount of sway. He noted that: it was obvious at the NZIA-organised public meeting about 10 months ago that there was significant public desire to retain and strengthen the building. He has reviewed the Council’s strengthening concepts and notes that they are sound, but conservative. He notes that “Significant savings could be made” – for instance a 20% contingency has been applied and the fit out has been included – so that the real strengthening costs are significantly less. The allowances for building services are “extremely generous” – and that generally, the contractors and consultants that he had spoken to all agreed that the cost estimates were significantly greater than what they would think was appropriate.
Most importantly when Adam Thornton was pressed on the possible timelines to get things done, he was concise: a year for the design, 3 months for procurement, and 2-3 years max to provide a base isolated building that would be a robust enough design to survive a 500-1000 year earthquake with little damage.