The Eye of the Fish

April 11, 2018

Karori Teachers College – Rymans on path to Destruction

It’s been a busy week for news so far, and I’m still hiding in bed from all the coldness. But there is some news of go-aheads: the long-debated Chinese Garden gets the go-ahead, although I’m not sure if anyone really wants it; and the Shelly Bay housing plan has the handbrake released, so that too can go ahead. There are things to be said both for and against both of those – for debate another day perhaps.

Big news for Wellington is, however, quite extraordinary: Ryman plan to demolish almost the entire Karori Teachers College. Having bought the site from Victoria University in a hugely controversial process, and with the local school desperate for sports facilities and the local people absolutely keen to get some continuing use of the quite extensive sports facilities, it seems that, in all likelihood, Ryman is going to shut everyone out and is set on full-on destruction.
The site is currently occupied by some flat land for tennis courts and parking, but the interesting parts for me are the buildings. The architect was Bill Toomath – one of New Zealand’s finest modernist architects, and the buildings are his finest work. Heritage New Zealand is trying to work towards a Heritage listing for the buildings – which begs the question as to why it does not already have one – but the news today says that Ryman plan to move to demolition almost immediately. By the time any possible listing is granted, the buildings are likely to have already been consigned to history. This is a calamitous fuck up of humungous dimensions if you’re a fan of modernist architecture and the work of Bill Toomath – and a disaster for the local community as well, who look set to get nothing out of the deal. How did this all go so wrong? But first: what are the buildings like that are already there?

The site has a number of buildings on it, and I am not an expert in what is there, but I have visited in the past, and would summarise it like this: teaching blocks in two or three large wings, with a concrete frame and timber inset windows. It is a series of carefully studied elevations, nicely proportioned, and arguably could divide up quite well into apartments for an Old People’s Home. There is a Library space as well, which used to be lovely when it was full of books, but looks pretty lost and lonely now. And there is a gymnasium space, perfect for a community facility, and it is a pretty wonderful feeling space, with lots of timber and light. There are also a couple of Lecture theatres – hugely sculptural objects from the outside – I’m not sure what they are like from the inside. That’s a piece of architecture that is more difficult to fit into the architecture of an Old People’s Home (or, no doubt, an Aged Care Facility, or Happy Life Retirement Village, or whatever spin Ryman want to put on this), being all full of steps and level changes etc, but there is no denying that it is still a pretty iconic, punchy, and arguably quite beautiful piece of architecture. There is also a small Maori Marae lying somehow at the side of the teachers college, which I am not sure whether this is part of the deal with Rymans or not (looks at map – is aghast to find it is planned for demolition – ye gods, they’re targeting Maori cultural heritage as well!).

Lying in between all this, or at least in between a couple of the main wings, there is an absolutely gorgeous secret moment of wild native garden – ponga tree ferns and generally green wilderness, with two magnificent bridges spanning across – its nice to walk across, but even nicer to look at, especially from underneath. Talk about Magic Moments ! There are some great photos of that over on the Architectural Centre website, take by one of their talented photographers, Michael Dudding.

There are some valid criticisms though. It’s certainly not all scent and roses. I know that some of the former teachers who were taught in the buildings hated the buildings – mostly in that classic way that New Zealanders tend to dislike anything that does not have timber weatherboards and a pointy roof. That’s a hard thing to battle when you’re made of concrete and have flat roofs everywhere. But they also had criticisms that it was a rabbit warren inside – and I’d agree with that – having got lost there many times, both on the inside and on the outside (its not just me being an idiot – there was a confusing room numbering system, several staircases, two bridges, and at least three different entrances). But while some of the former inhabitants and maybe even some of the local residents may cheer at the prospect of demolition, I doubt that anybody is going to be cheering at the prospect of destruction of the bridges, the gardens, and of course the building over of the tennis courts.
You may be more familiar than me with the buildings. Want to share your feelings here?

11 - 04 - 18

Just noticed the words in the last picture – “demolishion”. Who is the idiot that wrote that? (not me). Let’s hope it was not the University! So – was it Stuff editor or Rymans?

11 - 04 - 18

And, of course, listing by Heritage NZ gives no protection in itself. To be protected it has to be included in WCC’s District Plan, which is another bureaucratic and hence time-consuming process (as it has to be).

Meanwhile, the wrecker’s ball is starting to swing…

Lindsay Shelton
12 - 04 - 18

Ben Schrader writes today that the Karori demolition is a crushing blow to Wellington’s modernist heritage

12 - 04 - 18

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to decide after having seen the plans for replacement? I mean, we don’t want heritage conservation to forestall the possibility for future heritage to be created by way of significant contemporary interventions at the site. All we have to go on in that respect is Ryman’s track record of appalling architectural design across the country. But what if demolition relied upon the concept of something better replacing it?

For what it’s worth, while it is sad to see the passing of significant heritage, this at least keeps stage 1 of the original campus design – which does present a whole composition of the most significant aspects of the campus. The loss of Lopdell Gardens and the flying pedestrian bridges that connected the first and second stages of the project will be a real shame though (more-so, in my view, than the actual buildings that make up stage 2, including the Malcolm Tower block).

The loss of the netball courts in particular will be sad for some within the community (tennis less so – there are other courts around), but I have a great deal of trouble getting too invested in the ‘needs’ of these rather well-off suburbanites who – if they sold off their European SUVs and replaced them with more reasonable vehicles – could easily fund a replacement development. Priorities though.

Some parts of this post are tongue in cheek.

12 - 04 - 18

m-d – you’re being too subtle for me – if some parts of this are tongue in cheek, then I’m wondering what cheeks those are? However, your desire to possibly see the proposed development before deciding whether you want to protest or not, is quite possibly coming true. Front page of yesterday’s paper says:

“Open days would be held in the coming weeks. “We’d love to see anyone in the Karori community – and the wider community – who is interested in our plans for the future of the site.”

So – if you live in the Karaori community, or wider community, I strongly encourage you to go and see what they are proposing. I’ll be watching out keenly for that chance !

12 - 04 - 18

Just thought you might like to see some of the comments off the Stuff website:

Jerry – Its a conglomerated eyesore that needs the wreckers ball. Only in Wellington would you discover some looney, sandal and walk-sock wearing, heritage hugging jester that insisted on retaining such a dump. This seriously cannot be considered heritage classification in any stretch of the imagination no matter how much someone needs to cling to the past. Time to get real for Gods sake.

Albert Ross – Not only in Wellington, sadly, are there legions of people who think they have rights over other people’s property

E Man – They are called CAVE people. Citizens against virtually everything

BigLoudSkyFella – And they are right into BANANAs. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

ThreeEdgedSword – Not everything old is worth saving. Certainly not this awful Soviet inspired concrete monstrosity. On top of that, the inside parts that I have seen are a split level accessibility nightmare.

E13 – I dont see what the big deal is, theyre so ugly, dont fit in to the area and no body cared for them to be ‘heritage’ before they were sold, why now? Would the same stick have been kicked up if Victoria DID keep the campus and demolished and re built themselves or is it just community bitterness?

tiredofmoaners – These heritage nerds make me sick. If they are so concerned about this site why didnt they put their money where their mouth is and buy it? You cant tell someone who has spent millions buying a property what to do with it to suit your agenda. Get bloody real.

and a very rare comment:
Ron Donald – Bill Toomath designed some stunning landmarks, all are an integral part of New Zealand’s short design heritage. Whether you understand brutalist architecture or not, it’s a sad day when an iconic building of this magnitude gets demolished in lieu of a quick profit. History quite literally being destroyed.

22 - 04 - 18

And for a more intelligent commentary, have a read of this from Elizabeth Cox: “Brutal but beautiful”

Also this, from Christine McCarthy: “Opportunity in Karori: a new inter-generational community”

A Concrete Legacy
7 - 05 - 18

[…] know that most of the Karori Teachers’ College campus, designed by the late Bill Toomath, is threatened with demolition by its new owners, Ryman Healthcare. I don’t know enough about the previous VUW/WCC ownership […]

12 - 05 - 18

There is a lovely ambient film over on the Wellingtonista website, by ‘Tom’ – sensitively made and nice acoustic track to go with it. I’d recommend you watch it to get the feeling of the place.