The Eye of the Fish

Leviathan
July 5, 2019

Scrap or Save?

What? The Wellington Branch of NZIA is to stage a public meeting on the fate of Wellington Central Library, the Ian Athfield-designed building that has been closed for seismic reasons by Wellington City Council.

Why? There has been speculation in the media that the Council may be leaning towards the demolition of the building, although no decision has been announced. At the meeting, perspectives on the building’s context, condition, design merit and options for its future will be covered in presentations by:

Who? Architects Gordon Moller and Ken Davis, structural engineer Adam Thornton, and City Councillor Iona Pannett (Portfolio Lead, Infrastructure and Sustainability). The meeting will be MC’d by Judi Keith-Brown, President-Elect of the NZIA.

Where?  National Library Auditorium 70 Molesworth Street

When? Monday 15 July, 6 – 7.30pm

Post-script: This is the final part of the letter to Kevin Lavery, leaving him no option but to agree to its closure:

greenwelly
5 - 07 - 19

The council has gone very quite on this,

in May we were told,

“Mayor Justin Lester said the library’s fate was “to be determined” but part of an engineering assessment would be presented in a fortnight with a “knock it down and start afresh” a potential option.”
https://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/112520867/wellington-central-library-knock-it-down-and-start-afresh-option-with-earthquake-rating-pending

Nothing of this report has been made public, so I’m guessing its pretty grim reading

Leviathan
5 - 07 - 19

Hmmmmmmm…… the way I look at it, it is pretty obvious that the building can be repaired – that’s just a question of cost. Every single plank of precast concrete would need to have remedial work done to it, for a start – a steel angle bolted through the adjacent beam. That’s not too hard – just tedious and repetitive. And there will be more work besides that – but the general principle is that, yes, it can be saved.

But on the other side of the question, it’s a matter of: Yes, but is it worth it? If it is cheaper to knock it down and start again, why wouldn’t you do that? Especially if you were going to get a better, safer, stronger building out of it in the end?

So then we are left with the real sticky question – if you were going to have to rebuild the Library, why would you do it the same way? Things have moved on since the 90s. Libraries aren’t the same any more. No one reads books any more. What do we even need a Library for – and why does it have to be on THAT particular site?

Sooooooo………… ….?

Tom
5 - 07 - 19

Leviathan, the central library is one of the busiest buildings in the city and it was in fact becoming too small – therefore, to answer your question as to whether we would build it in the same way, I would say definitely (and bigger). Whether or not people read anymore is difficult to answer, but something has to account for the central library being the busiest building in Wellington and Unity Books being the busiest shop…

And I agree with you that if it is cheaper, or nearly as cheap, to start from scratch with a seismically up-to-date, base-isolated building then that should be done.

Whether or not I’d be sad to see the building go, I don’t know, it certainly has its moments of brilliance but it also has its design issues so I’m not all that attached to it. And if it is to stay, then let’s hope they fund a full renovation, enlarge it, and rectify its design issues (for instance get rid of that maze of an entrance from Civic Square).

Andrew
6 - 07 - 19

Is the Lester Memorial Convanity Centre going to be base isolated – or a white elephant earthquake risk before it’s even opened?

Spend that money on getting the library back up and running asap!

Lindsay
6 - 07 - 19

No one reads books? Which statistics have you been looking at?

Leviathan
6 - 07 - 19

Lindsay, you may not have noticed, but statistically, the buying of newspapers, magazines and books is steadily going down, especially as baby boomers move on to that great paddock of greener pastures in the sky. Book-buying is almost unheard of amongst the millennial generation – as you know, they are online instead, checking social media and reading crap online. The DomPost is almost on its last legs as they almost cannot give it away now, and book-stores selling new books have reduced to just 2 in Wellington selling new books: Unity Books and Vic Books. Whitcouls now concentrates on selling pretty packaging and plastic toys – bookstores are mostly doomed. At the moment the trend is all one way – Unity is doing a fine job of selling books to the middle-aged and the elderly, but I defy you to find anyone under 20 in their store.

In the University Library, they are steadily deleting books off the shelves and replacing them with electronic versions, and freeing up floor space for more students to sit and read a screen. Book lending at the University Library has gone from 200,000 lending a year, down to 50,000 a year, in under a decade. That’s a helluva steep decline – it may level off, but it may also just continue to near zero.

Same, I would bet, as the Wellington Central Library – some inhabitants would read books, but some just get a nice seat with a nice view out to the harbour, and read their screen. That’s all well and good, but do we need a “Library” (i.e. a space with books) or do we just need a “Reading Room” where people can hang out and read their own media?

stuart gardyne
7 - 07 - 19

I’m somewhat taken aback by the casual ‘ perhaps we should demolish it’ option being promoted by Levi and Tom.

So far we have not heard what the structural issue is. Only rumours. I have heard that it may be longitudinal cracks in the hollow core precast flooring – under the topping slab and only able to be confirmed by drilling holes and putting a camera into the cores. Levi, you seem to suggest you may know what the issue is. Can you elaborate.

WCC and their engineers should be more open about what it might be and how that may be addressed.

But the rush to replace is concerning. I recall Bill Toomath telling me four decades ago how it is the buildings of the immediate past generation that are most at risk of demolition and change. They are no longer contemporary cool nor heritage hip.

Whats more demolition would be an extraordinary environmental waste.

Levi
7 - 07 - 19

Stuart, the engineering assessment of the central Library “identifies that pre-cast concrete floors are used extensively in the Central Library and that the building design provides for floor seatings of 50mm. The new guidelines provide that this width of seating presents a high level of structural risk, particularly in buildings constructed with a flexible frame, as is the case with the Central Library…. …When allowance is made for construction tolerances, creep and shrinkage effects, Aurecon has calculated that the building has an effective NBS rating of 20%…. …there are other matters to be considered in making any decision about the building. The building is a complex design with a flexible frame, large voids and irregular shape – all of these elements contribute to the building’s structural vulnerability in a significant earthquake given the assessment findings in respect of the floor seatings.” (Letter to Kevin Lavery from Peter Brennan, 18 March 2019)

As far as I know (and I don’t know any more than what is available on the web) there are no cracks at present – it is just that the precast floors sit on a 50mm ledge, and new regs require a minimum of 100mm. Given its flexible frame, in a prolonged Kaikoura type quake, the building could sway to and fro a lot, and with each sway, that 50mm seating could shift – 40, 30, 20… until some floor panels collapse. That’s exactly what happened in the Stats building, and that is the reason why our construction industry has had to rethink its approach from the ground up.

That’s why it IS repairable (as noted above, by putting steel shelf angles under each precast plank seating), but is also expensive – and perhaps it could be rebuilt better, for cheaper, by knocking it down and starting again.

And – if you did knock it down, would you build it exactly the same again?
No – they’d probably put it on base isolators for a start, and have a steel frame for seconds, with a lot more bracing than it has at present.
Would you keep the Nikau palms?
Undoubtably.
Would you keep the low colonnade on the west side?
Me, personally, no. That was an awful, silly part of the design.
Would you keep the rippling glass facade looking over the pools and the City Gallery?
Well, seeing as the pools were forever empty of water, and the City Gallery has grown an extension which blocks out the view, I’m not too sure.

JPR
7 - 07 - 19

Levi, let’s face it – the building was a product of late 90s “post-modernism” and as such, is truly dated. One could say, if one was being ungrateful, that it was ugly, misshapen and confused. It is not symmetrical, it has gross deformities caused by stunted front legs like a french bull-dog, and the rear face (the Civic square side which is really its front side) is glassy, lopsided, indistinct and malformed – although it gets its considerable charm because of that ripple in the plan. Going back to your earlier topic on Ugliness, the library building would surely therefore count as Ugly, and therefore deserves to get demolished, does it not?

Are people afraid of saying this just because the designer was Sir Ian Athfield? Was he a saint, perchance, and not just a Sir? Are his buildings so sacrosanct that they cannot be demolished, unlike other lesser mortals? No architect’s work should be immune to the powers of financial imperative. Bill Toomath’s buildings are also getting demolished – the Ryman corp have just made mincemeat of his Karori Teachers College, after all, and in the South island, nearly all of Peter Beaven’s buildings and many of Warren and Mahoney’s buildings have also been demolished. Even the immortal John Scott’s building at Aniwaniwa was demolished. Things change. Things move on. New things get built. Get over it.

stuart gardyne
7 - 07 - 19

Interesting to hear that the seismic issue is simply slab seating. That suggests that is has not sustained any damage, or that the Kaikoura earthquake weakened it.

Maybe the library is more complex to upgrade (to current code) than other buildings with this problem but upgrades have been done to numerous buildings already with little fuss.

Can anyone recall a building in Wellington that has, since the Kaikoura earthquake, been demolished due to the risk of future failure rather than from sustaining actual damage?

I am also surprised to hear that the vacating of the building has occurred and the suggestion of demolition is being considered for a building that is no more dangerous today than is was when it was first built. It is no more dangerous now than it it was any time in its nearly thirty years of occupation. Or to put it another way – it is just as safe today as it has been for the last thirty years.

Leviathan
7 - 07 - 19

Stuart – agreed. Indeed, Council have said that there is no damage, and that the building is as safe now as it has ever been. But that’s the same as driving a car with a faulty airbag. You used to think you were safe, but now someone has told you that in the event of a car crash, your airbag may kill you. So of course, you stop driving the car, take it to a garage, and get it fixed. Except, of course, if the cost of retro-fitting the car with a new airbag, is worth more than the car. If your car looks like a 1996 Datsun, you take it to the wreckers, and save up for a new car. Or give up driving and get a motorised skateboard. That’s the dilemma we are in – or rather, the Council is in. So far, we have a skateboard in Manners St.

Meanwhile, us Architects are saying that it is a rare Pininfarina-crafted Maserati, not a Datsun.

Leviathan
7 - 07 - 19

JPR – provocative statements indeed! I agree that it is probably post-modern in origin, but I disagree that it is misshapen. It has charm, and an interesting facade, much like Gerard Depardieu – gnarly and a bit bent, but still still attractive. It references the colonnades of the great cities of Europe, and invented a completely new world order of column capital, with a distinctly antipodean bent. It was revolutionary in letting a cafe occupy a book space, and the scent of a coffee fill the air that the bibliophiles breathed. It has a children’s bookspace nestled right next to the pavement, and it gave life to the Civic Square – god only knows that needs it.

starkive
7 - 07 - 19

I think that Bill Toomath had a serious point. Wellington has plenty of examples of the Shock of the Not-Quite-New. With a surfeit of parking buildings, 40-year-old temporary malls and car yards all over Te Aro it would be good to target the vacuous and vacant. Leave a few more post-1970s buildings of serious intent for the second half of the 21st Century to sort out. You know… for the kids?

As for the book/screen/shelter ratio – I don’t know that it really matters. The library building is flexible enough (albeit too much so in the seismic sense) to shift the furniture around and keep meeting evolving usage needs. Arguably it has done so for 30 some years already. Be nice to get the water features back though. Were the pools drained for OSH reasons? If so, somebody needs to check out Venice (or Amsterdam, or Bangkok, or Trieste, or Manchester…)

Kumara Republic
7 - 07 - 19

Stuart: “Can anyone recall a building in Wellington that has, since the Kaikoura earthquake, been demolished due to the risk of future failure rather than from sustaining actual damage?”

Possibly Revera House in Thorndon.

Leviathan
8 - 07 - 19

Kumara Republic – Revera has certainly been demolished, but I wouldn’t say that it came through unscathed. The external facade panels had cracks all over them.

I’d put forward the BNZ Waterfront building. Lots of damage inside, sure, but structurally the main frame was, I think, OK. Under demolition orders now.

Starkive – re the pools – which were empty more often than they were full, as with the pools next to the Michael Fowler Centre, i have a feeling that they just continually leaked into the basement carpark down below.

JohnH
8 - 07 - 19

Re: the pools between the library and the art gallery; the pools are full, the cascading water feature is cascading. They have been all year. Sometimes they are empty but actually more often they are full…like they are now. Unfortunately, it is also probably the liveliest feature of Civic Square at the moment.

Tom
9 - 07 - 19

I do think that the prospect of demolition has been slightly overplayed by the Dom Post (after all sensationalism is what they do best). Sure there have been vague comments by Lester that it might need to come down, but apart from that there’s been very little concrete evidence to suggest that demolition is the most likely option. As for the Dom’s part, they’ve published quotes from Paul Eagle MP saying that he knows for a fact that it’s on its way out (sure he does) and have helpfully published articles from library experts as to how to rebuild it – but there’s nothing particularly convincing. But they’ve clearly got people riled up enough so that now the NZIA are writing letters and holding seminars.

On a different note, the really concerning thing for me, from reading letters to the editor and gauging the general response to the closure is that there seems to be a notion abroad that the whole thing is some kind of huge conspiracy; that the council, which is of course bitterly hated anyway, is trying to save money by cutting services (which, considering how much the closure is costing. is ridiculous) or, worse still, that it simply takes a perverse pleasure in closing the busiest public building in the city. The current mood seems to regard earthquake standards and “experts” with disdain, there’s an article today about the sudden evacuation of the Law Society building and, true to form, the comment section reads like a facebook page for anti-vaxers or climate skeptics – I present to you society’s latest glitch: NBS denialists.

Leviathan
9 - 07 - 19

Absolutely Tom, I’m with you there brother. NBS denialists is a great phrase. Stuff columns are filled to the brim with people who really do not have a clue what they are talking about. Staggeringly stupid, for the most part. My solution: never read the comments in Stuff.

Leviathan
10 - 07 - 19

Here’s a link to a great post on the Library by Ralph Johns – an interesting and different approach to the issue:
https://talkwellington.org.nz/2019/design-thinking-for-libraries/

Leviathan
12 - 07 - 19

Just out, there is this:
https://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/culture/114192044/decision-on-the-future-of-wellington-central-library-well-over-a-year-away

In it, Kevin Lavery says: “There are no quick nor easy fixes. It’s early days and no decisions can or have been made about the future of the building,” he said. “Our focus now is to determine what the engineering implications and challenges are, and possible solutions for the building. These challenges are complex and need to be fully understood before any decisions can be made.”

An independent specialist is set to be brought in by the council in August to work with engineering and industry experts in identifying potential solutions. “Once we have that information we will commission detailed engineering assessments on the possible solutions – including indicative costs – and a peer review of this advice,” Lavery said. The “rigorous process” is expected to take more than a year to complete.

greenwelly
12 - 07 - 19

So we have gone from the Mayor telling us that they would see a report “in a fortnight” to the CEO being wheeled out with an update saying it will be “more than a year” until its fate is decided.

Reading between the lines, the politicians ( who are less than 4 months from an election) are running a mile form this because the words that every is whispering to them is “demolish” “demolish” and they are worried their political careers might get demolished too..

Mind you , an interesting twist is that one of the first things a new council will have to do is who replaces the CEO , whose contract will end in April 2020
https://wellington.govt.nz/your-council/news/2017/10/ceo-reappointed