The Eye of the Fish

May 27, 2008

WAM Bam Thank you Ma’am

In what may be viewed as the last gasp actions of an arts-loving Prime Minister, a massive refurbishment of the National Library in Wellington has been unveiled by Helen Clark today. The ever-present “Government Architect” Warren and Mahoney have pulled off an audacious move to the formerly venerated building that holds our national collections. Even though there was a large renovation to the Library in the last few years, with Athfield Architects installing a shiny new glass entry into the 1970s designed building in an arguably somewhat un-necessary architectural move, today the proposed “extension” is revealed to rip the entire facade off on all sides, and replace it with a radically different shiny glass frontage – clearly loving the arts doesn’t necessarily co-incide with loving heritage buildings for the dear old PM… 


The original building, designed by Ministry of Works architect Peter Boyes, in 1971, was completed some years later in the 1980s, amongst dire warnings that the space available was not going to be enough for future expansion.  It’s a common problem amongst archives and libraries it seems: a similar problem occurred with the British Library, which had carefully set aside land for future expansion, only for the surplus land to be sold off by the vengeful witch Margaret Thatcher to avoid any more spending by the library (which was, admittedly, way over budget and right out of time in the order of several years late).  Of course, many years later the British government had to buy the land back at a vastly inflated price – much like a New Zealand railway system really … So not much difference here.  A mere 20 years after completion, the New Zealand national library building now needs a significant increase in size. But what to do: there’s a strict height limit in place and not much room for extra floorspace. However, with $70million (ok, $69million over 5 years) to spend, and a net result of 4000m2 extra floor space (that’s a whopping $17,250 / m2), we’re going to get something pretty amazing and a vast increase in space, are we not?
Well yes, and no. 

There is a certain cost involved in the proposal involving the ripping off of the existing facade, and the replacement of the walls with lots of glass. While some may argue that the existing frontage is “aggressive, fortress-like, formidable, and intimidating”, others find its isolated aloofness a pleasure to view, and actually an important modernist building for the Parliamentary precinct, one which “borrows” its architectural thinking from Kallmann, Mckinnell and Knowles’ Boston City Hall (1962) The Athfield alteration, which some have grumbled about, was an assertive intervention which both cut through the staunch wall of the library and left it recognisably intact.  The WAM Bam proposal promises the world, but doesn’t leave much of it left.  It appears as a thin facade of graphic design, a sad substitute for the massiveness, authority and presence which the current library has.  Is the proposal really only a thin reflection of flimsy ideas about multi-media and image-making, turning architecture into a photoshop file, with the longevity of teenage popularity with facebook? Why this wholesale attack on the substantial nature of the library?  Is this proposal symptomatic of contemporary concerns about three-dimensional life and fashionable ideas of multi-media, information services and the cyber-junket results of the information-highway and 2nd life?

And why does it have to look so gimicky, inter-webby, and superficial?

There should at least be some serious questioning at least of its all glass facade. Books really don’t like sunshine. Proposals to build the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, by the French architect Dominique Perrault, were approved in a similar manner by former President Mitterand as his last gasp too, and have proved to be, arguably, a complete disaster. While the glass “book-shaped” library buildings have been completed as planned, a second internal skin of timber shutters has proved to be necessary to reduce the massive heat-gain caused by all the glass.   Of course we’re surely not going to have problems like that here, at least not with the “cool” steadying hand of WAM at the tiller, authors of a certain Maritime House eco-cynicism on Customhouse Quay…  But I suspect the driver behind the revamp is more the need to appear to “open up the doors” to the public than it is just to provide more floor space. There is due to be a five storey high atrium, which while a fun thing to have, will hardly provide much more space in an already over-crowded building. The plain truth is that big blank-walled buildings filled with books aren’t a turn-on to many of today’s attention-seeking youth, and the overhanging, overbearing walls of the existing inverted Ziggurat must scare the bejesus out of the culturally insensitive ones amongst us.  So the facade is set to be see-through, bringing visible book-stacks to the fore, and featuring huge glass walls that flicker and pulsate with images and text, rippling over a positively manic fragmented and fractulated facade.  All of which is set to get the glass-mongers scratching their withered pates in perplexion, and the occasional architectural connossieur screaming “Whhyyyyy??????.”

28 - 05 - 08

One will have to assume that the relevant legislation is passed before election (perhaps Helen finally gets to leave her mark in built form, after the Stadium debacle), otherwise, we can be assured that the $70 odd million will be redirected toward tax cuts.

But the architecture: a while ago I surmised that the Ministry of Defense should have moved into the building instead of having that thing built next door. The architecture would have suited it completely. The National Library could then have a purpose-built modern library facility, with whatever superficial facade treatment they desire. Winners all round…

…and why shouldn’t a national icon (as the library should be) break through local height restrictions. if ever there was a case for an exception to the rules, then this is it (some pretty atrocious apartment buildings get away with it afterall)…

Finally, when will everyone realise that renderings such as this are completely dishonest, and the finished buildin’s reflections and visible inhabitation will be much more banal than that presented here. Someone ought to get a series of renderings and completed building images, and present them side by side as an exercise to educate clients on architectural marketing/dishonesty…

28 - 05 - 08

I can assure you that even the most quizzical of architects will not be as dumbstruck as many in the cultural heritage industries…

28 - 05 - 08

I actually don’t think there is a problem with the “bunker” approach for a library as much of the facility is STORAGE. But a completely new site would offer more options and no – not on the waterfront because books don’t like moisture either.

The Nat Library building in Palmerston North is a fanatstic example of a 1970s (?)concrete bunker. I actually quite like these big square utilitarian 1970s structures and there sculptural concrete facades – but thats just me and my only measure of public building architechture is the balance of form and function. My all time favourite example being Burley-Griffins Pyrmont Incinerator. If you can make an rubbish burning facility look like a Mayan temple while retaining function – the world’s your oyster when trying to design a library

28 - 05 - 08

The Ministry of Defence in the National Library – what a great idea M-D. re: the building – yes it does seem like the architects here have designed a webpage rather than a building …

28 - 05 - 08

M-D – i’m sure the Ministry of Defence would love to change into the Nat Library building, but who would ever want to move into the MoD building?!?!

28 - 05 - 08

Is now the time to start a ‘save the national library building’ campaign?

29 - 05 - 08

I’m intrigued – i think we need to see a plan. WAM! The Plan please, thanks Man.

From that picture of theirs you have posted, it shows the new west facade which is the only direction they can expand in. That would, in theory, be the only direction that the so-called new space could be created, as they’re not going up (but i agree MD – why on earth not?). And yet there is a giant atrium in the west side instead, eating up the bookshelves, and even descending far into the ground. I’m sure there is some logical explanation as to how they have created another 4000m2 of very expensive book and archive space despite an atrium “5 storeys tall” – perhaps they just moved the shelves closer together – or perhaps they have filled in the central skylight – but it certainly looks from the visuals that this is a colossal waste of money with no perceivable serious increase in space.

For my $70mill, i’d be looking for a good 12,000m2 of space with no fancy atriums and just loads of shelving. And i’d probably retain that perfectly adequate concrete wall, that keeps the building safe and sound and won’t fall off in an earthquake.

29 - 05 - 08

Moving defence in there was a cool idea. Then build something utterly different like the Seattle Public Library.

On the whole I don’t mind the existing building (actually found it quite appropriate for a Govt building of that importance). But then, I’ve never been inside except to go to public talks, so I guess maybe it wasn’t very successful at inviting me inside.

(Still miffed that the Supreme Court of NZ is not opposite Parliament where it should be.)

Roger Hay
29 - 05 - 08

The saddest thing is that the original form is clearly an “upward growth” shape. I.e – it clearly indicated how its initial form should be later expanded.
I challenge somebody from W&M to justify, to the rest of us, why they could not understand that architectural message, or else were not able to follow it.

The way the building was set back was an integral part of the way many architects thought in the years it was designed.
If somebody were to do the research, I think they would find that this building’s placement followed the design guidelines for the Government Precinct as laid down by Ned Blake-Kelly when Government Architect.

If we start out on casually disregarding the way our predecessors thought, we will end up being no better than the airy academics who profess to be able to teach us how to design.

As for it being a “bold move” to remove those precast panels, let me point out that it was also a “bold move” to demolish that lovely old theatre in Auckland – and think how that is now regarded.

Simplistic civic vandalism can never be justified by current cultural fashions.

Roger Hay

29 - 05 - 08

I very much doubt the $70M is going to be spent solely on the newly created 4000m2. Working with an existing building inevitably means (at the very least) upgrading the spaces directly adjacent to the new build, and more than likely spaces beyond that as well. Adding a significant amount of space will also require upgrading services such as boilers, air handling units, blah, blah, blah, to cope with extra area. Then there is the meticulous requirements of archival storage–I would think these requirements do not come cheap.

Cost quibbles aside, I too find it difficult to marry the concept of an archive with a glass box. The current building is impressive and majestic, well suited to its context and function. The function of an archive is introspective, to protect valuable items of social history forever—what gets archived and what doesn’t is political, a gradual process of propaganda production—thus I feel a brutal, formidable, introverted building is indeed appropriate.

Roger I would agree with what you’ve said, all except the suggestion that academics are airy and arrogant. You’d probably find a great many academics who would agree with your assessment of the original building and the proposal.

29 - 05 - 08

Id also like to reserve judgement until more documentation is accessible, but more pointedly, I’ve seen better presented buildings (and some evidence of formal tact) from 3rd year students, those airy academics must be teaching something. Its frustrating and embarrassing to rely on these terrible representations that make it to public release. Cant wait for the completely offensive ‘culture’ prints on the glazing. Brilliant.

29 - 05 - 08

Kind of looks like a project that started life as a small 2B pencil sketch, has been enlarged on a photocopier and suddenly, much to it’s own suprise, been turned into a beautifully rendered fait accompli. Obviously it’s still very conceptual – even $70m doesn’t buy a cool 40m x 10m x 1m thick sheet of warped, etched glass.

That said I presume there is meant to be some concept or rationale behind it? I bet the the odd angled bits are some sort of reference to the interweb. Lots of glass invariably represents the inclusivness and openess of the institution to the public. Unprotected glazing to the west, juxtaposed with book-like sunshading to the south shows the power of the institution to ignore nature and still protect it’s archives. No doubt the general teeteringness reflects the government that spawned it.

30 - 05 - 08

Roger, I think you will find it is the airy academics that do understand the historical motives behind buildings such as this, but it tends to be the non-airy non academics that end up teaching design. There-in may lie the problem?

31 - 05 - 08

It seems to me that perhaps we are misunderstanding the question. Yes, we can probably all agree that the existing building, while a trifle dour and overbearing, makes a perfectly adequate repository for the nations treasures: taonga if you prefer.

But that’s not the point probably put to the architects. WAM were presumably asked to solve the problem of poor visitor numbers, low awareness of purpose, and overcoming cultural superiority (ie not enough brown people feeling welcome), as well as the ‘lack of space’ question. While i think they have seemingly ignored the lack of space question (in any serious way, unless WAM can prove otherwise), they have certainly tackled the question of the woo-hoo whizz-bang culture. As proposed, there are great flickering images, moving layers of movies, words in many languages or words implying much text within, a facade that ripples back and forth physically as well as virtually, a place to gather and move inside, within a 5 floor atrium, and no doubt a fair bit of noise as well as visual fanfare.

It’ll become known more as Te Puna than National Library, which will capture the imagination of the young, and lure in the non-library going illiterates, even if it does confuse the old and the tourists. It’ll be filled, not with books, but with computers, or animated graphic displays. It’ll be naturally ventilated to a small extent to where the people are, but the ancient stacks of books will still need a stable humidity controlled atmosphere or else they’ll all go mouldy.

As such, the Nat Library will be more like Te Papa than the old version of the Museum of NZ. It’ll be hugely more populist, and popular, than it was before. Te Papa, despite being loathed almost universally by architects (its an ugly monster), by museum-lovers (the genuine artifacts within are mostly hidden, while cheaply made mass market copies such as the kauri ‘tree’ and ‘marae’ are on display), by art lovers (the nation’s art is hidden in some bunker elsewhere, as there is a huge lack of any relevant gallery space), has proved to be a huge success in terms of visitor numbers, even if in little else. But even if Te Papa is a hideous sham, it still soaks up the tourists, and isn’t that what matters most? Or do we have an obligation to history that we should shun the quick and glitzy in preference to a more sedate and mannered building that stands still and doesn’t glitter? Is the proposal really just a (not so) cheap theatrical piece of camp cross-dressing?

Do we all need to dress like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, or can we still be considered serious in a nice tweed jacket?

2 - 06 - 08

The current building’s facade is one of the most recognisable in Wellington. It is strong and appropriate for the contents of the building. Ripping it away feels like vandalism to me. I hope that someone vetoes this proposal before any contract is signed.

If National Library needs more space, why doesn’t it open a second site somewhere else in the country? (And I know they already have other locations lending to schools and performing other low-visibility tasks.) I prefer countries where the government is decentralised, so that everyone has access to government services and to government employment, rather than just those people living in the capital. How about a National Library South located in Christchurch?

2 - 06 - 08

Yay, a pastiche of crap architectural trendiness. WOW DIAGONAL LINES AND GLASS! How deeply disappointing that one of the few truly unique buildings in the govt precinct cannot be left alone for even 30 years and must be bludgeoned to fit the glass box mafia prescription. This oh-so-modern “update” will look like sh!t in 10 years.

Why not just leave the current imposing intensity of this building alone (apart from fixing the leaks), but rethink the street level access and the ground floor- instead of the blank ribbed concrete wall have something that actually entices people in. Perhaps an overhanging glass box on top for a vistor centre and restaurant?!

Look at this building- there is a lot that can be done while retaining this WACKY and INTERESTING structure. Leave it alone you vandals!

13 - 06 - 08

Does anyone know if this would need a notified resource consent?

13 - 06 - 08

it doesn’t break the height limit, so my guess would be: no. It’ll sail right through.

14 - 06 - 08

what is wrong with this counrty? why is everything going to become a big disneyland, with pumpkins and lemon squeezers. the nature of a national library is definitely not one that is even close to that.
WAM is not the only architectural practise in nz (they might be big and there for ages – although i haven’t heard of them before i came to nz – but that doesn’t mean they get everything right ), where is the healthy competition that makes a lot of people to think about a project and brings up more than one solution and may be NOT another ‘disco’.

15 - 06 - 08

lemon squeezers? Que?

15 - 06 - 08

I saw the National Library for the first time a couple of days ago. I was struck by its strong exterior. It didn’t scare me off – it made me want to explore its interior, which I couldn’t do because it was a Saturday afternoon and closed.

I don’t understand how the only solution for making more space is to remove the distinct facade from this building and replace it with, uh, glass.

Concrete = bad; glass = good?

15 - 06 - 08

Another thought – this design seems like it’s turning the National Library into a “young adults” section of a suburban library.

10 - 09 - 08

And again – the DomPost today has a letter from architect Duncan Joiner, absolutely lambasting this current proposal for destroying the external facade and installing a glass wall: version taken from the website has been reproduced here:

“Destruction of cultural heritage
The arts, culture and heritage minister has announced a proposed $67 million rebuild of the National Library building. The national librarian’s statement, on the library website, explains that the rebuild is intended to extend storage capacity and deliver a closer relationship between the library and New Zealanders. What it also says, however, is that the minister and national librarian are set to destroy a significant piece of our cultural heritage, the National Library building itself.

These people are supposed to be looking after our things.

On the website are more images and a short video of the proposed rebuild. After some poignant words that end with “protected here” and “forever” is an animated sequence showing how the building (our first permanent National Library building) will be destroyed. The irony couldn’t be more pronounced.
Why, and with what criteria, did the national librarian decide to sacrifice the architecture in favour of all the other taonga and items of cultural heritage entrusted to her care?

As an architect, I want the minister and national librarian to think again and continue to build our national heritage, not destroy it. They must use the $67 million to make another significant place.

10 - 09 - 08

I couldn’t agree more (and think I have said so on this site).

The National Library is a significant piece of architecture.
It does not matter that it is a copy of another building in Boston.

This is our National Library.
It sits well (architecturally, and literally) in the Government sector.

We do not need our National Library to be an Imax theatre.

2 - 03 - 09

I’ve just got ’round to reading Jim Traue’s piece in the NZ Herald on the proposed (and now more expensive) national library “make over” ( I missed this little snippet of info when the initial promo did its round:
“No books whatsoever will be seen or available on the ground floor to acclimatise users for the totally digital future of the library.”
Will this be like those school children who don’t know milk comes from cows?