This post was going to be called “New School of Music” but then I thought – no, hold on, this could really cause a stink. What if…? Is it? Was it? No, surely not. But maybe….? Who knows?

I’ve just been alerted to the revised scheme for what was at one stage known as the new “School of Music” down by the Michael Fowler Centre – or more accurately, on the site of the MFC carpark and smack bang in the viewpoint of the Amora Hotel. Amazingly, it is a full public notification, and must be costing someone millions to do this – and it closes in just a very few days. Monday? All the building information is online, so we can see that nothing is hidden – I love it when democracy is this transparent. One thing rapidly becomes apparent – this is NOT a proposal for a School of Music – this is just another office block, placed directly in front of the Amora Hotel, virtually guaranteeing that the Amora will not rise again. There is not a single feature labelled “Music Room” or “Practice Room” anywhere on the plans for this building – and despite the Vic Uni website still claiming that this building is going to be part of their national Conservatorium of Music, I think that must all be going to happen in the new Old Town Hall building, where such rooms might conceivably still live.

Ground floor plan with 2 large tenancies and 2 small

But what it does not say, really, at all, is just why there needs to be a building there at all. If you go to the Maps function on your phone, tablet, or computer, and type in the address of this building project: 110 Jervois Quay, Wellington, have a look at where the giant pin drops down into. I think that you’ll find that this site is officially quite a long site, made from many amalgamated titles, and including the Jack Illot Ilott Gardens, next to the City to Sea bridge. At the other end, almost at the end of Taranaki Street, is where this building sits. I’ve read through the six zillion pages of info provided by the design and planning teams, and as far as I can see, there is not a single reference to the building being part of the School of Music. So, is it really more honest to say that it is just another office block then?

Building when viewed from the South

This building has been a long time coming – been talked about for years, mainly, it seems, as a vehicle for Willis Bond to build yet another building on the waterfront (I’m sure there is absolutely no collusion between Council and Developer – sure, it is all just an amazing series of coincidences). There was of course a building originally planned for the site of the Jack Illot Ilott Green, so that the urban design of the Te Ngakau (Civic Square) would be, in effect, enclosed (enfolded?) by surrounding buildings, creating a more enclosed sense of space. That was a pretty controversial move to some people, despite this being discussed and envisaged by the original architectural team over 30 years ago. Some people, or groups of people, evidently like the current configuration of the Square opening out to the harbour and do not like the sound of the Square being more enclosed. Part of that is the plain old “I’m used to it that way, so please don’t change” and part of that could also be “don’t shade the sunny bridge/plaza”. That scheme, for a possible Conservatorium of Music, appears to have at last died a well-deserved death. Universities should not be occupying the most expensive of prime waterfront space, and generally, they are not. As we know, they instead own or lease a series of rather scuzzy old buildings up and down Taranaki Street, with no views. And the Music School is, I think, still up on the hill in Kelburn. Allegedly. I’ve never been there. (Post-script – has anyone ever been there? What’s it like?)

Anyway – despite spending years arguing for a building on that Illot Green site, it now appears to have been abandoned (permanently / formally? or just temporarily / informally?) and this proposal has popped up on the carpark of the MFC, where currently sits a big shed for the NZ Ballet. As you may have noticed if you are a nerd like me, the NZ Ballet Shed sits on a big flat concrete slab, in order not to put load on the ground below, because as some of us know, there is an almighty great tank of water / air / smelly rainwater / dank sewerage under the car park. And the one thing you don’t want to do with a tank of water or sewerage, is to put lots of load on it and potentially pop it, spilling the contents out. Nope, that would be bad….

Istanbul – Basilica Cistern (underground water tanks) built by Justinian’s workers in 6th Century

So what is happening then? How can a building be proposed, where there is a vast hole in the ground? Do they pierce through it with giant columns, like Istanbul’s magnificent water reservoirs? Or do they gently arch over it like the train tracks at Liverpool St in London?

SOM’s Exchange House spans the tracks at Broadgate, near Liverpool St station

Neither, it seems.

Foundation pile layout (approx) showing storage tank (grey) to the bottom left and culvert to the far right

Proposal is for a flat slab over, and building to sit spanning right over the flat slab, not putting too much load on the existing underground structures.

Sections through the foundations, showing Culvert, Sewer Tank, Base Isolators, and Ground floor slab over

That’s obviously an intrepid engineering decision, not an architectural decision, I suspect, because literally no-one wants to end up in the shit, given that the Tonkin Taylor report says: “The MFCC site has relatively high exposure to potential natural hazards including seismic shaking, liquefaction, lateral spreading, and flooding (arising from local inundation and/or foreseeable sea-level rise).” It also goes on to say that:

“Within the site are two existing items of public utility infrastructure:

  1. 1)  A large, underground, sewage storage/detention tank, at the western end ofthe site; and
  2. 2)  An old, buried, predominantly concrete, ovoid stormwater culvert runningacross the south-eastern corner of the site.

“The proposed new building structure will be built over 50% of the tank plan area and over the culvert for a length of approximately 16m. Various inspections and assessments have been undertaken to better understand potential risks to the infrastructure.”

They’re very confident that “the building structure will likely be founded on driven piles founded in the dense Alluvium at a minimum depth of 12m, expected to range down to 20m below ground. Specialist geotechnical engineering input is being provided by Tonkin & Taylor. Piles are likely to be bottom-driven steel tubes which are then filled with concrete.”

These will then:

  1. a)  Transmit the vertical loads from the building, through the potentially liquefiable materials, down to competent founding.
  2. b)  Transmit the lateral (seismic) loads from the building into the surrounding supporting soils.
  3. c)  Resist the effects of potential liquefaction-induced lateral ground movement including ground lurch and lateral spreading.

The whole building will then be built on Base Isolators, as should be done with any new large building in Wellington being constructed on reclaimed land. I’d imagine that there will also be some interesting archaeological examples dug up from what used to be, in effect, the local papakainga of the Te Atiawa iwi.

Te Aro Pa
Te Aro beach, near the Pa

So now we come to the building itself – the School of Music Office block.

This is a building that is clearly not, in any way, designed specifically as a School of Music. It is just another office block, probably already planned for sale or lease to some rich bastards like an Accounting firm, a Law firm, an Energy firm, or a Bank. Apart from an undoubted coffee bar or two on the ground floor, there is nothing here for you or I in this building. Just those elite rich buggers who can afford the massive rental for this. Or, just maybe, the University is planning to fill those expensive floor plates with lots of music students and musical staff, with flash offices looking out over the people sunning themselves on the St John’s bar, where the Grassy Knoll used to reside.

View from North, looking South

I grow rapidly less interested in it minute by minute. I’m sorry, but this scheme is banal.

An upper floor plan

Here’s an upper floor plan. Contrast this to the plans and pics of the Auckland University School of Music, which when designed (and built) in the 1980s by the brilliant Dave Mitchell, looked like this, with small practice rooms opening onto a beautiful courtyard full of sunlight and music.

Auckland Music School from the street
Auckland Music School from within
photo of a plan of Auckland’s School of Music

Almost the complete opposite to this proposal, which will open out not at all, but will be beside the 2nd most main highway into / out of Wellington, so likely full of sirens. To say that I am disappointed, is an understatement. But who cares what I think – what are your views?