There are two ways of looking at the Civic Square debacle – the worst thing ever, or the best opportunity ever. You know which side I’m going to take!
Wellington’s Civic Square, Te Ngakau, is / was / should be the capital’s pride and joy. Comparable in function to Sienna’s Palio, to Rome’s Piazza Navona, to London’s ummm, Trafalgar Square? Leicester Square? Soho Square? our Civic Square is meant to be the pedestrianised centre of our urban universe.
Never originally conceived of as a public pedestrian square, it was created from an unloved piece of public carpark on a public street, stuck between the City Library and the arse end of the City Council building, back in the late 80s / early 90s. It was created by a team composed of various parties – Ian Athfield and his band of merry architects, including people like Stuart Gardyne and Graeme McIndoe. Built by the ever-reliable Fletcher Construction crew, it was, at the time, the best thing since sliced bread.
The end of Mercer Street was closed off to traffic. The City Council got a new building, complete with a tall colonnade, resplendent in a post-modern pink, that skirted round the south-west corner. The Library vacated their building for the new Athfield-designed building on the north-east corner, one of Wellington’s most idiosyncratic and beloved buildings, hard and urban on one side, open and glassy on the other. The vacated Library building was seized upon as the perfect opportunity to provide a small-scale Art Gallery, something that Te Papa seemed to show no interest in doing.
The Michael Fowler centre had been completed already, and after years of discussion over whether the old Town Hall should stay or go, it was decided that it should stay. The old theatre on the north-east corner stayed too, for now, but was doomed eventually and replaced by the Ilott Green. A pedestrian route across the busy Jervois Quay traffic route was mooted – and after many discussions over whether the traffic should be pushed down, into a tunnel, it was decided that instead the square should rise up, over the Quay, on a wide pedestrian bridge, to touch the water at the lagoon. Many people take some credit for the bridge – although as it slowly gets shabbier and shabbier, few people have their hands up now. The sculpture on top by Para Matchitt, a once-revered sculptor, is viewed as a wonderful exuberant expression of Wellington’s artistic core, and loved by many who hide in the reveals to shelter from the wind or to smoke a wee joint.
In the centre, an underground carpark was built, mainly for Council staff but also for access to things like back-stage access to the Town Hall. It also had, let’s face it, a small and hopeless public car park. With space for about 20 cars at most (someone is going to correct me and tell me it was spacious and could take 50…), the carpark entry also provided underground access to Capital E, a weird place supposedly for children, that lived under a spikey pyramid where people could peer in from the top. To be frank, there was a lot of really weird design down this end of the square. The pierced pyramid’s glass leaked, the windows were blacked out, the symbolism of the children hiding under the bridge was – to me – off-putting, but it worked Ok for a while.
But now it has all ended up in a real pickle. The MOB is closed, yellow stickered as an earthquake-prone building. The new pink Council offices also sits empty, similarly yellow stickered. The Town Hall has been empty for the last 8 years, yellow stickeredand work has only just started to fix that. Capital E has closed, yellow stickered. The City to Sea bridge is under investigation – it is so weak in places that it is not in danger of falling down – no, that makes no sense to me either. The yellow stickered Portico building over the entry to the Square has already been demolished. The Library is now closed, also yellow stickered. The pools are empty at either end, the underground carpark is closed, naturally yellow stickered, the Ilott Green site is still under discussion, and to be honest, the only things that are still working are the MFC and the City Gallery. Nikau Cafe, always one of Wellington’s best places to meet, still continues on, but as it is on the north side of the north side, it adds little life to the Square.
So – is this a disaster, or what?
Or is this an opportunity to take the bull by the horns (or take the square by the corners) and rewrite history? With everything closed, why not take the chance to rework the Square as well and rid it of its failings? To rework the levels that make it such an awkward space to inhabit? To stop council offices from opening onto the public square and replace them at ground floor level with shops and cafes and public activities. To encourage more seating, more activity, more connections out to sea. This is the opportunity. Shouldn’t we take it, right now?