In the typical manner of the bus, where you wait forever and then three buses come at once, so it feels for topics of conversation this week. I was going to write, I thought, on the possible move for Reading Cinema and Shopping Centre to leap back to life, having been so moribund for so many years. Then I thought, no, no, what if I was to do a double act with the potential rebirth of the Johnsonville Mall at long last, if that is indeed to have any prospect of a condition other than terminal. I actually went there to J’ville and its “Mall” the other day and almost slit my wrists before getting to the exit doors. What a disaster.
Then I wanted to write about the Architecture Student design awards held last week, which sounded amazing and looked even better – except that they have already been and gone, packed away never to be seen again. Too quick, Vic Uni ! What’s the hurry?!?!?! Oh – no winners for Vic it seems, with the prizes going to AUT student Matangireia Yates-Francis and Highly commended awards to Unitec (Keisha Rawiri) and to Auckland (Will Martel).
Or the NZIA National Awards for Architecture, held just the week before – again, some actually brilliant stuff there from our multi-talented architects. Some Wellington based practices won big, and some even won double big – Patchwork Architects (Sally Ogle and Ben Mitchell-Anyon) won two National Awards for two of their quite frankly brilliant houses, while Studio Pacific (with a workforce of a hundred or so it seems) won two National gongs as well, for Brandon House and for the old Massey University Rectory building. Congratulations to Lianne Cox and Marc Woodbury and many many others there I’m sure.
But the big news this week has to be the somewhat silly news that the Dixon Street flats are being emptied out and there is not a clear story of what happens to the building next. This is not a sob storey like the Gordon Wilson Flats just around the corner – well, at least, it hasn’t started off the same.
“The Dixon Street flats, built between 1942 and 1947, are one of the first examples in New Zealand of the International Modernist style and are a key building in the development of Modern architecture in New Zealand. They were constructed as a part of the First Labour Governments state housing programme and they symbolise a significant period of New Zealand’s social development and history. The Dixon Street Flats are a feature of the Wellington Central area and have attained landmark status. The project was of a magnitude unprecedented in the history of domestic architecture in New Zealand and caused considerable excitement at the time.”
Of course there is a link – the Dixon Street flats were designed by the government’s Department of Housing Construction and the lead architect was Gordon Wilson. He was the same bloke whose name is on the Gordon Wilson flats just a gumboot’s throw away from the top of Dixon Street – but of course the Dixon Street flats was strongly rumoured to be designed by Ernst Plishke, if I remember right. WCC’s wonderful heritage notes record the Dixon Street flats like this:
“The building was designed for the Department of Housing Construction although the designer remains unclear. Gordon Wilson was Government architect of the day and is officially the ‘architect of record’; however noted Modernist architect Ernst Plischke was employed by the Department of Housing Construction at the time and is thought to have had a significant part in the design. The apartment block was constructed between 1941 and 1943 by the Wellington contractor J.L. Wilkins, the ten storey building was the first slab apartment block in New Zealand and contained 115 one bedroom apartments and one two bedroom caretakers unit.”
And another common link is that the DHC eventually became the Housing Corp, then it became Homes Land and Community, then HLC became Kainga Ora, which is now the biggest housing provider in the land – except that they don’t want their two biggest buildings it seems.
The Gordon Wilson Flats have a slightly different heritage tale to tell, with a slightly less hopeful outcome. WCC heritage notes again:
“The Gordon Wilson Flats have architectural value as a good representative example of 1950s Modernist high density social housing, that though common internationally, is relatively rare in New Zealand. The flats are associated with the social policy of the government of the day and were an endeavour to solve a chronic housing shortage. They were the last of the high-rise tower-block social housing developments designed by the Ministry of Works & Development. The flats are also associated with economic recovery in the 1950s which led to a boom in the building industry. The flats were designed by Government Architect Gordon Wilson, who died while the flats were nearing completion. It is for this reason they were named in his honour.”
Of course, I hear you say, but Dixon St is not grungy, and Gordon Wilson is grunge personified – but if you are saying that, then I think you are mistaking heritage with graffitiage – both buildings have exceptional architectural heritage. Whether one or both of them stay is more to do with who the owners of the buildings are. For that reason alone, let’s hope that the Vic Uni does not get their hands on Dixon St, to further continue their appalling record of vandalism and neglect with heritage. Or, is that pragmatism and managed retreat from responsibility? What thinks you?