Not sure if you realise this yet, but the proverbial cat has just been thrown amongst the proverbial pigeons. Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (what used to be called the Historic Places Trust) has just announced three new grade 1 heritage listings in Wellington: Trades Hall, Wellington Central Library, and a combined Gordon Wilson and McLean flats as well.
Trades Hall was the site of NZ’s only mystery terrorist bombing – killing Ernie Abbott the caretaker, and probably backfiring by causing more sympathy for unions than the presumed aim of scaring them. It is being listed more for its political and social significance than for it’s architectural significance – its a nice enough 1920s-ish facade and slightly fusty interior, but the real story is the politics.
The Wellington Library building is a bit more controversial due to the current ongoing kerfuffle over who exactly is running the city, and why? Should we sell the Library and then rent it back, or sack the Mayor and all the Councillors? The local architects more or less seem to agree that it is Athfield’s most significant public project and it is certainly one of Wellington’s most interesting and quixotic creations which Levi has talked about before. It is special – very much a building of two different faces, with a wonderfully complex interior. For a building of the 80s or 90s though, it is full of long planks of hollowware concrete floor and – let’s face it – needs upgrading. However, ironically, and Ath himself would be chortling about this: a grade 1 listing would possibly make it more difficult to actually do the seismic upgrading now! Should have got a move on and completed it years ago – now the WCC will be really stuck! Let’s face it: listed buildings ALWAYS take longer and cost more to strengthen and refurbish, than a non-heritage building.
The really big pigeon however – the kereru amongst the palm trees if you wish – is the listing of the Gordon Wilson flats. I’m a huge fan of the 1959 Gordon Wilson flats – they’re very clever with design and space. There is a really good amount of info on the Architectural Centre website – yes, they are still a thing. Yes, they’re run down at present and yes, they need lots of work to the concrete facades – but Vic Uni boss is going to be hopping mad. PVC Grant Guildford simply wants to knock them down. Let the battles commence! The Uni was apparently already working with Athfield Architects to restore the MacLean apartments, although that is on hold it seems – or little progress for the last decade – but Guildford has a bee in his bonnet over the Gordon Wilson flats. It’s a load of stuff and nonsense over them “not being suitable for students” – he just plain doesn’t like them and would prefer to knock them down and start again. The last thing we need is for complete nobodies like the air-headed and architecturally illiterate National MP Nicola Willis getting involved.
The issues that Vic Uni has (apart from it’s ridiculous name-changing efforts that Guildford keeps up with) is that the site would work well for a new entrance for the University. It is frighteningly short of land, having built on every square metre of soil that it possesses, and yet none of it is very grand or publicly visible. Guildford wants a grand front door for the Uni visible from the city, that can provide a route for students to process up and down the hill, connect the other two satellite campuses with the main Kelburn campus, and yet there is this big Modernist slab of apartments in the way. He, like many others in the city, is seeing the building only through very thick, dark glasses, seeing only graffiti and cracked concrete, blocking his view. He’s worried about students throwing things off the building’s many balconies, or perhaps throwing themselves off if their finals are not going quite to plan. Instead, he has a vision of, presumably, grand staircases, escalators, a ziggurat of towers, picturesque vistas of winding students ascending the Potala Palace instead of sitting on a heavily wheezing bus. Perhaps even a new Cable Car.
The Gordon Wilson flats are, however, a goddam architectural marvel. Not only were they a key New Zealand feature in the idiom of world modernism, they also offer a series of lovely interior architectural spaces: double height apartments, with access only every other floor. Once restored and strengthened it can then be used as something more suitable – like student housing (for more grown-up students perhaps), or staff housing, or staff offices, or a music school (let’s face it, this site may work a heck of a lot better than a site wedged in beside the City to Sea bridge), or a school of Classics (no, can’t do that as they’ve just axed all the courses). With a good, visionary architect in hand this could be the grand front door that Guildford wants – an iconic, Modern front door to one of the three universities in this city that call themselves Wellington. A truly apt parking place for waka, pulling up your log of wood, parking your waka in the town before ascending through, alongside, or beside one of the world’s last few really interesting apartment blocks, before the architects of the world got dull and bland and just started putting everyone into boringly similar blocks of space.
Long Live the Gordon Wilson flats!