Over on the venerable, hard-working Scoop site, Councilor Ritchie has posted a comment lamenting the possibility of the Athfield-designed “portico” (extension to the Wellington City Council buildings) being demolished:

“The Portico provides an important “grand” “archway”entrance to Civic Square, Civic Centre, City Gallery,Town Hall City to Sea Bridge and Waterfront. It is the entrance for many processions and marches, provides a welcome to our civic public spaces. It is as much a sculpture and feature as is Neil Dawson’s fern ball beyond it. It is linked in architecture to the buildings on either side of it.”
Ritchie goes on to say:
“I am opposed to this piece of civic vandalism and would have to see compelling information on alternatives before I ever agreed to it.”

Well hold your horses right there Councilor Ritchie. Remember that we are talking about a recent building, a simple glazed black box poised precariously above the pavement. Remember also that we are talking about possibly the most dull piece of architecture that the firm of Athfield Architects has ever foisted upon this city. The sleek mirrored curves of the Library that snake around the back of the pools of the City Gallery right next door is fantastic, and would be worth fighting for. The WCC building on the other side is an interesting example of italianate post-modernism complete with colonnade below, square window openings, and floating loggia above is also interesting in its own way – I’m not sure if this is an Athfield building or a Moller design (both architects were working on the Civic Square project from what I can recall). There are going to be a massive amount of buildings coming up for demolition, and ensuing cries to save them, and this particular building would be right down my list in terms of effort for saving… pretty much near the bottom in fact. In terms of architectural merit, it is completely hum drum. It’s just… Meh.

While I think we can all agree that, yes, the “Portico” does provide a grand archway (of sorts) into the Civic Square, it is not so much a “sculpture” as a simple black box – a negation of space – and a hard-to-maintain (and awkwardly detailed?) lumpen mass. It is deliberately mute – providing a quiet link between point A and point B, without trying to introduce a third strong architecture to combat the other two. Does that work though? Or is it more that the black glass, instead of fading into the background, instead maintains a far stronger, heavier presence in real life? If you really wanted it to go away, then a completely clear glass might have worked better, or even a highly mirrored silver finish. As it is, it only looks less than scary at night. Let’s face it – it is not a thing of beauty. It is, however, a thing of immense weight and size and the prospect of it hurtling down into the assembled throngs below is something that we should all be extremely scared of, if there is any truth in the rumour that it is to be demolished. But is there?

If a building, of obvious high catastrophic collapse potential, is actually in real danger of collapse, then action is called for: but certainly the Council should not have to demolish. The architects and (more importantly) the engineers both knew what it was being designed to do, ie span across a massive gap. Presumably it is tied firmly at one end, and has a mighty set of rollers under the opposing lip, to allow for significant movement in the case of massive seismic action. Either that, or it has secret hidden legs inside the building at either end (which seems unlikely). It is not the sort of thing that can be supported just from one end only. Looking closely at it last night, there is a mighty metal bracket sticking out of the side of the Library building, and so presumably rollers at the WCC end.

In the case of catastrophic collapse of a building at either end, then of course, with the present building, the giant portico would smash down onto the hapless Wellingtonians below, making one helluva mess and blocking off access into the Civic Square (which, to be honest, would be the least of their problems). Those still underneath the building would of course be rather heavily dead. All of this would have been understood by the engineers, and the portico building would surely have been carefully designed to take into account all those horrific possibilities and make sure they were designed out and could never happen. It is only since the CTV building collapse that the public’s eyes have been opened to the possibility of the total pancaking of buildings (well, the World Trade Centre as well, I guess), but the architects (known) and engineers (unknown by me at this point) should have been well aware of this at the design stage.

All that aside however: it is a dull piece of design, regardless, and if the building needs some massive seismic upgrading, the City should take the chance to upgrade the architecture as well. For years there has been this baleful black glass, complete with three sets of what appear to be external doors/grills apparently opening out into nothingness. I get the feeling that somewhere inside the building there is a locked cupboard, with a sign saying in big bold letters – Do Not Open (unless equipped with a parachute). Is that possibly the way out for the window cleaners? On the street side, six similar grilles do a similar job. Not a pretty sight.

The detailing is, overall, very plain and simple, resoundingly negative, as befits a building that is trying hard to not be there. In terms of urban design, it is trying to do one thing: be a portico, a piece of the grand archway, a simple span to contain the space within the square, while in terms of architecture it is trying to resolve the two very different buildings within the square. I suppose that under those conditions, the spanning archway could be nothing more than a bland intermediary, but personally I have always felt affronted by the brutishness of the bald black box.

A better solution than the retention of something so painfully implanted, might well be to demolish and rebuild, or even just to demolish and be done with it for all time. Yes, it provides a space for the Council offices to overflow, and to connect seamlessly with the Library, although I’m not sure that anyone in Council ever uses this interconnect function – and anyhow, what is wrong with just opening the door at ground floor and walking there like the rest of us do? While the Portico does provide some sense of enclosure within the Civic Square itself, it also provides a visual block from almost everywhere else into Civic Square. It’s big and black and ugly and we could do far worse than just be rid of it for all time, opening us up to a back drop of the Dominion Building on Mercer St and the Evening Post building on Willis St. How about that for a starter for ten, Councilor Ritchie?

Tagged in: