Its taken a while for the groundswell of opinion to slowly rise up from the mire, but the Warren and Mahoney scheme for the reworking of the National Library is getting some flack recently. Does it deserve it? Isn’t the purpose of art and architecture to challenge? We’ve blogged about the proposed works at the National Library once before, and we had quite a few comments back, although once again: the architects in town all keep quiet. No-one in the profession dares to comment on other architects work, so it seems. Mind you, on certain occasions it seems like they should get up in arms, although perhaps they are all just concentrating on not rocking the boat. Perhaps, on certain subjects, architects should be getting upset, getting grumpy, getting vocal. Updated: Media statement put out by the Government shortly after this post went up states that current project is to be dropped, and less costly project is to be pursued. Refer to comments section for more info.
Regarding the Library, some of the Librarians certainly are getting grumpy. And that makes it obvious that there are two issues at stake here. One is that the building is getting redeveloped, which tends to get the Architects excited, and the architectural historians depressed: while the other issue is that the Library itself will be shifting out of its premises, and effectively putting itself out of action for a year or two while the building has a makeover. And when it comes back it will be a whole lot more digital. While head Librarian Penny Carnaby is all aglow with excitement at the thought of that, and not seemingly over-concerned at the disruption to its current researchers, and the Nat Library are busy making plans, it’s getting ugly out there amongst the punters, judging from Jim Traues report “From library to digital Disneyland” in the DomPost (read there for full text, or read here for abridged), where he ( Jim Traue is a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library) says:

The managers at the National Library want to change the purpose of the National Library and its culture and operation. They have come up with a strategy to raise the public profile and make it more like a local public library in order to get more feet through the front door. The strategy is “Te Papa-isation” with a twist. The library’s resources will no longer be geared to the needs of researchers but treated as a museum collection presented on-site in digital form. The proposed redevelopment of the building is a logical manifestation of this new strategy. More of the Turnbull collections will be displayed, but it is envisaged that the major drawcard will be the filling of the entire ground floor with computer screens to give access to the Turnbull’s books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, photographs, paintings and drawings, maps and ephemera, online within the building. The priority for the Turnbull’s staff will now be to provide popular “content” for these digital displays and the increased exhibition of original materials. That “content” is essential to attract the projected 400,000 visitors a year.

Chris Szekely, the Turnbull’s chief librarian (who also holds the new position of deputy national librarian), is assuring the public that the building makeover, mass digitisation and the restructuring of the Turnbull’s services will improve access and services for researchers. Yeah, right. …..

Traues’ article ends up with the following very barbed comment:

The staff have been pointing out these consequences but have been ignored. Senior management, convinced that they could not possibly be mistaken, have determined that such “negative” thinking is a result of the “Turnbull culture” and are determined to cauterise it so that a new “positive” culture can be grown in its place. An attitude change expert has been appointed, a “culture survey” compiled and a programme of “people change” is under way to rehabilitate the critics.

Welcome to the new digital museum experience. Pity about the research library experience. Welcome to the new digital museum culture. Pity about the research library culture. Once the barbarians were knocking on the gates. Now they are inside the walls and in charge. Now they are called managers.

Ouch! Bitchy! But then again, absolutely true. The world is awash in middle management, who are seldom the most qualified people to walk the face of the earth. I’m still surprised that the new National government, seemingly intent on cutting everything that moves with a government hat on (Tax department: cut. State Services: cut. WINZ: cut. Tax: cut. Oooh, no, hold it we can’t do that one. No cuts there).


But wait, there was more vitriol to be unleashed, best espoused in the Cultural Curmudgeon article in the Listener by Hamish Keith, where he noted that:

By the time this grumble is read, the storm clouds over the new National Library building may have faded away into an insignificant squall. Or they may have rumbled up to a real gale and blown the whole project away. The claims and counterclaims might just provide a cost-cutting Government with a reason to cut this cost. It has so far managed to trim the $47.4 million restoration of Government House by $4.7 million. The National Library has some equally telling problems; it leaks, not a good look for any library. But is the proposed rebuild over-egging the pudding?

It’s worth reading the whole article – as usual, Keith writes well. I was expecting more feedback, and there was – the following week in the Listener, there were a further 2 letters:

It says much about the dearth of informed public architectural criticism in New Zealand (and in the Listener) that the March 28 editorial fought shy of simply saying that, in public terms, the redesign of the National Library is unfit for that building on that site. There is no risk in saying that: the only litigious risk is in blaming the architects for making a bad design decision. In his 1960 Reith Lectures, “Art and Anarchy”, Edgar Wind pointed out that good public art depends on the public “client” having a just as well-informed grasp of what is “good” as the artist or architect he/she is commissioning. Without any soundly based aesthetic competence in our public clients, we are likely to get anarchic results of no enduring public value.

It is obvious to any architect that the perimeter area of this building could have been increased by first removing and then reusing the concrete facade units, so conserving its unique public presence on that site. The geometry of that solution offers the chance to make some major slots in the facade that could have opened the interior quite sufficiently to the passing public. I am confident that any of the architects involved would have presented that option to the National Library’s management, had it wanted to consider it. But, no, we must assume that, in this case, the architects have delivered just what this public client wanted: the total abolition of the image presented by its own fine public building, and its replacement by a monstrous see-through billboard with a crazily anarchic structure – which will date within 15 years. Librarians should see that this “unnecessary” action is the wanton “extravagance” that we are all really protesting against.
Roger Hay, Architect (Johnsonville, Wellington)

Roger Hay, being a (presumably) retired architect, is never afraid of getting up and speaking his mind. But is he the only one? The other letter was more about the contents than the shell:

I am relieved that the National Library building redevelopment project is finally in the spotlight. During the two to three years of the proposed building redevelopment, most of the Alexander Turnbull Library collections (excluding manuscripts) will be inaccessible to researchers or even staff. The colossal task of packing, moving and storing these valuable collections so the library can become an entertainment zone for bored tourists and teenagers is a ludicrous waste of taxpayers’ money. The primary reason mooted for change is the library’s need for space to house its collections, but allocating an entire floor to “digital experiences” and covering the building in glass seem more about appearances and gimmicks.

Digitisation is the key to making materials freely available and it would be wonderful to have everything I need for my research digitised and online. But the sheer volume of the collections I have used make this an unreasonable expectation in my lifetime. Creating a digital visitor experience at the expense of an entire floor and all it currently contains is not the digital solution users want. This new building won’t solve the problem of growing collections, nor will it benefit the research community. Although the theme-park concept may bring more visitors through its doors, ultimately it will serve only to dumb down our National Library and its reputation to the research community it serves.
Cathy Williams (Levin)

Definitely not a happy Cathy there. So: it’s time for you to have another chance to comment. Is the government right to pour money into this? Does the scheme have merit? Or is it a crazy “Te Papa-isation” as Traue alleges? Is it a Helen Clark mistake that National should bin, or is it the right thing to do to bring punters kicking and screaming into the modern age? The building was castigated for years – decades almost – with nobody liking it, and now does anyone want to stand up for it and say it’s good?

The architects of this town need to add their word. The Architecture Centre, I seem to remember, devoted a whole issue to the discussion, but I haven’t heard anyone else making a noise about it since. We can’t just leave it up to Roger Hay, Cathy Williams and Jim Traue to say something. Surely someone else has an opinion as well? Well, here’s your chance to speak.

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