At the risk of raising the hackles of the designers of the revised Library design, who appear to have positioned an overly-large bedside table next to the beloved crinkly face of the Wellington Library, Te Matapihi, I’d like to explore the concept of “The Portal” a little further. I hope that you don’t mind. I used to call it the Portico, but I’ve been very firmly told that I am mistaken. A portico is, of course, a “porch leading to the entrance of a building, or extended as a colonnade, with a roof structure over a walkway, supported by columns or enclosed by walls.” Whereas a Portal is something completely different: “a grand or imposing doorway, or the whole architectural composition surrounding and including the doorways and porches of a church”. And in that I see that I am wrong – if it was a Portico, it would have lead just to the doors of the Library, but as a Portal it was trying to be the front door entrance to the Civic Square itself – supposedly at one time intended to be the central living room of Wellington.
The Athfield Architects object on legs is a flash back to the larger and sky-high portal of days gone by, before people realised that the Portal was just going to act as a battering ram in the case of severe seismic action. This new proposed Portal is therefore smaller – lower, shorter, not extending all the way across the opening. No longer to be used as a back street route from Councillors, it now appears to be positioned as a choice spot in which to sit and watch the waters of Whanganui-a-Tara. But it looks as though there is only room for a handful of people to sit in there, so it is possibly of limited value.
The very word “Portal” offers visions of things to come – another world – a doorway into an alternative reality. In te reo we might call it a tomokanga, as a big entranceway, and of course in the world of Science fiction, a portal offers even more opportunities:
“The word “portal” in science fiction and fantasy generally refers to a technological or magical doorway that connects two distant locations separated by spacetime. It usually consists of two or more gateways, with an object entering one gateway leaving via the other instantaneously.”
The ancients knew a thing or two about portals, that’s for sure. Grand entryways, with or without the sci-fi extra-terrestrial aspects, were certainly enough to impress the locals and blind them with a view of mystery, if not exactly a flash of light. The ancient Egyptians nailed this in Karnak, with a hypostyle hall of immensely large columns, although you first have to make your way down an avenue of sheep-headed lions (something more suitable to NZ perhaps?), and the effect is awe-inspiring.
The Japanese have always had a thing for a good entry way – or two – with the Shinto tradition of giant timber entry frames. I don’t know what it is, but there is something beautiful and mysterious and incredibly powerful and timeless about the Shinto shrines. They’re often overlooking a view, framing a picture-perfect landscape or seascape and look ageless and timeless, even when newly painted. If that’s not a trip in space-time and some pure magic, I don’t know what is.
The Classical tradition also had a passion for great entry ways, and such examples spring to mind like the Arc d’Triomphe, the Brandenburg Gate, and the grand old Euston Arch, which was torn down in the 1960s and the British have been banging on every since about bringing it back.
The chances of whatever remains of British Rail re-erecting a traffic-blocking giant Doric Arch are slim, although the Brits know where the pieces are – when it was demolished, someone tossed them in a river, and they’re apparently all still there, probably none too worse for wear, but possibly with an additional layer of slime.
There are of course some examples of natural portals, like the great natural rock arch in the Archway National Park in the USA, which gets periodically destroyed in Sci-Fi movies, but is, as far as I know, still standing.
I say all this because we have the chance of a mind-expanding, time-shattering, world-suntering chance of a big new portal ourselves, deep in the very heart of Wellington. With the proposed demolition of the two City Council buildings (the CAB and the MOB? ) then the Portal entry is thrown wide open, and there is a wonderful new potential – that Wellingtonians could actually see right out into the harbour, from Victoria St at least – and even, it seems as a giant new portal focused with it’s beady Sauron-like eye right on the balcony of the Fork and Brewer pub in Bond Street! This can be no mere mistake, but instead is all part of a gigantic new repositioning of Wellington as not only the Coffee Capital, and the Craft-Beer Capital, but also the, ummm, Pub-Food Capital of New Zealand! If you know more about this grand scheme, tell us more! Bring forth the PORTAL !!!