Today Wellington Airport unveiled the design for “The Rock” — an addition to the international terminal. However this is not just a simple expansion/addition, this is to be “New Zealand’s newest icon“.


The $39 million project promises an array of improvements to the airport experience, having doubled the traffic capacity of the international terminal and added many new facilities. But the pragmatics of the user experience are hardly the focus of the architecture. Instead, the design is unashamedly dramatic, demanding pathos, demanding memorability. Looking at the official and public feedback gathered so far, it is certainly producing on those fronts:

“It is incredibly inspiring to think that Wellington will have a truly iconic building at the doorstep to the city. Hooray to all involved in this highly creative development at the Wellington Airport, as this wonderfully dynamic architectural highlight will be a shining star for our city’s future.”
Richard Taylor, WetaWorkshop

“Wellington is the Creative Capital of New Zealand. We welcome and celebrate creativity and innovation. It’s great to see Wellington businesses thinking outside the square and capturing the uniqueness of our city in this way. I have no doubt this terminal will become a talking point, not just nationally, but internationally, once again putting Wellington on the map. It’s fantastic and I congratulate all those involved.”
Kerry Prendergast, Wellington Mayor

If New Zealand wants to be taken seriously by the rest of the world why do always come up with these crazy gimmicks? While I applaud the architect’s creativity and innovation, as a proud Wellingtonian I would be embarrassed that this is first thing that international visitors will see when they arrive here. Surely for $40 million a nice modern building that fits in well with the rest of the airport could be designed and built?
Ben Black

I’m at a loss to find the appropriate words for this monstrosity. I am a young Wellingtonian who is right behind interesting and innovative design for our beautiful city but this has got to be some kind of joke? I don’t know what is “iconic” about a couple of pumpkin like blobs, which is exactly what they will look like to Wellington’s visitors. It will be a memorable visit indeed, but for all the wrong reasons.
Angela Waller

It is fantastic to know there is one city in this country that wants to make New Zealand a place to remember. I don’t find the endless apartment building developments and the fancy new trees on Queens Street a draw card to my city. Wellington shows us that they have the guts to go out there and do things big and show the critics that kiwis actually believe in more then the square box: Cake Tin = Success and Te Papa = Success

To be honest I have never seen something more ridiculous. Can someone truly say it is very functional for what Wellington Airport needs? Two big orange blobs is what it is going to look like from space. Surely something else that blends in with its surroundings would be better. It looks like a small Ayers rock in Wellington. While I am an ex Wellingtonian if I still was living there, it wouldn’t get my vote.

Why does Wellington have all the fun?! If only Auckland was brave enough to get some “out there” architecture – down with bland buildings!

The building clearly has iconic qualities, both because of its prominent location and for the possible image-readings it proffers. Most, if not all of the above quotes refer to the possible alternative interpretations of the building: Turds, pumpkins, walnuts, dust mites, turtle heads…I expect we are just scratching the surface.

But as the last decade of contemporary architecture has shown, there is a huge difference between an iconic building and a successful iconic building. Where this project falls short is in the definition of its iconography, and the execution of its aesthetic.

Given the airport environment, the metaphor of the project seems exceedingly arbitrary – the official website description merely states that “the airport’s South Coast location is represented by the inside aesthetics and outside shell of the building.” This seems to fall drastically short of being an effective concept. Despite the very literal and singular brief of ‘The Rock’, the design mixes the metaphors of shell and rock, and produces an aesthetic that is confusingly abstract.

What is so uniquely South Coast about a simple rock, and what is a rock doing in an airport?
Is to exert a grounding influence on travelers?
Is to show we are stuck in the stone age?


It’s possible that the renders themselves are drastically misrepresenting the aesthetic of the exterior. As I understand, the exterior cladding is copper-based, which is a material that 3d modelling programs usually have trouble representing realistically. A proper finish would go a long way to dispelling some of the excrement analogies, but I would assume that the building wouldn’t be overtly shiny or deviate from the copper colour too drastically.


Despite the issues with the exterior, the interior looks stunning (be sure to watch the fly-through video). Ragged glass lines cut through the shell while the panelled facets create an exciting ceiling space. Inside is where the architecture is acting at its fullest effect: it makes superb use of the geology motifs without the burden of having to produce a unified image-byte. However, this singular image is exactly what the building set out to produce, and is the basis upon which it will be remembered and judged.

The building is certainly polemical, and I have no doubt that it will become a recognisable landmark – the “icon” that it was designed to be. But that should not be a valid programme in itself, the spectacle must succeed at having substance, this is what sets it apart from the legion of other “iconic” projects.

The Rock sets out to create a very literal iconography. But in executing this, it has disregarded context and created an abstract aesthetic that defies the singular premise, ultimately failing at its literal and metaphoric agenda. It is like a Big Duck that doesn’t sell poultry, or a Bilbao without the beautiful ambiguity. The design of building itself may succeed, but the design of The Rock has been misshapen, misplaced and misinterpreted.

Comments taken from here and here.

For the curious, there are a few similar precedents around – the East Beach Caf and the Mezz