The unveiling of the scheme for the revised central Wellington Library has had an interesting effect. Some people have been shocked at the price, of around $188 million, but I checked back on the estimates spoken about at the time, and that is bang on target from what they estimated when the Council voted to do it. Others have said they are aghast at the architectural changes inside the building, but again, the inside was always due for a major refurbishment as it was old and haggard and run down. Many of the architectural luvvies have been saying how wonderful it is, but I don’t honestly think there has been any real architectural focused critique as of yet, and so I guess that’s where the Eye of the Fish could stand in.
Not being an accredited member of the Press however, we were not invited to the launch, and not being an employee of Athfield Architects then I honestly haven’t got a clue exactly what they have done. All I can do is try to decode the few snippets of views they have given us and see if we can make sense of them. Luckily there are many snippets, but all without an explanation. Feel free to chip in and explain if you know more than me.
I’d like to start outside the main front door of the Library, where famously there was a wall of stone (well, concrete precast panels really) held up by stunted quadriplegic dwarf columns and some mad PoMo low-level arches. Is that still there? Frustratingly, we have seen nothing in the way of renders from Ath’s from this direction, so we are no further ahead. There are some renders showing the Nikau palm columns, so clearly those are still in the scheme, but of the blank wall, we are none the wiser. There has been comments though that they have been trying to get rid of mass and stiffness and hence concrete walls, so it could have been ditched. What it may have been replaced by, however, we simply don’t know.
Let’s go inside then, where if you remember there was one entrance point, which then broke into two parts – either straight ahead into the Library or up some stairs to one side to get into Clarke’s Cafe, where the glitterati came to do their business and where students queued up for delicious cake. Damn good cafe. Now I’m distracted, dreaming of cake gone by… Damn fine cake too.
Yes, got it now – so there was a bank of stairs and escalators straight ahead, taking you up to the upper floors. For some reason they always irritated me because they were so badly detailed, but that is the sort of quirky detail that Athfield would produce and the rest of us would put up with – in any case, the escalators appear to have been ditched, in favour of just stairs. Brand new set of stairs, obviously. There was also a set of fluffy white clouds that floated near the escalators, ostensibly to look like a dreamy skyscape, but really just to muffle the noise emanating as a dull clank from the escalators and turn it into white noise.
Over time though, the fluffiness lost its whiteness and instead grew dust and detritus and turned grey-brown from thrown banana peels and paper darts from passing schoolboys, and so I hope to God that they have been ditched too. The clouds I mean, and the banana peels and the paper darts, but not the school boys.
I’m picking that if the escalators have gone, then vertical access will just be from lifts now (and the stairs) and so new sets of lifts will have been factored in too, which will be far better than the old ones. Seeing as the Council offices were also accessible via these lifts it was always an odd arrangement – let’s hope they have planned for new lifts, more lifts, and much better lifts. Lifts are, of course, always a fun/tricky element to try to install in a building with base isolation, and particularly if you are coming up from a basement that is below the base isolation.
Speaking of Council offices up the top of the building, this still appears to be a thing, and I have no idea what they were like before, except via some pictures courtesy of Apple Maps, which shows us that there was a rectangular box with more stiff concrete-looking frontage, overlooking a vast expanse of blue membrane roof. Was that a leaking hazard, I wonder? In any case, it is all change up top, as there are curious new rooftop appendages. Perhaps that’s a new office for the Mayor. Would Mayor Andy Foster care to comment? They look… well, they look added on, and badly added on too. Does it matter? Does anyone ever look down on the rooftop?
There is also a really curious new bed-side table on stumpy legs that is sitting to one side of the Library as well, in a weird dystopian reflection of the hideous black box over-bridge that used to be there many years ago. It didn’t work then and really doesn’t need to be brought back now. The black over-bridge (euphemistically called “The Portico“) was an awful piece of bad design back then, and definitely has no reason to be resurrected as part of this new scheme. Of course, what it used to do was to connect the Library to the Pink building, and allow Council staff to go from one building to another without having to let their feet touch the ground and be sullied by contact with the common people. That is you and I, in case you weren’t paying attention.
But seeing as the Pink building is also doomed to demolition, and possible replacement who knows when by who knows what, then there seems little point in the expense of this. A plea goes out from me to Zac and John and the Athfield crew – please ditch this monstrosity. I wonder if they ever read the Eye of the Fish? Probably not – few do these days, because of my lack of a regular posting. Perhaps they may find it one day, and reply…
Thankfully, to the east side of Te Matapihi ki te Ao Nui the windows onto the world are still there, giant panes of glass set in wavy curving lines looking out to sea – or at least out to the Te Ngakau the Civic Square. Or, more truthfully, to the blank side of the City Gallery and the pools of water that were empty more often than not. The big change this side however is the loss of the stair up into Clarke’s Cafe, up and over the Library below and somehow slipping past the one or two small booths/mini shops up top next to the Cafe. This entry stair is gone (and along with it also gone is the disastrous manky failed green wall that someone tried to stick to the side of the stair) – but in its place we now apparently have five – count them, FIVE, entrances to the Library. Talk about an open door policy !
This is where the new plan really shines (I presume it does, having not yet seen any plans), with the introduction of the four new entrances. Most buildings usually only have four sides, although this is not “most buildings” and heavens only knows how many sides it has if you count all the wiggles as sides, but this should really do some great works for openness. Te Ngakau badly needs more openness for it to work, with the opening up of the sides of the square to provide more life and activity. The City Gallery is locked off behind its stone wall, as is the MFC, no-one quite knows what the Old Town Hall will look like, and the CAB and the MOB buildings are both due for the chop. That’s not going to be an easy exercise, especially when you factor in not just a metre-wide gap on all four/five/sixteen sides of the Library needed for the base isolation system to wobble around in an earthquake, but also the 600mm rise in height that the Library ground floor is going to have, ostensibly to combat climate change’s rising sea levels. In actual fact, I think it is going to be raised 600mm because that is the height of the base isolator mechanism that will sit under every concrete column – all the columns will be being cut with a diamond saw, and the column structure below will be poured anew, far stronger than before, and then one day the entire building will be jacked up 600mm higher and 88 new lead/rubber isolators will be carefully slid into place. That’s my guess anyway. Tell me if I am wrong.
My goodness, this is a long post – I haven’t written this much for ages! Feel free to leave if you’re bored. But here comes the meat in the sandwich, the bacon in your butty.
The really big issue here is that this building was built right at the end of the Post-Modern era – by one of the masters of the joking and self-referential / semi-deferential nature of PoMo. Sir Ian Athfield was a one off and was at times a brilliant architect, although at other times just mildly amusing, and no doubt he was probably at times a grumpy old bugger, the same as the rest of us. I don’t know – I never saw him grumpy, and even when he was being serious he still had a grin on his face. Personally I think he was best on houses, especially his own eco-village which is by far New Zealand’s best example of a co-housing project, and simultaneously also the worst example of water-proof detailing the country has ever seen. The practice has changed a lot since he died, or even before, and especially in relation to multi-storey buildings. Ath himself was great at the manipulation and amalgamation of small residential spaces, but I feel that the practice itself still struggles with the bigger buildings. It must be a frustratingly difficult practice to work for, with the ghost of King Ath always looking over your shoulder, and the whole world (including me, I apologise) feeling free to criticise the work you are doing. Even more so on a project this size and this important. The Library was always Ath’s masterpiece of big-scale work, with a team of five or ten (how many? I’m not sure) working on it, and anything you do to it bound by constant scrutiny from the city, from the residents, the council and of course by other architects.
Post-Modernist architecture by its very nature is going to be referring back to earlier times, and so this building has it in spades, not only to its roots in European city walls, classical orders of columns and their evolution into Nikau palms, ground-breaking integration of cafe and peanut brownies into the former hallowed realm of the Library, but also as to the appearance of its own pre-quake self. Hopefully not all things are as yet set in stone. The Portico-replacement that feels like a bed-side table to me, or to a 1950s TV set to others, should go. Yes, perhaps something should go there, but probably not yet, and certainly not that. Don’t we need to wait until the Pink building has been demolished or whatever its fate is – when we know what is on the other side of the view shaft, perhaps we rePortico then, but what is the point of doing this now? The rooftop extensions – I need to know more, but they look weird and added on, not carefully incorporated into the design. On the whole though I really like it and I’m going to wait with suitably bated breath for its coming reincarnation. It’s resurrection we await. It’s coming we proclaim.