In what may be viewed as the last gasp actions of an arts-loving Prime Minister, a massive refurbishment of the National Library in Wellington has been unveiled by Helen Clark today. The ever-present “Government Architect” Warren and Mahoney have pulled off an audacious move to the formerly venerated building that holds our national collections. Even though there was a large renovation to the Library in the last few years, with Athfield Architects installing a shiny new glass entry into the 1970s designed building in an arguably somewhat un-necessary architectural move, today the proposed “extension” is revealed to rip the entire facade off on all sides, and replace it with a radically different shiny glass frontage – clearly loving the arts doesn’t necessarily co-incide with loving heritage buildings for the dear old PM… 


The original building, designed by Ministry of Works architect Peter Boyes, in 1971, was completed some years later in the 1980s, amongst dire warnings that the space available was not going to be enough for future expansion.  It’s a common problem amongst archives and libraries it seems: a similar problem occurred with the British Library, which had carefully set aside land for future expansion, only for the surplus land to be sold off by the vengeful witch Margaret Thatcher to avoid any more spending by the library (which was, admittedly, way over budget and right out of time in the order of several years late).  Of course, many years later the British government had to buy the land back at a vastly inflated price – much like a New Zealand railway system really … So not much difference here.  A mere 20 years after completion, the New Zealand national library building now needs a significant increase in size. But what to do: there’s a strict height limit in place and not much room for extra floorspace. However, with $70million (ok, $69million over 5 years) to spend, and a net result of 4000m2 extra floor space (that’s a whopping $17,250 / m2), we’re going to get something pretty amazing and a vast increase in space, are we not?
Well yes, and no. 

There is a certain cost involved in the proposal involving the ripping off of the existing facade, and the replacement of the walls with lots of glass. While some may argue that the existing frontage is “aggressive, fortress-like, formidable, and intimidating”, others find its isolated aloofness a pleasure to view, and actually an important modernist building for the Parliamentary precinct, one which “borrows” its architectural thinking from Kallmann, Mckinnell and Knowles’ Boston City Hall (1962) The Athfield alteration, which some have grumbled about, was an assertive intervention which both cut through the staunch wall of the library and left it recognisably intact.  The WAM Bam proposal promises the world, but doesn’t leave much of it left.  It appears as a thin facade of graphic design, a sad substitute for the massiveness, authority and presence which the current library has.  Is the proposal really only a thin reflection of flimsy ideas about multi-media and image-making, turning architecture into a photoshop file, with the longevity of teenage popularity with facebook? Why this wholesale attack on the substantial nature of the library?  Is this proposal symptomatic of contemporary concerns about three-dimensional life and fashionable ideas of multi-media, information services and the cyber-junket results of the information-highway and 2nd life?

And why does it have to look so gimicky, inter-webby, and superficial?

There should at least be some serious questioning at least of its all glass facade. Books really don’t like sunshine. Proposals to build the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, by the French architect Dominique Perrault, were approved in a similar manner by former President Mitterand as his last gasp too, and have proved to be, arguably, a complete disaster. While the glass “book-shaped” library buildings have been completed as planned, a second internal skin of timber shutters has proved to be necessary to reduce the massive heat-gain caused by all the glass.   Of course we’re surely not going to have problems like that here, at least not with the “cool” steadying hand of WAM at the tiller, authors of a certain Maritime House eco-cynicism on Customhouse Quay…  But I suspect the driver behind the revamp is more the need to appear to “open up the doors” to the public than it is just to provide more floor space. There is due to be a five storey high atrium, which while a fun thing to have, will hardly provide much more space in an already over-crowded building. The plain truth is that big blank-walled buildings filled with books aren’t a turn-on to many of today’s attention-seeking youth, and the overhanging, overbearing walls of the existing inverted Ziggurat must scare the bejesus out of the culturally insensitive ones amongst us.  So the facade is set to be see-through, bringing visible book-stacks to the fore, and featuring huge glass walls that flicker and pulsate with images and text, rippling over a positively manic fragmented and fractulated facade.  All of which is set to get the glass-mongers scratching their withered pates in perplexion, and the occasional architectural connossieur screaming “Whhyyyyy??????.”