For several years now, one of the cornerstones of the Cuba Mall has been pretty much a derelict wreck. The old Deka store, a brand from so long ago that most teenagers won’t have even a glimmer of recognition for it, has been slowly rotting away, with the upper floors largely abandoned to the pigeons. The building is an earthquake prone risk, and maintenance levels are low. That may have had something to do with the previous owner, notorious waste of space Terry Serepisos.

New owners, Willis Bond, bought the sites on the corner of Dixon and Cuba a few months back, and have evidently been planning something quite big: news today is that it is a massive revamp of the whole Cuba / Dixon / Victoria block, to include accommodation for a major new student facility.

The Dom Post is today reporting that :
“The centre would bring together programmes such as the New Zealand Film and Television School, the Whitireia Performing Arts Centre, the New Zealand Radio Training School and programmes including journalism, creative writing, digital media production and animation, Maori arts, event management and photography.”

Ballpark figures of $80million and 1000 full time students are being talked of, which is a pretty major development for the city, and should boost the downtown Cuba St area considerably. Combined with the recent Weltec / Cordon Bleu cooking school, just down the street, and the long-standing School of Architecture just up the street, Cuba St is truly going to be Student Central. The Dom Post happily reports that the development will be underway next year, and already has the blessing of the Mayor and the Minister of Culture, although I’m not really sure why Chris Finlayson has anything to do with it. When was the last time that anyone in this government cared about Culture or Heritage? Certainly not in Christchurch in recent years. But I digress.

The published picture gives nothing away, but my guess would be that the scheme would come from Athfield Architects, who have long been Willis Bond’s architect of choice, and the fact that the two teams have just complete the enormous reconstruction of the Overseas Passenger Terminal means that Ath’s are once again the likely ones. In fact, do Willis Bond work with anyone else, except under pressure?

The site has had proposals for redevelopment before, including Terry’s notorious Mickey Mouse palace – by Athfield’s old rival Roger Walker. The scheme was, perhaps kindly, described as “an explosion in a bling factory” which is a nice way to talk about something that had more diamanté than Liberace, more mirrors than the Wicked Witch of the West, and more post-modern bulges than Ettore Sottsas. So far, this scheme is looking distinctly underwhelming, with a strong resemblance to a container terminal stranded on the rooftop.

We can only live in hope that it will be a bit more sophisticated than that, and indeed it is reported that there will be a glass fronted pathway through the buildings, which will allow the public to see the fashion and media students at work. While I worry that all this will gain is first hand viewing of students doing what students actually do all day: surfing the web or posting selfies on Facebook, the students will probably just do what all students do when faced with unwanted attention: stick posters on the wall so nobody can see in.

I’m sure it will all be fine. Both Athfield Architects and Willis Bond are sensitive to the heritage of the area, and the special vibe that Cuba has. The buildings already on site include some designs by Joshua Charlesworth (the Farmers Building, I think), and are pretty well sited to play a pivotal part in the revitalization of the city. Suprema situ, indeed!

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