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New Zealand Institute of Architects









Wellington Central Library

Scots College student Ethan Beri muses on what makes Sir Ian Athfield's Wellington landmark so special and why it must be saved.

Any true Wellingtonian will know the place I’m talking about. I would tell you to close your eyes and picture it, but, of course, you have to keep reading this – so just read and picture it instead; you’ll know soon enough.

Great, looming steel balustrades that seem far older than they really are. Although the building is big, it has a homely feel to it, probably due to the zillions of coffee-stained pages it houses. The building manages to feel open and liberating while still having some kind of industrial dignity to it, although it by no means ignores the natural feel of the city in which it thrives.

The man-made palm trees that hold up the great shoulders of this building are features no passer-by can miss. Seeing them all lined up along the pavement, like a Los Angeles sidewalk, makes me ache for days gone by, sitting in this iconic and uniquely
Wellingtonian building.

If you haven’t guessed by now, this building is the Central Library. And, if you haven’t heard by now, we’re not even allowed in anymore. Because of the need for earthquake strengthening, this beautiful, strong-yet-welcoming, loveable building is no longer accessible to the general public. I get that it has to be strengthened, and I get that it’s not safe in the event of a major earthquake, but that doesn’t make me miss the building any less.

The hours spent in that building were filled with nothing but joy, and admiration for the architect who designed it, Sir Ian Athfield. No one can deny the library’s bustling charm that hits once you walk through its relatively modest doors to see its very immodest interior.

Even from the first glance, anyone can tell that this building really encompasses Wellington city life and the city’s charm as a whole. You can see each individual floor, packed with book after book after book, from the moment you step in, thanks to the boldly designed multiple levels that all seem to fit seamlessly together through a series of escalators which make navigating a gargantuan building like the Central Library effortless.

The generous use of glass makes the flow of the interior (couch after couch housing many a stressed student) to the exterior (the beautiful harbour of the harbour city itself) feel seamless and natural. The whole ‘city to sea’ mantra is embodied by how transparent and daring the near-excessive use of glass is. Anyone sitting inside the building will know that this is quintessential modern Wellington architecture; instead of being overwhelmingly brutal and industrial, or overwhelmingly natural, or overwhelmingly professional, or overwhelmingly cosy, it juggles all of these qualities perfectly.

Wellington itself is just like this. It’s industrial, and a teeming hub of innovation. The classic ‘Kiwi ingenuity’ seems to be seeping out of every nook and cranny. It’s natural, and you only need to take a couple of steps to go from the modern, cutting-edge Te Papa to see the waves roll in on the waterfront. Wellington is professional, and home to countless start-ups, all dreaming and hopeful of corporate success in a challenging and competitive environment. And, last but not least, it’s cosy. The umpteen cafés that epitomise Wellington city life are effortlessly comforting, just like the familiar sights of the city from the library.

The modern, daring, professional and very grown-up-looking glass is, and always will be, my favourite part of my favourite building. It reminds even me, with my relatively untrained eye, of the work of pioneers of the modern architectural craft, such as Renzo Piano, with his sweeping, glassy lines.

Even though the building itself is very grown-up (and looks it), a library is there to encourage learning at all ages, and I believe this one does. Activities within its walls, such as tutoring friends, or borrowing a book when I was little, made me feel so grown-up, but I’d always stumble across something – a book, a corner of the building, or a person – that made me feel like a child.

Standing there, about to leave the library for what could be the last time, I finally began to see the building how Sir Ian Athfield saw it. I noticed the flow of the harbour city, from the bustling city to the calm sea, within the transparent and beautiful panes of glass. I noticed the grand pillars on the inside, supporting the roof like Atlas holding up the heavens, and their simple beauty.

I noticed the Māori inspiration and influence, from the most subtle hints of colouring to the waka-esque information desk.

I saw the building as what it is, and was, but my main worry is what is to be. To revive the building would be to honour its architect. Perhaps this an unlikely prospect, but as Ian Athfield himself said, when accepting “on behalf of architects, designers,
plumbers and gas fitters” an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington in 2000, “we have suffered at the hands of accountants and engineers for too long”. [1]

1. Jim Weir, Strong language: very quotable New Zealand quotes. Auckland: New Holland Publishers, 2007, p 20.