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New Zealand Institute of Architects









More than bricks and mortar

Wellington Branch Chair Angela Foster on the significance of Wellington Library

Six weeks ago, mayor Justin Lester announced the immediate closure of Wellington’s Central Library. After receiving a report on the building’s seismic vulnerability, the mayor said the library would be shut indefinitely while options for its future were considered.

The mayor, rightfully, is mindful of the safety of everyone who works in or visits the library. However, it is concerning that the option that already seems to be favoured is the one that’s the most extreme: demolition.

We don’t know who is advising the mayor and the council. But I hope someone in the civic circle is making the point that it is possible both to save a building and to make it safe.

Any decision about the fate of our main library should take into account the true value of the building and the real costs of the alternative solutions – destruction and replacement, or retention and rehabilitation.        

The Central Library is important for several reasons. For a start, it is that relatively rare thing – a genuinely popular public building.

The library is liked and admired because, for nearly 30 years, it has combined functional excellence and formal appeal. The building’s row of nikau columns is an iconic urban feature and perfectly expresses Wellington’s image of itself as a serious place with a fun side.  

In that, the building also captures the character of its architect, Sir Ian Athfield.

Athfield is one of the few architects in New Zealand to have achieved recognition in the wider culture. If you stopped anyone on Lambton Quay, anytime from the late 1960s, when Athfield burst onto the scene, to 2015, when he was knighted, just before his death, and asked them to identify an architect, his would be the first and perhaps only name to get a mention.  

Ian Athfield was a unique personality as well as an original architect, and he is integral to the story of Wellington as a creative and singular city.

While the Central Library is significant because of what it is and who designed it, there’s another reason to value the building. It’s an outstanding example of the architecture of its era, a post-modern milestone in the continuum of Wellington architecture that stretches from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.

Knocking down the library would be like ripping out a chapter in a book. The removal of the building will leave a hole in the city’s heritage.

It will do something else, too: incur an inevitable environmental cost.

Construction produces nearly 40 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions and it takes decades for a new building to compensate for the negative climate change effects resulting from its construction. 

This should be of concern to the council. Why? Because it has just released Te Atakura-First to Zero, its blueprint for “a zero-carbon capital city”.

Here’s how the council’s Climate Change Portfolio lead councillor David Lee promoted the blueprint: “Science is telling us our current low-carbon plan isn’t ambitious enough. We need to do more, and we need to do it faster.”

“If we want to keep temperatures within the climate ‘safe zone’ we need to act more quickly to lower our carbon emissions by about half within 11 years, and to zero as soon as possible.”

Finding a way to save the Central Library would be a good start for the council on its urgent journey to a carbon-free future.

Ian Athfield was never precious about his architecture. He believed that heritage matters, and also understood that circumstances change; in architecture, the two can be reconciled because buildings can adapt to serve new needs and meet new standards.

I urge the mayor and the council to remember that as they decide what to do with one of Wellington’s favourite buildings.  

Angela Foster is Branch Chair of the New Zealand Institute of Architects in Wellington