Wellington Scoop

Saving the Gordon Wilson Flats


by Ben Schrader
It has long been a strategy among owners of heritage buildings who want them demolished to claim that they have little historic value, have minimal architectural merit, or are earthquake risks and too costly to fix – often all three. The Town Hall, VUW’s Hunter Building and the Harcourts Building were all considered write-offs before it was discovered they weren’t.

The high heritage value of the Gordon Wilson Flats is now beyond dispute. Gordon Wilson’s stature as New Zealand’s pre-eminent mid-century architect is only going to increase. To destroy one of his major works is akin to taking a knife to a McCahon.

What is more open to question is whether the flats can be strengthened to meet current codes. It was argued during the Environment Court hearing that the building was not a basket case and could be strengthened for significantly less cost than opponents of the building had supposed.

An independent assessment would settle the issue.

The best outcome for Wellington would be for the University to accept the Court’s finding and restore the building to residential use.

If they can’t or won’t do it, then sell it someone who will.

Ben Schrader is a Wellington historian whose books include We Call it Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand (2005), and The Big Smoke : New Zealand Cities, 1840–1920 (2016).


  1. Don, 15. August 2017, 7:20

    The building takes up a relatively huge site, and is an eyesore in a fairly prominent location. Sure it may be a building of significance for mid century architecture but there’s far more opportunity with this site if it was demolished.

  2. CC, 15. August 2017, 10:15

    Yes – we need more inspired architecture like the Te Puni eyesore for higher density accommodation near the university! Should we always take notice of the self-affirmed arbiters of good taste who ignore the words of Joni Mitchell, ” …. you don’t know what you’ve lost ’til it’s gone”. In the meantime a land-banked site will suit just fine, or maybe ‘…. put up a parking lot.” As a note of caution, it is not too many years ago that some believed the social housing at the bottom of Brooklyn Hill should be demolished.

  3. Chele, 15. August 2017, 11:23

    From the day (or to be more precise, one evening) that all those tenants were pushed out, and even before, everyone knew that there was some entity trying to get that building demolished. That land was gifted to Social Housing, and should remain for Social Housing. There has been some skullduggery going on in the background. How much of Wellington is the University going to “take over” before someone does something to stop it? And how much of our heritage is going to be rubbed out before we start to realize its value.

  4. Adam, 15. August 2017, 18:48

    Don – spot on. I realise this isn’t Europe and we are short on long history of architecture, but this monstrosity needs to go. I realise that this is a case of a vocal minority – let us get serious for a moment – you survey 1000 people and 995 will support its demolition.

  5. KB, 15. August 2017, 22:05

    As is, this building is an eyesore – a stain in the landscape. Now if someone can refurbish it and add some additional external details that make it even borderline attractive I would be all for that, but of course I’m guessing that would ruin its historic credentials so won’t be allowed.

  6. Traveller, 15. August 2017, 23:17

    I’ll side with Ben and with the Environment Court and with the Architectural Centre: the high heritage value of the Gordon Wilson Flats is now beyond dispute.

  7. Stefan, 16. August 2017, 10:33

    Even based on a small sample size here, it clearly is *not* beyond dispute.

  8. Darren, 16. August 2017, 10:35

    I’m with Don. This building is an eyesore, designed by an architect most people had never heard of until five minutes ago. The heritage crowd have become the squeakiest wheel, which is a pity for Wellington.

  9. CC, 16. August 2017, 12:07

    Darren, it is hardly surprising that with a ultracrepidarianist bent, you only heard about Gordon Wilson five minutes ago.

  10. Jack, 16. August 2017, 16:18

    I expect those complaining about the architectural merit and earthquake strength of Gordon Wilson Flats are doing so from the view from the windows in their 1990s leaky homes, or from the Majestic building?… Not only is this a perfect social housing site (as it once was), but it’s not being torn down post the Kaikoura earthquake like Statistics NZ and Defence House are – and these with their also questionable architectural merit are only 10 years old.

  11. Gordon, 16. August 2017, 16:31

    The sooner the Gordon Wilson eyesore is gone the better and two days later no one will remember it. Its retention is supported by a tiny group of zealots who oppose any change to anything in Wellington – the Court seems to have been captured by them.

  12. Ben Schrader, 16. August 2017, 18:02

    I accept the Gordon Wilson Flats presently looks like a dump. I also accept the near-universal perspective that it would be better to bowl it and start again. But this does mean it should happen. It is sometimes the fate of an expert/zealot (whatever) that their professional view is out of sync with the public view. Law reform advocates strike this often. The question then becomes whether to remain silent or try and convince the public to change their mind about an issue, a tactic that homosexual law reformers successfully followed in the 1980s for example.

    The Environment Court agreed with the experts who argued the building had very high heritage value and should not be delisted from the Council’s district plan. It now becomes the role of heritage advocates to promote the building’s importance to the public and show why it should be preserved.

    But the building’s many critics also have a responsibility to re-examine their own positions. Rather than seeing the Flats as an unredeemable eyesore, try and imagine them fully restored and re-populated. Imagine the new life they could bring to The Terrace. Imagine too what they could continue to tell us about Wellington’s past, and present. The exercise might not change your mind about the building, but at least you would have given it some considered thought.

  13. Phillip, 16. August 2017, 18:28

    These types of buildings can offer so much, but until they are repaired and serve a purpose the negativity prevails.

  14. Luke, 16. August 2017, 19:06

    Not saying the building should stay up or be knocked down but just because a building is old does not mean its necessarily worthy of preserving.

  15. Natasha, 16. August 2017, 23:33

    It is embarrassing to even be having this discussion. Architecture?! Go visit Barcelona, and then we can talk.

  16. Nora, 17. August 2017, 10:07

    I totally agree with Ben Schrader and Traveller – the Gordon Wilson Flats should be upgraded for those in need in our city.

  17. Ben Schrader, 18. August 2017, 14:45

    Probably too late for most readers, but if anyone is interested in GWF’s social history, a summary of it is provided at this heritage blog site.