Wellington Scoop

Crushing our modernist heritage


by Ben Schrader
The news that Ryman Healthcare will soon get Wellington City Council permission to demolish much of the 1960s Karori Campus is a crushing blow to Wellington’s Modernist heritage. Heritage New Zealand is proposing that it be listed as a Category 1 historic place. There are relatively few Category 1 buildings in Wellington – they’re very hard to get – so the proposal is a rare honour for the city.

But even if the listing goes through, there is nothing to stop Ryman demolishing some or all of the campus. An historic place can only be protected if it’s listed on a territorial district plan, and the Karori campus isn’t.


The WCC either hasn’t seen it as being worthy of listing, or it’s been ignorant of its high heritage values.

The city council has a lamentable record when it comes to protecting the city’s post-1950s heritage. It actively encouraged the demolition of the Gordon Wilson Flats, claiming it had minimal heritage value; the Environment Court later found that it had very high heritage value. Its own Municipal office building (1951) also has significant heritage value, but it’s looking increasingly likely that it will be demolished as an earthquake risk.

What’s true for the Council is true for the wider city. The Bowen State Building was recently stripped of its elegant 1960s facade and given a mundane new one. The city’s most famous Modernist office building, Massey House, is degraded and needs some loving care. The Gordon Wilson Flats will be a case of demolition by neglect. Wellington seemingly hates Modernism.

This is in stark contrast to Auckland where there is genuine love for it. The recent remodelling of Freyberg Place on High Street has the superb Ellen Melville Hall (1962) as its centrepiece. The former high-rise Civic Administration Building (1966) on Aotea Square is about to be converted into smart apartments. Here’s a city that values its recent heritage.

The difference between the two is that the Auckland City Council’s heritage unit is 40-strong and has significant organisational influence. Conversely, Wellington’s equivalent has three people and holds little sway. No wonder the Karori campus never made it to the district plan.

The WCC has made much of the fact that it’s investing millions into strengthening the Edwardian Town Hall. This is to be welcomed, but it should recognise that the city’s heritage also encompasses the modern age.

It needs to put more resources into identifying and protecting mid to late 20th century buildings that speak to the city’s (and New Zealand’s) history. If it doesn’t, then Wellington will lose more post-1950s buildings and be culturally the poorer.

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


  1. Citizen Joe, 12. April 2018, 10:43

    Lamentable indeed Ben. A great shame that Erskine College is also getting the wrecking ball, courtesy of developer neglect and Council indifference.

  2. Barbara S, 12. April 2018, 11:08

    What an amazing structure. Why have people got no appreciation of what other architects have created. They are only pulling it down for MONEY. So sad.

  3. R Vincent, 12. April 2018, 11:40

    I don’t really understand, but think it’s because we don’t value the mid century architecture as real history. NZ is so small, we tend to pull down and replace, even sturdy buildings like these, as the costs to retain still out weigh the redevelopment costs. To our grandchildren, this is really old, and will be “real history” sooner than we think and we all lose this valuable link to our city’s past /historical journey.

  4. Mike Nixon, 12. April 2018, 16:26

    Yes the destruction that Fowler started in big measure continues,

  5. Michael Gibson, 12. April 2018, 17:25

    Re Erskine – my recollection of the latest legal ruling is that the Chapel must be earthquake-proofed and fully restored before other work on the site can proceed. Hopefully WCC is enforcing this – does anyone know?

  6. Lianne, 12. April 2018, 18:46

    The Campus is an awesome collection of buildings – it’s a great example of NZ design skills. I’m so disappointed that we’re even having a discussion about potential demolition.

  7. Michael, 12. April 2018, 20:05

    This is truly shocking news. This is a world-class campus of brutalist buildings that have survived relatively unscathed over the years, making them all the more valuable as a consistent ensemble.
    In 2005 the New Zealand Institute of Architects local awards jury recognized this campus with an Enduring Architecture Award. The jury’s citation read:
    “This teaching campus has further mellowed into its suburban setting, and the minor alterations are a testament to the robustness of the original design. The buildings are honestly and thoroughly detailed, and the clarity of the layered 16’ module and indigenous materiality is a pleasure to read. But this is not just an academic essay, as there are moments of delightful poetry for those that take the time to look.”
    Ben is right that a combination of WCC under-resourcing and a general lack of appreciation for modernist architecture is sadly likely to see the destruction of yet more of our built heritage.

  8. Steve Doole, 14. April 2018, 20:56

    Having grown up and been a user of such buildings, I’m ok to see them go. Buildings before and some after are so much better.

  9. Ollie, 15. April 2018, 11:59

    I don’t understand what people see in modernist architecture. Call me a millenial/yuppie/philistine if you want to, but to me this style is aesthetically ugly but more importantly represents a period of human history where unsustainable capitalism was king. I’d be quite happy to see them all torn down and replaced with earthquake resilient 5-star green buildings that represent the future we need to move towards, not the unsustainable past that we have to move away from. Heritage can be saved for the advocates who care by taking some photos and videos, making a documentary or putting them in a museum.

  10. Chris Horne, 15. April 2018, 13:25

    The possibility that some or all of the buildings might be demolished is in my opinon scandalous. My alma mater, Victoria University, did the community a gross disservice in selling the site to a developer which wants to destroy some of our architectural history, to make profits for its shareholders. The whole campus could surely be refitted to create a co-educational secondary school. Think of the reduction of traffic congestion on Karori Road in the morning and evening peaks if the campus became a secondary school! Think of the resulting reduction in the use of finite fossil fuels, and the consequent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions! Smarten up, Wellington City Council – the Karori Campus is a special site worthy of permanent protection for its architectural history, and potential to continue to be used for education! All power to Heritage NZ designating the campus as a Category 1 historic site, and enforcing the letter and spirit of that designation.

  11. Concerned Wellingtonian, 15. April 2018, 19:03

    The traffic problem is so important. Nothing has been done to help Karori for over twenty years. The thought of having more traffic is a no-no.

  12. Bystander, 15. April 2018, 23:56

    There’s no glory in preservation and reuse for the WCC hounds to pursue. Politics of personality, not results, causes so much waste of our common resources and paid contributions. Everyone and his dog in Karori, for 30+ years, has been talking of a local secondary school, and the perfect opportunity arose and was inevitably and summarily rejected. “Legacy” projects like destroying the public’s waterfront, concreting the basin, selling off the bay, unnecessarily extending the runway, promoting a boondoggle movie museum, they’re such egotistical prats with minimal interest in the public’s benefit. The traffic problems that Karori has endured for decades could be instantly relieved with minimal cost and disruption, but no, it’s too sensible by far for our leaders to sponsor … there’s just not enough money nor glory in it for our elected “public servants”. And there’s the regents of my own alma mater, VUW, too, traitors to the cause of education. Where are we headed in this rush for monetisation and theft of our public investments?

  13. Peter Kerr, 16. April 2018, 9:45

    @Ollie. You’re way off the mark when you say that the Karori campus represents “a period of human history where unsustainable capitalism became king”. These buildings were opened in 1970. Those of us who had the benefit of a sixties education grew up in a time of nation building when social good was the norm in government policy, Labour and National.
    This campus was planned to be an amenity that would benefit all (Karori community included). We had a teacher education system that was the envy of the world and this was represented by the care taken in designing a pleasing environment for those training for education.
    It is the present day which demonstrates “unsustainable capitalism” as the paramount in architectural decline. We live with new buildings that are rendered useless after an earthquake (Freyberg House, the Centreport building failures and demolition) albeit that New Zealand is supposedly a leader in earthquake design. Modern glass towers and blocks even look like capitalist structures. From the outside they represent nothing more than bundles of bank notes tied together in neat piles heading for the heavens.
    Give me brutalism any day.
    If Karori is demolished I can only think of the main building at the old Central Institute of Technology, in Heretaunga (despite its similarity to a rear view of an elephant’s arse) as a survivor from the era when public architecture was driven by the public good.

  14. Eizabeth Cox, 17. April 2018, 11:17

    It would be a great tragedy if these buildings are demolished, both for the Karori community and for NZ’s modern architectural history. These buildings were built as a campus, as a community of buildings, and they have so much to offer if Rymans used imagination and foresight to develop the campus so that it could be used by the Karori community, old and young. This would then serve their elderly clients well, giving them a lively place, full of community, amenity and family, for them to live.
    Furthermore, the environmental impact of demolishing solid and safe concrete buildings and just tipping all that concrete into the rubbish tip is incredibly environmentally irresponsible.

  15. glenn, 17. April 2018, 14:28

    They are old, tired and ugly. Pull them down and get on with it. Then all the senior citizens in the area can sell their big houses, move into Rymans, and free up some real estate.