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Crushing our modernist heritage

campus-tc [1]

by Ben Schrader
The news that Ryman Healthcare will soon get Wellington City Council permission to demolish much of the 1960s Karori Campus [2] 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.

karori-3 [3]

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 [4], claiming it had minimal heritage value; the Environment Court later found that it had very high heritage value. Its own Municipal office building [5] (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 [6] was recently stripped of its elegant 1960s facade and given a mundane new one. The city’s most famous Modernist office building, Massey House [7], 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 [8] on High Street has the superb Ellen Melville Hall (1962) as its centrepiece. The former high-rise Civic Administration Building [9](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).