Wellington Scoop

Opportunity in Karori: a new inter-generational community


by Christine McCarthy
Ryman Healthcare’s purchase of the former Wellington Teachers Training College campus in Karori is a chance for an innovative adaptive reuse of the site. The campus is well-known in architectural circles for its comprehensive Brutalist design and smart organisation of the buildings on the undulating site.

The continued community use, the gully of Lopdell Gardens weaving between multi-storey blocks, and the skybridge evocations of the gigantic legs of H.G. Wells’ tripods from The War of the World are important aspects of what makes the complex so special.

It’s not an architecture that looks or feels – in anyone’s imagination – as buildings to house the elderly. Or is it?

Internationally, accommodation for older people has moved away from isolated communities of a narrow demographic of over 65s. As Marchese Partners principal Simon Johnson stated earlier this year in Idealog: “New Zealand needs to get more innovative with its aged living options to suit seniors’ active lifestyles.” He continued that “the old-style retirement villages – one level, low-set, redbrick, rabbit warrens – are no longer attractive to people anymore.”

But it’s not just the physical buildings of retirement homes that are changing. In the Netherlands, nursing homes welcome students to live rent free, on the condition that they spend time hanging out with elderly residents. Multi-ability/multi-generational inclusive communities (MAGIC) are a new type of senior housing which aims to support an inter-generational model of living in America. The Japanese Shinkou-kai model purchases unused buildings and converts them into nursing homes, employing people from marginalised communities as a comprehensive way of contributing to a broader social vision.

A question might be then – is the old teachers college a golden opportunity for NZ to proactively redefine how we house and support older New Zealanders?

The Architectural Centre has long cherished this concrete architectural community in heartland Karori. It was built from 1963 to 1977, a period that spanned the building of its more famous sister Brutalist complex in London (1965-1975): the Barbican. Famous as “council housing for the rich,” the Barbican is celebrated as high density housing, generous public spaces and a vibrant centre for the arts and culture, sporting a library, art gallery and auditorium, as well as cafes and restaurants. This is a hard-core modernist complex that has engendered filmstar fame and hipster envy. People love living there, almost to the point of obsession. Londoners lunch and dine there; meander through its enchanting spaces, and see films, theatre, dance and art at the Barbican.

In our eyes, Karori has the bones of the Barbican’s community spirit: a library, a cafetaria, an auditorium, lecture theatres, and sports facilities and a longtime relationship with its community. The departure of VUW’s Education Department from the Karori Teachers College campus ended its long era of teacher training but it has now opened up the possibility of a richly considered adaptive re-use project – an exemplar for sustainable heritage architecture.

The future of the Karori campus can be a Wellington first: an inter-generational residential community in adaptive re-used heritage buildings, with sports and cultural facilities supporting it and the wider community. I hope Ryman Healthcare agrees.

Christine McCarthy is a co-president of the Architectural Centre.

Read also:
Crushing our modernist heritage


  1. Polly, 18. April 2018, 14:08

    Well said Christine, and as a very reluctant “down size couple” couldn’t agree more as have some very unhappy friends in retirement homes and must say Barbican sounds great.

  2. Ben Schrader, 18. April 2018, 14:24

    A great idea. I think it’s really unfortunate that older NZers are cut off from other generations in these huge institutions. Incorporating them more into the communities in which they are situated is the way to go.

  3. Marion Leader, 18. April 2018, 15:10

    What does the Architectural Centre suggest to fix Karori’s awful traffic problems?

  4. Chris Horne, 21. April 2018, 15:32

    I suggest that what the Architectural Centre might recommend is for Ryman to decide not to convert the central Karori site into an old- people’s home, but to gift it to the Crown specifically for conversion into a co-educational secondary school. Think how that would slash Karori’s strangling morning peak and evening peak traffic congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions! Few Karori teenagers would then have to travel by school bus, or drive, to schools elsewhere in the city. This magnanimous public-spirited gesture by a large corporate would be of great benefit socially and environmentally, and preserve significent heritage buildings for future generations.

  5. Marion Leader, 22. April 2018, 9:58

    Exactly, Chris Horne. Thank you.

  6. Guy M, 22. April 2018, 21:05

    Chris Horne and Marion Leader – hasn’t the time for that suggestion already passed? Yes, absolutely, the Teachers College would have made a great community facility and especially a (much-needed) school for Karori, but the institutions owned by the Government, such as Victoria University and the Teachers College itself (pre-VUW) are really the only parties that could have done this.

    Privately owned companies such as Ryman are highly unlikely to have the slightest intention of buying properties and then giving them away. The whole thing has been a debacle from the minute that Victoria bought it for a dollar, and the farce goes on. The buildings themselves are a fantastic resource by a much-lauded architect, and it would be a crying shame if our society is so blind to history as to allow this demolition to go ahead.

  7. greenwelly, 23. April 2018, 9:53

    Ryman are highly unlikely to have the slightest intention of buying properties and then giving them away.

    We still don’t know what Ryman paid for it, (although we do know that VUW paid $10 for it in 2014).