Wellington Scoop

Heritage listing could help save Central Library from demolition

central library scaffolding
Photo by Harry Lock from RNZ

Report from RNZ by Harry Lock
Wellington’s Central Library may be in line to become a listed heritage building. No decision has been made on its future since it was closed last year after an engineer’s assessment deemed it earthquake prone.

Last month, the city council expressed a preference to repair and strengthen the building rather than demolish and rebuild it. But no option has been chosen and fears the building might be demolished have spurred a Wellington developer to file an application to Heritage New Zealand for it to be listed.

Heritage New Zealand is putting together a report which will go to the board later this year.

The Central Library – an impressive example of post-modernist architecture, designed by the late Ian Athfield – now stands empty.

With its curving walls and towering nikau palm sculptures adorning the facade and contrasting with the austere Victoria Street frontage, it had been Wellington’s most popular building, attracting some 3000 visitors a day.

For developer Richard Burrell it is “Athfield’s most important public building.”

“It’s the hub, and the social use that it’s been put to in the last 20 to 25 years, is all part of the Civic Square.”

The importance of the building and fears it could be demolished led Burrell to lodge the application with Heritage New Zealand. As soon as it was indicated demolition was an option “we immediately moved into action,” he said.

“[We] employed a heritage architect to do a heritage assessment on the building, and lodged it with Heritage New Zealand.”

central library walled off

The 30-year-old building is by no means the oldest in the capital, but age is not the only factor Heritage New Zealand considers.

“We measure against whether a place has aesthetic value, architectural value, it might have archaeological significance,” area manager Karen Astwood said. “It could be a place of historical importance, it might have social value, scientific value, cultural value, technical value, traditional value, all those types of things are taken into consideration.

Dr Ben Schrader – an urban historian – believes it’s those social and cultural values the library has in spades. “It’s often been called the living room of Wellington,” he said. “There were few places in the city that attracted that diversity of city residents: in terms of it being a social hub but also its cultural values, [and] in terms of the ideas and the intellectual heritage embedded in the library itself.”

What happens next?

While there’s no a guarantee the library will get a heritage categorisation, Astwood said she had never known a case where a building was assessed and had not received one.

The question would come down to whether it was made Category 1 or Category 2.

With the library, there is a rich source of archival material which can be tapped into. Putting together a story for the library to help with the report would be no trouble, she said.

On 21 July a consultation document will be put to the public to help the council make a decision on what to do. Though councillors have expressed their preference for strengthening, all options remain on the table, including demolition.

Burrell has threatened to take the council to court if they decide to bring down the building.

Councillor Iona Pannett, who handles the heritage portfolio, said while a heritage status did not give the building any formal protection, it would be considered.

“Heritage New Zealand has no legal authority to stop or to ask for a building to be protected. But I’ve worked with them for a very long time and I’ve got a lot of respect for them. If they say that a building is of special significance, that does need to be taken into consideration.”


  1. Helene Ritchie, 6. July 2020, 17:58

    I strongly support this.

    I also have sought heritage protection for the library. In June last year, I wrote to Heritage NZ nominating the civic centre, including the library for the highest possible heritage status and protection. I strongly support the library being given heritage status. Anything less, and certainly demolition, would be cultural and actual vandalism.

    I submitted a great deal of background material to Heritage NZ, as the former chair of the civic centre project when we created the city’s civic heart as an integrated whole, with the juxtaposing of heritage buildings (including the now City Art gallery which we saved), and the Town Hall, with the new architecturally unique buildings – the library and the CAB building, the important and well utilised civic square, and the unique pedestrian link to the harbour.
    I am waiting for a report from Heritage NZ regarding this.

    (The Town Hall and City Gallery already have high heritage status).

    Former deputy mayor, and longest serving councillor and former chair of the civic centre project.

  2. Nick Rowney, 6. July 2020, 18:53

    I love all the palms but they are easy to save, the rest is rubbish. Let’s have a competition for a new design, one that can better manage earthquakes like the BNZ building.

  3. michael, 7. July 2020, 14:04

    I also strongly support retaining the existing library and hope it becomes Heritage listed. In is vital the library is reopened as quickly as possible, as it is also the community hub for what is now the biggest residential “suburb” in the Wellington area, since the inner-city overtook Karori in resident numbers.

  4. Hel, 8. July 2020, 21:45

    Agree with saving the Central Library but not at any cost. There has to be a point where the cost of saving and remedying the existing building cannot be justified.

  5. Elizabeth Kerr, 9. July 2020, 15:51

    I’d support a heritage listing but I don’t think that would protect it from demolition. Even Category 1 listed buildings are not legally protected – the listing is just something that has to be taken into account in the process.