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Demolishing our heritage

gwdlats [1]

Victoria University is refusing to accept the importance of the Gordon Wilson Flats on The Terrace.

A report in yesterday’s DomPost [2] by Damian George and Mandy Te says the university is pushing ahead with plans to demolish the heritage listed building [3] and turn the area into a “new front door” which is to be named Te Huanui.

Athfield Architects have drawn up plans for new buildings on the vacated site, including “state-of-the-art teaching and research facilities”, and an outdoor entrance which would be a space for daytime events. The smaller adjacent McLean Flats would not be demolished, but would be used for post-graduate students’ offices.

But as historian Ben Schrader wrote [4] in 2017:

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.

He added:

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.

And commenting on the results of a case in the Environment Court, he wrote:

It was argued during the 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 … 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.

But it seems the university won’t do it.

after demolition of gwflats [5]

The DomPost reports that there was a neighbours’ meeting on Monday evening, where architects and university staff spoke about the redevelopment. The university’s director of property services David Stevenson said the redevelopment was a 10-year plan. A university spokesperson said the Te Huanui proposal was a “critical long-term investment in its future and the future of Wellington … The University has sold some assets in recent years, including the Karori campus and some housing stock, freeing up money for re-investment.”

A reminder that after the university sold its Karori campus, the result was also demolition [6] of not one but a group of heritage-listed buildings.

Christine McCarthy, president of the Architectural Centre, had this to say after the Environment Court hearing in 2017:

“Gordon Wilson Flats is a hugely important building in New Zealand’s architectural history. It is a rare example of high-rise social housing built under a National government, and was at the leading edge of progressive post-war architecture. It is one of only two such buildings in the country and reflects an important part of our social housing history… The building is a memorial to possibly our most important government architect. Gordon Wilson was an advocate for improved living conditions who facilitated innovative housing designs during a time which parallels our own present housing crisis.”

And the court decision raised another issue:

It seems to us … in a time of apparent scarcity of social housing in Wellington and the increase in the level of homelessness reported in the media that great care should be taken before demolition.

A subject which, like heritage, seems to be of no concern to Victoria University of Wellington.