Wellington Scoop

Differences in character

St Gerard's Monastery - Exterior

by Conor Hill
Wellington’s Draft Spatial Plan is now out for consultation. One of the bones of contention is some proposed changes to the city’s pre-1930s character areas – the inner suburbs of Mt Cook, Mt Victoria, Thorndon, Newtown, Aro and Berhampore. One of the most interesting things about these areas is their architectural diversity.

Before 1930 for instance, a review found 15 distinct architectural styles. There are Victorian Georgian Saltbox Cottages, Edwardian Bay Villas and Inter-War Californian Bungalows. This degree of pre-1930 diversity makes sense – we are dealing with half of all Wellington’s European history.

Indeed one of Wellington’s most iconic old buildings, St Gerard’s Monastery is iconic not because it is similar to its surrounds, but because it is so strikingly different. It is built on the site of an even older house. If you were to suggest now that you would demolish an ancient wooden home to build a huge brick building to house single men in Mount Victoria, you would be run out of town.

Since 1930 far more has been built in these suburbs, often contributing to their character. If we again take Mt Victoria as an example, you have an array of art deco. Moving through the decades you have the notable Ian Athfield designed Pearce apartments and more recently you have Zavos Corner.

All these great buildings could uncharitably described as multi-unit infill. All our character areas have similar additions to their neighbourhoods.

In general then, our character areas have far more architectural diversity than many of our new suburbs.

This is awkward, as the City Council describes character as “a concentration of common, consistent natural and physical features and characteristics that collectively combine to establish the local distinctiveness and identity of an area”.

Many of New Zealand’s outer suburbs of new homes come closer to this definition than our character suburbs.

While I don’t necessarily think concentrated, common and consistent cul-de-sacs of 90s McMansions are necessarily worth protecting, they meet the WCC definition of character more than Wellington’s character areas.

I don’t know where this leaves us. I like to make an argument and this doesn’t quite feel like one. All I can say is that an appreciation of our character areas involves admiring the architectural heterogeneity of these suburbs. If we can do this, and see the change throughout time that this represents, then maybe the idea of changing in the future could be less concerning.


  1. David Mackenzie, 13. August 2020, 11:28

    The council needs an art or architecture historian to advise it on cultural issues and advance its understanding. Character is an odd term to use because it is neutral in value.

  2. Conor, 13. August 2020, 12:27

    Hi David – this review commissioned by the council is interesting. One of the people who completed it is an “architect and conservator”.

  3. Sjb, 13. August 2020, 14:46

    Nice article Conor. You touch on what I think is one of the major issues that people (and organizations, like the Mt Vic residents association) don’t seem to understand about living in a city. The things that make the city an exciting and interesting place to live are the diversity and changing nature of said city. Let it happen I say, but demand the highest quality of design to be part of the process.

  4. Ben Schrader, 13. August 2020, 16:11

    Conor is right that the built fabric of Wellington’s inner-city suburbs shows their architectural heterogeneity. They relate the history of Wellington from colonial times to the present and it’s this that makes them so fascinating to walk through. I also agree that these areas should be allowed to continue to change in a gradual and organic way so that this diversity is maintained. What is striking about the Zavos Corner townhouses is that their form and scale mimic their neighbours. But they would soon lose their appeal if the rest of the neighbourhood was demolished so that copycat Zavos Corner developments could go up beside them. The Draft Spatial Plan must be framed to protect the heterogeneity of the inner suburbs or they’ll lose the very attributes that gives them their ‘character’.

  5. Ellen, 25. August 2020, 13:08

    The organic and diverse buildings in our inner city suburbs are what makes their ‘character’ and interesting places to live and visit. The Mt Vic residents association understands that diversity and values it too, which is why MVRA wants to see density done well for Mt Victoria and all of Wellington, that will provide places we want to live in. Ben is right to want to protect that heterogeneity of the inner suburbs, to allow organic growth as we have had in the past, and to ensure quality housing. Ben do you have any ideas how to achieve this?