Wellington Scoop

Central Library, Gordon Wilson Flats and Trades Hall – now Category 1 historic places

News from Heritage New Zealand
Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga has recognised the exceptional significance of three Wellington historic places. These noteworthy buildings, built throughout the 20th century, are now Category 1 historic places on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero (‘the List’).

Wellington Trades Hall on Vivian Street opened in 1929 and has been the home of trade unions ever since. The building has outstanding historical significance for its connections with the union movement in Aotearoa New Zealand; with the lives of ordinary working people and well-known union figures; organisations like the Labour Party and Federation of Labour; and major events such as the 1951 waterfront dispute.

Its public connection with unionism was tragically demonstrated in 1984, when it became the site of the country’s first fatal terrorist attack after a home-made bomb was left in the lobby. This crime remains unsolved. The building has special social significance as a place of great importance to the union community past and present and considerable efforts have been made by the owner, Wellington Trades Hall Incorporated, to ensure its preservation in the future.

“Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga commends the restoration work undertaken by Wellington Trades Hall Incorporated and is delighted to recognise the building’s heritage values through listing,” says the Director Central Region Jamie Jacobs.

Wellington Central Library, designed by Athfield Architects and opened in 1991, has outstanding architectural significance as a highly esteemed postmodern building, employing classical architectural forms, historical references and varied shapes and materials to arresting effect. The building is critically acclaimed by architectural commentators and has won major architectural awards. It has exceptional historical significance as a major work of the late Ian Athfield, one of New Zealand’s most renowned architects of recent times, and represents the entry of his firm into the field of public architecture. Commonly referred to as ‘Wellington’s living room’, the Wellington Central Library has outstanding social significance as a much-loved and visited place.

Postmodern architecture, which had its heyday in the 1980s, is characterised by bold, overstated forms, playful, quirky details and references to history. The library’s nīkau palm columns, which acknowledge a tree indigenous to the Wellington region that was used in customary Māori housing, are the most prominent of the library’s many postmodern features and have become symbols of the library service and the city.

“Wellington Central Library is the youngest building on the List,” says Dr Jacobs. “We are excited to add diversity to our List by including this exceptional postmodern building. We look forward to working with the Wellington City Council to have it strengthened and reopened to the community.”

Questions to Auditor-General about Library decision
McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats, built in 1943-44 and 1957-59 respectively to provide state rental housing, are of outstanding significance for the way they exhibit how Modernism became a characteristic approach in New Zealand’s mid-20th century public architecture, and together reflect the evolution in Modern design before and after World War Two. They represent a period of optimism and determination to transform society through architecture. The Gordon Wilson Flats is the country’s sole remaining example of 1950s high-rise state housing and is therefore uniquely placed to demonstrate that chapter of New Zealand’s response to the need for housing. As examples of the state exploring different models of housing density, both blocks of flats make interesting contributions to current debates about provision of housing and urban spatial planning in New Zealand.

“This listing is further recognition for the Gordon Wilson Flats but doesn’t increase the protections that are already in place through the Wellington City District Plan,” says Dr Jacobs.

“Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga would like to see protections extended to the McLean Flats as well, and looks forward to continuing to work with Victoria University of Wellington as they develop a gateway to their Kelburn Campus on this site.”

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  1. Peter S, 24. February 2021, 21:14

    While I passionately agree with protecting historic buildings, I would draw the line at the Gordon Wilson flats. They may be a “stunning” example of brutalist architecture, but the reality is that they are a crumbling pile of sub-standard concrete. It’s all very well for architecture junkies to demand that they are saved, but it won’t be them putting their hands in their pockets to pay for it, will it? If they are so fantastic, why can’t a replica of say 4, 6 or 8 flats in the same dimensions/style be constructed when Vic rebuild that part of the campus? Why the obsession with retaining the whole building? At some point, you have to let things go.
    BTW, I did know a resident there, so can and do appreciate the design qualities of the building.

  2. Touchcloth, 25. February 2021, 10:26

    If a building has category one status, does it now require additional approvals (extra costs) for any modification work? How is that going to fit in with strengthening the Library or altering its interior layout?

  3. Ben Schrader, 25. February 2021, 12:22

    We need to move past the idea that the heritage values of building should be determined by their architecture; whether we think that they’re beautiful or ugly.

    As the press release above notes, the Category 1 listing of the Gordon Wilson and McLean Flats is due as much to their social and cultural values as to their architectural ones. Above everything else the Gordon Wilson Flats was a beacon of how New Zealand cities might develop in a sustainable fashion. It was a building before its time. That it is the only one of its type left in NZ increases its cultural importance.

    Sure the building is in a neglected state, but I understand it is not unredeemable. If VUW does not appreciate its worth then it should sell to someone who does. Ideally this would be the government, who could return it to residential use. Here is a structure that with some tender love and care could once again provide much-needed homes and be a beacon for sustainability.

  4. John H, 25. February 2021, 16:25

    Touchcloth: a Cat 1 listing status from Heritage NZ doesn’t actually confer any protection on a building. Rather, a listing should be seen as a recommendation to the local council that the building should be listed on their District Plan and THAT’S what gives it a degree of protection. However, generally councils won’t list a building without first getting the OK from its owner. In this case, the council IS the owner and seeing that it is likely that they will have to basically strip the building back to a near-shell in order to do the engineering work required, it’s unlikely that they would agree to have their hands tied in terms of what they can and cannot do by having it listed on the district plan.
    Another point: I spoke with Sir Ian Athfield several times over the years. One thing he often mentioned was that buildings could (indeed SHOULD) change with times as demands and trends changed. Some of the early part of his career was dedicated to finding new uses and remodelling of older buildings (e.g. Dr Henry Pollen’s House, Plimmer’s Emporium etc). He would be rolling in his grave at the thought that the exterior appearance of the Central Library should be frozen in time or that its interior design and layout should be fixed and immovable.

  5. Kara, 26. February 2021, 17:35

    Why has a building that is considered uninhabitable been given a Cat.1 listing? Surely it would be more helpful to raze the Gordon-Wilson flats and build something new, which can provide accommodation.

  6. Jalapeño, 26. February 2021, 18:23

    Kara I think we’re all part of a computer program like the matrix which has started malfunctioning. How else do you explain decisions like this, the council dysfunction, Trump, and covid 19 etc


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