Wellington Scoop

The mystery of the shrinking auditorium – and the neglect of Jack Ilott Green

by Lindsay Shelton
One of Wellington’s first advertising agencies was founded by Sir John Ilott, who became a city benefactor. His Ilott Advertising building was a landmark on the corner of Jervois Quay and Harris Street till it was demolished to make way for a little green park, named after his son Jack Ilott who was also generous with gifts to the city.

Even though the grass is dry and has bare patches, Jack Ilott Green makes a pleasant contrast with its brick-paved neighbour Civic Square. But you can see that apart from mowing the lawn, the council isn’t looking after it. The addition of two mis-matched park benches doesn’t help at all.

The little park is one of the few green open spaces left in midcity Wellington. The fact that it’s neglected is explained by the fact that the city wants it to be the site for a national music school, which has been offered a 99 year lease with a peppercorn rent.

But the deal which was originally agreed – to compensate Wellingtonians for the loss of such valuable open space – has been changed.

Five years ago, the council initiated one of its many public consultation processes (“have your say!”) about its wish to have a music school on the green. It stated that the green was under-used, and the new institution would contribute to the central city’s vibrancy and energy.

One of the participants in the consultation process was the Wellington Civic Trust, which held a seminar and then told the council: “If a music school is to be built in this location … it must earn its right to be there by providing a facility for public access and use and which is of outstanding quality. The architecture must be iconic and distinctive, addressing the waterfront and Civic Square and providing public spaces (in the form of an auditorium and places for views out) as well as its academic function.”

The council invited public submissions and received 228. Of these, 58 per cent were said to support the proposal. The Trust, with results from those at the seminar, found a different point of view. Only a third of its 76 respondents considered that the music school was the best use of the site.

A month after the seminar, the council offered a 99 year lease to Massey and Victoria universities for a national school of music on Jack Ilott Green. The conditions included provision of a 650-seat auditorium. The concert hall would be compensation for citizens who would be losing the publically-owned open space.

The universities’ case to the council agreed to provide a concert hall of this size, though they said extra finance would have to be found. It would be a public facility managed separately from the school. It would have raked seating and a stage big enough for a full symphony orchestra.

The city has no performance venue of that size. The Ilott Concert Chamber and the Soundings Theatre at Te Papa each have about 300 seats, then there’s nothing till the city’s two big auditoriums and the two old theatres which each hold 1400 to 2000.

The universities agreed that the need for a 650-seat concert hall had been recognized for many years.

Their proposal confirmed this. “Representatives of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Wellington Sinfonia and the New Zealand Arts Festival, amongst others, have identified a concert hall of this size as a much needed addition to Wellington’s performance venues.”

Embarrassingly (now) for the council, the 2004 proposal continues: “The general manager of the [council-owned] Wellington Convention Centre has confirmed there is significant demand for such a venue.”

Mayor Prendergast told the Dominion Post on 24 September 2004 it was clear from submissions that the auditorium was a critical component. “If the conditions aren’t met … we will sit down with them and work out whether it’s a deal-breaker.”

Given this universal agreement, it was surprising when the universities last year decided to ask that the auditorium be reduced to 350-400 seats.

The universities quoted a New York consultant as saying it would be impossible to accommodate a 650-seat auditorium on the site without severely impacting on other needs of the music school.

It was even more surprising when the council agreed with the plan for shrinking the auditorium – apparently the size wasn’t a deal-breaker after all. The council doesn’t seem to have fought to protect the city’s interests. And there was no concern that the city already has two auditoriums of this size (four, if you count the University Theatre and the National Library Auditorium), or that there are so few green open spaces remaining in the central city.

Since the decision became known, council officers have claimed “preliminary findings” pointing to the preferred venue having 200 to 300 seats. But this conflicts with what what Wellington’s musical community is thinking.

Euan Murdoch, chief executive of Chamber Music New Zealand: “I am amazed that the city is entertaining the idea of supporting this downsizing. We do not require another small room, specially not on that site.”

Donald Armstrong, associate concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: “Anyone can see that a 350-400 seat theatre, while possibly adequate for music school in-house concerts, is not what Wellington needs.”

Peter Walls, chief executive officer of the NZSO: “It is hard to think of a major tertiary-level music school of international standard that teaches performance that does not have an adequate auditorium. The demands are quite specific: a stage area large enough for the safe rehearsal and performance of the school’s training orchestra while being suitable for other kinds of musical performance.”

Will the city council reconsider its decision to allow the music school to be built, with only a small auditorium? Its commitment to the project is only till the end of March. If there are problems with fund-raising or design, it could decide to withdraw its support.

“The council might be further persuaded to take that serious step if it were aware that there was serious public opposition to the revised project,” says Trust chair Seddon Bennington.

And so the debate continues.

A music school in the heart of the city – replacing activities that are currently spread between the Massey and Victoria campuses – could add to the cultural life of the capital.

But one of the city’s few remaining green open spaces would have been lost. The fact that the city is failing to nurture it (there was a vehicle parked on it this week, and piles of pallets) is no reason for getting rid of it altogether.

1 comment:

  1. Pauline Swann, 20. February 2009, 21:59

    Over the last two weeks there has been a Sculpture Symposium held on Jack Ilott Green and very well received by the public night and day. This is the only reason there are pallets still remaining but surely it is time for the council to remove them.

    There also appears to be an almost deliberate lack of seating in this area . During a visit last year from Cathy Simon, a US Architect, on the subject “N Z Urban Architecture – Are we getting it right” She didnt seem to think so when interviewed on National Radio 9th May 2008 and made reference to how few “green” spaces there were in the City and there are a great number who agree with her.