Wellington Scoop

They’ve saved the orb – time to save the (magnificent) Town Hall too


by Lindsay Shelton
There was an impassioned plea from David Gascoigne this week to bring back the Neil Dawson sculpture that used to hang above Civic Square. His article brought a quick promise from Justin Lester that the orb will return. After such a prompt and positive response, I’d like to recruit them both for a much more important campaign – to bring back the Wellington Town Hall.

Sir David was quite lyrical about the hanging sculpture. He recalled that the Festival of the Arts (which he was chairing) was involved with the proposal from an early stage, though council staff were initially opposed. He remembers gasps of amazement and spontaneous ovation when the ball was unveiled at a dawn ceremony 17 years ago. He wrote in the DomPost:

Quickly, the globe gained public attention and affection. That has remained, though for the last four months the globe has been absent as it needed repairs…For the council to be equivocal about its return is disappointing, though disgraceful may be a better description.

Disappointing and disgraceful are words which can also be used to describe the city council’s attitude to the city’s magnificent 110-year-old Town Hall, which has been closed for more than two years, with no date for reopening.

Kerry Prendergast, who now chairs the Arts Festival (in the job that was done for many years by Sir David), has described the problems caused by the continuing closure. She said:

“The town hall is a vital venue for the festival and other arts events, and its closure makes scheduling difficult, as there is no comparable venue in the city.”

townhall 2

And Peter Jackson has given the highest praise to the Town Hall, where the NZSO recorded the music for two of his Hobbit movies. The recordings showcased the exceptional acoustics of the beautiful building, he said:

“It has been a real thrill working with the extraordinary talents of the NZSO in Wellington’s world class auditorium, the Town Hall. This recording space is a rare gem and its acclaimed sound qualities must be preserved for future generations to enjoy.”

When the Town Hall was closed back in 2013, no one expected that it would be closed for so long. City councillors voted unanimously to strengthen it and agreed to spend $43m. Iona Pannett said there’d been two years of investigation into ground conditions and the foundations:

The proposed strengthening option – base-isolation – would take the Town Hall to 140% of the New Build Standard. “It is a cheaper and less destructive and disruptive solution than other strengthening options – like steel framing – and it would keep the building largely intact in a sizeable quake…The Town Hall is part of our sense of place, we’re not prepared to let such an important piece of our heritage be reduced to rubble.”

And Mayor Wade-Brown:

“The Town Hall is a historic landmark building. The money we will spend will future-proof it for the next century. Music performance and recordings will benefit hugely. Today we showed leadership for Wellington’s heritage and public safety. We have excellent economic opportunities to lead earthquake engineering, community resilience and architectural services globally. This is a critical commitment to a strong future for Wellington. We cannot expect private owners to upgrade and strengthen their heritage buildings if we don’t show this commitment.”

But early last year, that commitment lapsed, when work was stopped after the cost went up to $60m. Not that this should have changed the council’s recognition of a historic landmark building.

At the end of last year, a new and more complicated plan emerged – a music hub which would include the strengthened Town Hall. With some of the costs paid by (controversially) leasing land and buildings in the area of Civic Square. In May councillors approved this idea when they voted for a second time to strengthen the Town Hall. But strengthening didn’t start.

Instead, last month came the news that a “concept” for the music hub would be prepared by Athfield Architects. This plan is to be reviewed, with a feasibility analysis, before there’s any decision about proceeding to the next stage – formal approval and sign-off by the council, the NZSO and Victoria University’s music school. That’ll be towards the end of next year. If they can all agree.

By then it’ll be almost four years since the Town Hall was closed. (The globe has been missing for only four months.) And work won’t have even started.

We need someone like Sir David Gascoigne to intervene in this prolonged process. From his years leading the Arts Festival, he would remember many memorable concerts and performances in the Town Hall, so he’ll be well aware of the consequences of its closure. He should be encouraged to bring a new impetus to what is starting – disgracefully – to seem like a process which will never end.

Also out of reach: the Town Hall’s magnificent organ


  1. Michael Gibson, 21. October 2015, 13:57

    If the good people of St Mary’s in Boulcott Street can do it, why can’t the WCC do it for the very precious Town Hall?
    If they have spent spent all the money on helping developers wreck the waterfront, etc., they should ‘fess up before the next election.

  2. Anabel, 21. October 2015, 18:46

    Complete waste of money. Any geologist will tell you given a big enough earthquake no building sitting on the ground is safe (nor can it be considered “earthquake strengthened”).
    It’s a big lie for the blowout spending leading to toll roads and private assets.
    Fear keeps people non questioning on this issue of the “earthquake strengthening scam”.

  3. Guy, 21. October 2015, 22:55

    Annabel, your comment is ill-informed and largely incorrect. You’re not a geologist or a structural engineer yourself, are you? I’m not interested in getting into a slanging match over this issue, other than to say that seismic strengthening is indeed possible – and I suspect that this project is quite a tricky one, which is probably accounts for some of the long delay on the project.

    But I agree with Lindsay that the Council need to stop being all secret squirrel over it, and that they should go public, and tell us what the situation is.

  4. Anabel, 23. October 2015, 8:18

    Guy you are not a geologist and do not know what you are talking about.

  5. Andrew, 23. October 2015, 11:04

    ‘Given a big enough earthquake’… Anything could happen. That’s why buildings, products etc are designed to meet a certain specification, not an unknown.

  6. Harry, 23. October 2015, 11:46

    Absolutely Andrew – it’s just a costly scam (based on ignorance & fear). That’s why we have stringent building codes and not ‘earthquake codes’.

  7. Paul, 23. October 2015, 12:08

    @ Anabel, so your logic is because we can’t protect against all possible eventualities, don’t bother protecting against any?

  8. Anabel, 23. October 2015, 16:41

    Paul: Your logic seems to be that you think you can “protect” selected buildings from the possibility of harm from large earthquakes with unknown S & P waves. You can’t and there is no logic for extra strengthening which was done on buildings (such as the glass house at the botanical gardens for $150,000) which does not provide any additional protection . Fear mongering was used for the “earthquake building scam” – not science. We have a robust building code.

  9. Andrew, 23. October 2015, 17:34

    We have a robust code now; surely things have changed since the Town Hall was built? I don’t think anyone is expecting it to be converted into a nuclear proof bunker (arguably the only building that would withstand ‘a big enough earthquake’). Surely the point of the exercise is to bring the building up to a higher spec?

  10. Anabel, 24. October 2015, 9:26

    It only needs to be up to the existing robust building code.

    Though this discussion has changed to the fear monger topic of converting the town hall to a “nuclear bunker,” this does not mean we should restructure and strengthen some buildings to be “nuclear bunkers”. “Earthquake strengthening” was done on some buildings which did not provide any additional protection – as is the case with most of the glass buildings. It is just a costly debt creating scam and wealth transfer scheme which is based on scaring people into accepting a non science backed glass building “humpty dumpty” $ show .
    If ratepayers were not “fear mongered” but were informed and consulted on this, they would indeed question the logic and facts in the WCC’s scheming .

  11. Andrew, 24. October 2015, 21:41

    Hold on Anabel, I’m not being a fear monger, please don’t bend what I wrote.

  12. lindsay, 27. October 2015, 19:52

    Not a word from any councillor about the value of the Town Hall and the need to bring it back into use. Surely some of them are aware of its unique importance? Or are they all banned from saying anything to defend it?

  13. Marion Leader, 28. October 2015, 7:20

    With respect to Lindsay, it seems to me that Anabel is the voice of the Councillors.

  14. Andy, 28. October 2015, 8:09

    It’s because they don’t want to be implicated in the “earthquake strengthening scam”. The Town Hall, as it is up to the robust building code, is fine to be used.

  15. Carion Feeder, 28. October 2015, 13:19

    @MarionLeader – no it is obvious that Anabel is not the voice of the WCC and she doesn’t sound to me like she supports their scheming. Lindsay was right to question the WCC councillors.