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

Wellington-TownHall [1]

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: [2]

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 [3] 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 [4]

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 [5]:

“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 [6] 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 [7]. 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. [8] 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 [9]. But strengthening didn’t start.

Instead, last month came the news that a “concept” for the music hub [10]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 [11]