Wellington Scoop

Healing our broken heart


by Helene Ritchie
Wellington’s Civic Centre should be protected in its entirety and in perpetuity. At the end of last month I submitted to Heritage New Zealand (the former Historic Places Trust) that Wellington’s Civic Centre, our heart, Te Ngakau, be accorded the highest possible level of protection that New Zealand law can give it.

I emphasised that it needs to be protected, as the integrated whole that it was designed to be and is.

There is no other place or public space like it in New Zealand, or the world.

It has world-class modern (30 year old) architecture juxtaposed with architectural styles and examples from 1902/04 through 1939, 1951, 1982, 1992, 1995. It is the civic heart of our capital city.

Our Civic Centre is highly significant for its aesthetic, historic and heritage, archeological, architectural, cultural, recreational, social, traditional mana whenua and tangata whenua values. The story of Wellington resides in this place.

It is now even more urgent that it be given the highest possible protection, because of the sudden closure of the library, and the one million patrons a year shut out. This public asset, a warm safe welcoming community place, is a storehouse of knowledge, with a range of activities- books, all manner of research functions plus information technology,

The threat of the library’s demolition, the mayor’s ambivalence to that, the Chief Executive’s apparent indifference, at least one developer’s wish to see it demolished, the Chamber of Commerce’s comments “Civic Square is prime real estate”, all fly in the face of massive public concern.

Our Civic Centre is not “prime real estate”. It is a public amenity of high significance and importance. Even the Council has placed this heritage area, on its list of strategic assets, and has guidelines attached to the District Plan. But these guidelines nice though they are, are toothless and lack legal authority.

In 1987, as Chair of the Civic Centre project at its inception, I said: “Wellington needs a heart.” The whole civic centre project, developed by the Council, then took only five years to complete. It included the two new buildings (the Civic building and the library), strengthening and modestly altering the interior of the Town Hall in 1992, the creation of the outdoor space, the water features and art work, the sculptures, the Nikau palms and the City to Sea Bridge added later.

It was nothing short of a miracle that it was completed in accordance with the concept plan, adopted unanimously by the Council and within such a relatively short time, and modest cost.

However, the cost of the entire civic centre pales almost into insignificance compared to the today’s Town Hall costs, a project dogged with political and executive vacillating, and diverting of funds, resources and energy to the loss making vanity project – the convention centre. Today’s ballooning costs for the Town Hall earthquake strengthening, appear more akin for reconstruction than “simply” earthquake strengthening, and despite much earthquake proofing over the last 100 plus years.

Repeatedly over years I have warned of the potential threat to our civic centre.

In the meantime, we have witnessed and are witnessing the slow dismantling and destruction of our Civic Centre, much of it barricaded off from the public, neglected, the portico removed some time ago for the sole purpose of strengthening the library we were told, the gutting of the terracotta coloured CAB, the classic pool art work painted out, the removal from Civic Centre of all civic staff and of the heart of civic democracy in the Capital.

Today all buildings but one lying empty and unused.

This is all a tragic disgrace.

I would never in my wildest nightmares have imagined, just thirty years ago when I chaired this unique project, that I would today have to plead for its formal protection from demolition, from destruction and from sale. But today that is what I and thousands of Wellingtonians have to and will have to do.

I await the response of Heritage New Zealand.

Helene Ritchie was Wellington’s first woman deputy mayor, the longest serving city councillor, a regional councillor and Chair of the Civic Centre project in the late eighties.


  1. Pauline, 27. July 2019, 15:38

    Thank you Helen for the brilliant background to Civic Square, Town Hall, Library etc, how we miss you. Trust the Mayor and councillors are now aware of what should have happened. When we go to the Wellington Orchestra next Friday in the MFC we’ll have so many wonderful memories of the Town Hall and the superb Organ. As a teenager in the 1940s, my grandfather used to take me to concerts in the Town Hall, and I also went to Balls there!

  2. Michael Barnett, 27. July 2019, 18:07

    Helen. You have described what is possible when there is a political will to make things happen. Congratulations

    My personal point of view is that from a risk assessment point of view, the entire earthquake strengthening saga is a gross over reaction to recent events in Christchurch and elsewhere, which could cost society billions, maybe trillions of dollars. During the 180 plus years of European settlement of New Zealand fewer than 1000 deaths have been recorded as a direct result of seismic activity. Compare that with the 300 plus deaths and countless number of injuries that occur on our roads each year, something is grossly out of kilter. The buildings in question have survived several major earthquakes. I say get on with opening them up, bring the Council administration back to where they belong and certainly don’t destroy a wonderful library.
    Time for common sense to prevail if that is at all possible in a politically charged environment. The real focus should be on the design deficiencies of buildings that collapsed during recent major earthquake events and bring to account those who were responsible.

  3. wendy, 28. July 2019, 10:54

    Helen, I absolutely agree with you and am appalled at the apathy from the council and councillors. It all seems to be about making money not saving our heritage or community. Adam Thornton made it quite clear at the public meeting that the library could be strengthened and opened reasonably quickly, but the council is refusing to consider this or anything else for a year. Meanwhile our city disintegrates around us.

  4. Tom, 28. July 2019, 12:24

    Michael Barnett, you write that “the real focus should be on the design deficiencies of buildings that collapsed during recent major earthquake events”. Has it not occurred to you that this is why the library was closed? It was the “design deficiency” of Stats House which made people concerned that buildings with the same deficiency might react in the same way (i.e. collapse) in stronger earthquakes, thus the Central Library was closed.

    Seismic events might not have killed as many people in this nation’s history as cancer, but in a seismically turbulent city like ours a significant event could bring the death of a thousand people in one sharp jolt – this is why our buildings need to be up to scratch. Because something has never happened is not reason enough to not prepare for it.

    As for whether it would really cost trillions of dollars to have seismically resilient buildings in Wellington, I don’t think so. The latest office tower to be built in Wellington, namely Deloitte House, is base isolated and rated at 180% of NBS and it cost $80m to build – for a trillion dollars you could probably base isolate the whole North Island.

    P.S. Helene Ritchie, you might perhaps reflect on the planning in the 80s and 90s which has led to this present state. After all, the current state of the Square is a direct result of this planning and it’s got nothing to do with the present Council which is merely trying to fix the mess that was left to them.

  5. michael, 28. July 2019, 15:25

    Tom, the problem is that the present council continues to delay fixing anything. Civic Square was built to the best standards of the day. Oh to have hindsight!

  6. Helen, 29. July 2019, 8:13

    Didn’t Ian Athfield get an award for his lovely nikau palms outside the library – I thought these were structural.
    The Town Hall has withstood quite a few shakes and I trust history more than today’s building engineers, so I’m quite happy to go in it.

  7. Ben Schrader, 29. July 2019, 10:47

    I agree that Te Ngākau Civic Square is worthy of heritage protection. No other New Zealand city has such a well-designed and architecturally significant civic centre.

    What worries me is that the civic or public aspect of the space appears to be in retreat. The Council has decamped to The Terrace and has made no public commitment to returning. The Council’s position on the future of the library remains opaque and apparently the structures holding up Capital E, the City to Sea Bridge, and the square itself are dodgy. At the library meeting the other week Iona Pannett showed us a map of predicted sea level rise with the whole area reclaimed by the sea in a 100 years or less.

    All we have from the Council over the last few months have been how problematic the space is and how it will cost a fortune to fix it. Few councillors have stood up for the space – certainly not the CEO – and argued for its revitalisation. I wonder if this is part of a deliberate Council strategy to further retreat from the area. Might this involve the sale or lease of the Civic Administration Building and Library in the same way the Municipal Office Building has been? Would the next step be to privatise the civic square itself?

    It would be great if at this year’s election we had some candidates that would strongly defend Te Ngākau Civic Square as inalienable public space and suggest ways it could reach its potential as the heart of Wellington.

  8. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 29. July 2019, 11:39

    Ben: I am happy to “strongly defend Te Ngākau Civic Square as inalienable public space and suggest ways it could reach its potential as the heart of Wellington.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some commercial activities to inject more life into the square.

    Remember, it’s only been a few months since the central library was closed, with the decision made virtually overnight when the CEO learnt of the risks associated with keeping it open. The officers have done a brilliant job in getting the new Manners Street mini-library and service centre up and running, and are working on other facilities as well.
    Meanwhile, various engineering firms etc are examining the options for the library. As August starts and city councillors return after the July recess (not that all of us have been away!) we’ll expect to receive and debate these reports as a matter of the highest priority. I for one won’t accept a year or two’s hiatus – we need to make a decision within months (but not weeks) – there are all sorts of important issues to weigh up and we need to get this right if Te Ngākau Civic Square has the future it deserves.

  9. greenwelly, 29. July 2019, 12:19

    >Iona Pannett showed us a map of predicted sea level rise with the whole area reclaimed by the sea in a 100 years or less.

    Based on that, I guess spending billions on a light rail running on the quays (which are lower than civic square) needs to be cancelled too….

  10. Ben Schrader, 29. July 2019, 13:47

    It’s reassuring Chris that you (and hopefully many of your colleagues) will defend Te Ngākau Civic Square as inalienable public space.

    I’m certainly not opposed some commercial activities around the space. I vividly recall that when it was first proposed that one of the main ideas was to encourage cafes around its edge. There was initially one in the north-east corner of the Town Hall but it didn’t last long unfortunately. Nikau Cafe has been more enduring and successful but, as I understand it, isn’t allowed to have tables fronting the square. This seems absurd.

    Yes, there needs to be more debate about Te Ngākau Civic Square’s future, but this shouldn’t be behind closed doors as is often the case in this city. What is needed is a public forum where citizens can contribute their ideas and feel included. Why not hold such an event in the square itself? Then it would really live up to its name.

  11. Helene Ritchie, 29. July 2019, 14:18

    Well said Chris.
    It’s great to hear from a proactive councillor.

  12. Andrew, 29. July 2019, 16:01

    ‘Nikau Cafe has been more enduring and successful but … isn’t allowed to have tables fronting the square. This seems absurd.’
    Meanwhile Cuba Street gets choked in some areas by outdoor cafe seating, and bus shelters are fenced off for private use (here’s looking at you Red Mount).

  13. Helen, 29. July 2019, 16:45

    Where exactly does Cuba Street get choked? I’ve never struggled for breath walking down it.

  14. Brendan, 29. July 2019, 16:50

    Greenwelly – wasn’t the land reclaimed from the sea by an earthquake in the first place? Perhaps WCC should declare an Earthquake Emergency for Wellington’s paua and shellfish! Isn’t an earthquake that raises land more likely than climate change raising sea level? Or could one cancel the other out? I’ll just keep calm and carry on…and leave the jobsworths to ponder what will happen in 100 years time.

  15. greenwelly, 29. July 2019, 16:57

    Nikau Cafe has been more enduring and successful but, as I understand it, isn’t allowed to have tables fronting the square. This seems absurd. Way back when, there used to be a café in the corner of the old Town Hall, pretty sure they had tables and chairs on the square, so it’s certainly not a cast in stone rule … I’m guessing its just council bureaucrats being bureaucratic.

  16. Concerned Wellingtonian, 30. July 2019, 7:36

    greenwelly, if it’s “just council bureaucrats being bureaucratic” then Councillors are failing to deal with the situation with an appropriate resolution in the Council chamber.
    Par for the course, in other words.

  17. Tony Jansen, 30. July 2019, 10:22

    Nice article Helene but no real call to action or solution apart from the suggestion from Ben to have an open debate in the square itself.
    CCF – I am dubious that any councillor will support retaining the square when it is apparent the council wants to flog most of it off to VUW, and whatever is left, to the bulldozers. No doubt to be developed by a friendly developer on very favourable terms which will be kept from the public because they are commercially sensitive. Perhaps the council could vote to make this area a SHA as well, just to speed up the destruction?

  18. Keith Johnson, 30. July 2019, 12:15

    I count myself a very lucky man in enjoying the regular company of two lovely personal trainers at the gym – they agreed to share my sessions. One blonde and Pakeha – the other dark and Maori – both ‘Besties’. And we get to chat not only about my life, but also about theirs’. Both are going through breakups and heartbreaks. But both have very robust views about the men who have shown themselves unable to value their trust and commitment.
    ‘Kiss my ass? You won’t be that lucky!’
    Time then that we kissed off the Geordie Wide Boy who has spent all our money on Big Ideas, Vanity Projects, Wish Lists and Lolly Scrambles – and left us broke and unable to access normal civic services. And his cup-bearer Mayor Justin Lester.

  19. Ms Green, 30. July 2019, 15:20

    So in 100 years the Civic Centre will be under water according to a councillor. Really? Right up to the roof?
    Well te Ngakau would then have been in use and enjoyed for 130 years…that’s a better record than 30!
    Then again, do we need to start wearing life jackets when we go on to the waterfront, in practice for 100 years from now? Let’s be bold, recognise the gem that the Civic Centre is, and ensure heritage protection.

  20. Guy M, 30. July 2019, 16:22

    Ms Green. No, not up to its roof. But at least ankle deep in water at high tide.

  21. Ben, 30. July 2019, 16:52

    If it’s ankle deep I can see gumboots – dare I say Wellies – becoming essential inner city footwear.

  22. Traveller, 30. July 2019, 17:05

    The Venice of the South Pacific…

  23. Ma Green, 30. July 2019, 18:24

    Cruise ships and gondolas berthing at the library?
    Still closed? Books still trapped inside it?

  24. Shylock Gondolas, 30. July 2019, 19:42

    Uber Gondolas? Can’t wait!

  25. michael, 3. August 2019, 17:43

    According to structural engineer Adam Thornton the library can easily have base-isolated foundations which can be adapted to raise the building if water levels rise, so why not just get on with it WCC.

  26. Ms Green, 4. August 2019, 18:53

    Why base isolate the library (that was)? Has anyone raised issues about the foundations? Since when do all existing (or new) buildings in Wellington CBD need to be base isolated? WCC: Just get on with strengthening the floors and open it soon – say six months from now?