Wellington Scoop

Demolishing our heritage


Victoria University is refusing to accept the importance of the Gordon Wilson Flats on The Terrace.

A report in yesterday’s DomPost by Damian George and Mandy Te says the university is pushing ahead with plans to demolish the heritage listed building and turn the area into a “new front door” which is to be named Te Huanui.

Athfield Architects have drawn up plans for new buildings on the vacated site, including “state-of-the-art teaching and research facilities”, and an outdoor entrance which would be a space for daytime events. The smaller adjacent McLean Flats would not be demolished, but would be used for post-graduate students’ offices.

But as historian Ben Schrader wrote in 2017:

The high heritage value of the Gordon Wilson Flats is now beyond dispute. Gordon Wilson’s stature as New Zealand’s pre-eminent mid-century architect is only going to increase. To destroy one of his major works is akin to taking a knife to a McCahon.

He added:

It has long been a strategy among owners of heritage buildings who want them demolished to claim that they have little historic value, have minimal architectural merit, or are earthquake risks and too costly to fix – often all three. The Town Hall, VUW’s Hunter Building and the Harcourts Building were all considered write-offs before it was discovered they weren’t.

And commenting on the results of a case in the Environment Court, he wrote:

It was argued during the Court hearing that the building was not a basket case and could be strengthened for significantly less cost than opponents of the building had supposed … The best outcome for Wellington would be for the University to accept the Court’s finding and restore the building to residential use. If they can’t or won’t do it, then sell it someone who will.

But it seems the university won’t do it.

after demolition of gwflats

The DomPost reports that there was a neighbours’ meeting on Monday evening, where architects and university staff spoke about the redevelopment. The university’s director of property services David Stevenson said the redevelopment was a 10-year plan. A university spokesperson said the Te Huanui proposal was a “critical long-term investment in its future and the future of Wellington … The University has sold some assets in recent years, including the Karori campus and some housing stock, freeing up money for re-investment.”

A reminder that after the university sold its Karori campus, the result was also demolition of not one but a group of heritage-listed buildings.

Christine McCarthy, president of the Architectural Centre, had this to say after the Environment Court hearing in 2017:

“Gordon Wilson Flats is a hugely important building in New Zealand’s architectural history. It is a rare example of high-rise social housing built under a National government, and was at the leading edge of progressive post-war architecture. It is one of only two such buildings in the country and reflects an important part of our social housing history… The building is a memorial to possibly our most important government architect. Gordon Wilson was an advocate for improved living conditions who facilitated innovative housing designs during a time which parallels our own present housing crisis.”

And the court decision raised another issue:

It seems to us … in a time of apparent scarcity of social housing in Wellington and the increase in the level of homelessness reported in the media that great care should be taken before demolition.

A subject which, like heritage, seems to be of no concern to Victoria University of Wellington.


  1. CC, 29. July 2020, 9:23

    So – Wellington’s largest developer wants to do what such capitalists do when heritage stands in the way. Ignore decisions and throw time and money (in this case public funds) to get its way. To what end is this course embarked upon? Attracting more overseas students so that they can be fleeced to pay for the replacement building?

  2. Tow Ball, 29. July 2020, 10:32

    I get that this building has some historical context but it wouldn’t look out of place in Pripyat. Take photos and document its history then bring in the wrecking ball. Surely, modern, warm, fit for purpose accommodation and a better use of space is more desirable! Where was the outrage from councillors at the destruction of Erskine? Far more historically significant.

  3. Guy M, 29. July 2020, 11:19

    Actually Tow Ball, you’re wrong there – in my opinion. Erskine was a bog standard Victorian building with some pointy bits and a fine history of Catholic teaching, but it got its main attractability from being a near-haunted gothic pile of rusty roofs and ageing cracked facades. By contrast, the Gordon Wilson Flats are far more interesting in an architectural sense, and the flats were much liked by the residents. It really is of national importance and is a fascinatingly early example of modernist architecture, drawing heavily from Le Corbusier’s ground-breaking Unite d’Habitation building in France. The flats are double height internally, and are really well-designed examples of housing that we are still failing to live up to today with most of the crap that is going up in Wellington today. Yes, it has much graffiti on it, but it used to look great when it was clean and tidy, and it could once again. By contrast, Erskine is not historically significant at all.

  4. Marion Leader, 29. July 2020, 11:49

    Erskine was historically significant. What has happened to the Chapel? [$7m was to be spent to restore the Chapel.]

  5. Tow Ball, 29. July 2020, 11:58

    Guy M. That’s why Erskine had a category 1 rating then? I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I think these flats look like a prison complex. Is it even possible to strengthen them to current seismic standards and at what cost? Then the new fitout, double glazing, heating and ventilation. I imagine the heating system is run with fossil fuel and grossly inefficient. It’s probably riddled with asbestos too. How much nicer would a green rated, passively heated, light and bright, EQ proof complex be. There’s no way I’d live in the current apartments.

  6. CC, 29. July 2020, 13:37

    Tow Ball: Check this.

  7. Dan, 29. July 2020, 14:16

    We don’t need heritage sites that lack function anymore. VUW has captured this site digitally so that it can remain in archives. Are the people upset by this change even using the basin reserve?

  8. michael, 29. July 2020, 16:20

    Not much different to WCC considering knocking down the central library.

  9. Casey, 29. July 2020, 17:53

    Tow Ball: Thanks for that link, and having worked in Aurora House for several years before the refit my observations were that it was an over engineered structure, concrete wise, with not a hint of concrete cancer. The Gordon Wilson Flats are of lighter weight construction by comparison, and are riddled with concrete cancer. Concrete has a finite life.

    The cost of remedial work, change of usage, and strengthening to retain that blot on the landscape is what Victoria University will have taken into account. I have never been inside those flats so am unable to comment on the interior design which I believe to be the best feature of them.

    Just like the Central Library with its “lightweight” construction, the cost to strengthen and make safe for occupants is greater than demolition and rebuilding, alas.

  10. Guy M, 29. July 2020, 18:00

    CC. Thanks for that, it was one of my projects – taking what was perceived as the most awful run-down office building in Wellington, hated by everyone, described as ugly, impossible to let because it was old and cold and damp and noisy and leaky – and with a great developer and client, the team transformed Aorangi House into what has become one of Wellington’s most award-winning buildings for user comfort and inhabitant satisfaction.

    Dan – what the heck are you talking about the Basin Reserve for? I thought the subject was Gordon Wilson flats?

    Tow Ball – It would be a lot easier to strengthen and refurbish Gordon Wilson Flats than it would have been to try and restore Erskine – which had a listing due to its important to the Catholic School system and the chapel, not due to the architecture which was brick, crumbling, full of ghosts and spiders.

  11. Hel, 29. July 2020, 19:58

    Purely personal view but as a city we cannot get hung up on preserving every building with a marginal at best heritage value. Get those photos archived and move on.

  12. Ben Schrader, 29. July 2020, 20:50

    I’m the historian who researched the Gordon Wilson Flats for the Environment Court hearing in 2017. I’ll make the following points from the comments so far.

    Tow Ball. Perceptions of architectural beauty and ugliness change over time. What is ugly for one generation is often beautiful for the next. The once so-ugly-it-should be-demolished Wellington Town Hall is a good example of this shifting mindset. Brutalist architecture (the style of GWF) is now beginning to be publicly appreciated overseas and the same will happen here. When I interviewed former residents they spoke of how warm and sunny the flats were. The flats were indeed heated by a fossil fuel (gas), but alternative fuels could be used in a retrofitted building. I don’t know if the flats contain asbestos but it never came up in technical discussions that I was part of.

    Casey. If you look at plans and photos of the building’s construction, the structural frame is anything but lightweight. The concrete cancer refers to the concrete on the façade (which wasn’t well maintained by Housing NZ) and I understand from engineers that this can be remediated. Every building material has a finite life and needs to be properly maintained or replaced. The cost of remediating and making the building safe is contested, but some non-university technical experts claim it is not as high as has been presented.

    Dan. This heritage site doesn’t function at the moment, but could once again if the university incorporated it into its plans. With the McLean Flats, GWF, and new buildings it could be amazing!

    Hel. I agree that not every heritage building can (and should) be saved. But there are certain buildings whose heritage values are so high that it would be act of cultural vandalism to demolish them. GWF is one such building. With the demolition of its sister building in Auckland, GWF is now a unique example of its type in New Zealand. This makes it nationally significant.

    I’ll make one further point. It’s a New Zealand cultural trait to think new is always best, hence the near-total demolition of Christchurch’s CBD after the earthquakes. But if we’re serious about creating carbon-neutral cities, we stop the process of incessant demolition and rebuilding and make better use of what we already have. The Gordon Wilson Flats can be modernised and made safe, ideally for housing. As I was quoted above, if Victoria University doesn’t want to do this, then it should sell the site to someone who will.

  13. Peter S, 29. July 2020, 21:22

    I too think that this building is not worth saving. I don’t have much sympathy for the uni, which seems to have become a bloated financial empire rather than an institution of learning. But there should be a limit to how much that people expect someone else to fork out for saving heritage buildings. Admittedly the town hall was definitely worth saving. Ditto the Harcourts building.

  14. V, 31. July 2020, 0:49

    Another ghastly monument to the cult of Le Corbusier. The world will be a better place once that murderous unsult to beauty is removed.

  15. Peter S, 31. July 2020, 22:03

    Knock down the old pile of concrete and build a replica set of Gordon Wilson flats within the new project, but only say 4 or 8 of them. Then they could be used as accommodation for visiting academics, or even well behaved students. Surely that would honour the legacy of Mr Wilson.

  16. Roscoe Changleen, 4. August 2020, 14:14

    That is a hellishly ugly building and far from a ‘good example of brutalism’ (of which I am a bit of a fan). It’s a 50s London-esque unfit for purpose set of crappy old flats almost purpose tailored to destroy any sense of community. It can’t be demolished and replaced fast enough.

  17. CC, 4. August 2020, 23:27

    Rosco – the Gordon Wilson Flats are usually described by architects as modernist, not brutalist. It is also worth noting that what has been described as the city’s best example of brutalist architecture was also dealt to by Victoria University which seems to think its School of Architecture is for student farming rather than academic excellence. Your comment, “50s London-esque unfit for purpose set of crappy old flats” seems emotive rather than realistic. It is the sort of comment that was made of the Council’s social housing units prior to the Government insisting that the accommodation be upgraded, after years of neglect. Fortunately, the job was done properly, unlike the London social housing that was wrapped in flame accelerant sheathing to stop the Grenfell Tower upsetting the sensitivities of the Kensington and Chelsea elite. As for, “sense of community”, what was that about? Demonstrably, there is usually a greater sense of community in social housing units than in other apartment buildings. When it came to the upgrades of the Wellington Council stock, the sense of community was said to be evident when the consultation process took place with the tenants to determin the nature of the upgrade. If the city was to embark on a process of demolishing large high density accommodation units that offended peoples sensibilities, which ones would remain? One could well be an upgraded Gordon Wilson building. There are few that are built to have light from two opposing sides, most do not have outside spaces, very few are built with separation of two floors per unit and how many have the potential for their own park-like surrounds? Of course, the Victoria University will ultimately be successful with its demolition by neglect, so it doesn’t really need classist rationals to support its cause.

  18. JCB, 5. August 2020, 9:30

    Roscoe Changleen et al – apart from chortling with mirth at the description of the GWF being “a 50s London-esque unfit for purpose set of crappy old flats almost purpose tailored to destroy any sense of community”, I think that some of you are missing the point. Yes, currently it is covered in graffiti and yes, some of the external concrete panels are spalling and need replacing, but it is no different from most of the architecture in 1950s Wellington in its squareness and boxiness. Let’s be truthful – it’s the untidy appearance that you don’t like, not anything intrinsically about its architecture. And the thing is, you haven’t been inside the building – the flats themselves are fantastic, far better than nearly all flats in Wellington. They’re double height – they have light and space and a great view out. They’re compact and yet were loved by the inhabitants before they got rudely removed overnight. There was a fantastic sense of community that cannot be replaced by a set of 3D CAD files of a simulated building – it really is a piece of heritage architecture that is being attacked by a cultural philistine: “a bloated financial empire rather than an institution of learning”. We need to learn to see behind the graffiti and see the true value of the quality architecture that lies beneath.

    It’s interesting that it is Athfield Architects who are designing the new proposal to take its place. That’s the same Athfield Architects who have designed a Library building that is also being debated over its fate and whether it deserves to live or die. The Gordon Wilson Flats are built far stronger than the Central Library – no hollow-core slabs at GWF, no base isolation needed as it is constructed on more solid ground, but both buildings have heritage value. If the Library was also covered in graffiti, would we also be hearing calls from people to tear it down? The proposed replacement by Athfield’s does not appear to have any of the brilliance of the GWF and is nothing to get excited about – nor does it include the crucial aspect our city needs: housing. I would have thought that a good architect would be able to design something that both retained the GWF and added to the complex in a way that could enhance both the new and the existing.

  19. CC, 5. August 2020, 10:18

    JCB – are you aware of the more relevant Athfield comparison with the Gordon Wilson Flats? The Arlington multi-story apartment block is empty and awaiting demolition.

  20. JCB, 5. August 2020, 11:53

    CC – very aware indeed, but Arlington flats are not a patch on the GWF. They look cuter from the outside, but you won’t hear many residents bemoaning their loss. Badly designed. Fun, but ultimately they deserve their fate. Not one of Ath’s best projects – whereas the Library certainly is.