Wellington Scoop

The moving music school

by Lindsay Shelton
When plans for a national centre of music were announced seven years ago, it was to be on Civic Square, bringing new life to the centre of Wellington. Students would spill out on to the square, bringing life and music to the under-used space.

Concept plans showed the Municipal Office Building converted for teaching rooms and offices, and linking directly into the strengthened Town Hall and its performance spaces, which would also be part of the music centre.

The proposal was announced in 2014, with concept plans being commissioned from Athfield Architects a year later.

music centre

When more details were announced in 2017, they confirmed that the music centre would use the Municipal Office Building alongside the Town Hall for performance, teaching and administrative space.

Then things started to go wrong.

The university was expected to buy the building. But in January 2018 the university went into reverse and decided not to buy it. Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford said he was concerned by “the impacts of [the 2016 Kaikoura] earthquake on buildings on reclaimed land such as Civic Square poses new design and cost issues which we need to better understand.”

In September of the same year, the university said it was considering plans to lease the council’s 1951 building for the music centre.

And in June 2019, the university and the NZSO confirmed this arrangement. They signed a deal to use the Municipal Office Building and the council agreed to refurbish it and lease it for 25 years.

Before it could to be leased, it had to be strengthened. And a year ago the council discovered that strengthening the 70-year-old building would cost $84m, twice as much as it had expected.

At which point the council decided it would be cheaper to demolish the building rather than strengthen it. Which left the national music centre without half of the space that it needed.

Then came a long silence, during which it turned out that, since 2016, Willis Bond had been developing a plan to lease council land and build on the Michael Fowler carpark. Willis Bond said it was “exciting to have the opportunity to work with the Council to improve the usability, resiliency, and attractiveness of this iconic area.” Profitable too, no doubt. It was negotiating a ground lease of 175 years.

car park building 2

When the Willis Bond plan became public in September, there was a suggestion from Andy Foster – seemingly out of the blue – that the new building could be used for the music centre in place of the no-longer-available Municipal Office Building. Even though it wasn’t linked with the Town Hall.

home of music school

Less than three months later, the deal was done. The University’s Council agreed to commit to a 25-year lease of levels one and two and part of the ground floor, in the new Willis Bond building. The NZSO Board confirmed it would sub-lease level two from the University.

And the fact that the music centre would be in two separated buildings, divided by the Michael Fowler Centre, doesn’t seem to be a problem:

This new commitment between the University, NZSO and site developers Willis Bond means the national music centre will now occupy space in both the Michael Fowler Centre carpark development and the Wellington Town Hall, forming a hub of vibrant community engagement supporting greater access to music and the arts for the creative capital.

The University’s New Zealand School of Music — Te Kōkī (NZSM) – will occupy part of the ground floor, where there will be a public-facing space to celebrate music. On level one, modern offices and state-of-the-art teaching spaces will be used by NZSM academic and administrative staff. There will also be spaces for collaboration between the NZSM and NZSO. The NZSO will occupy part of level two as its administrative base, where it will also have sound-proofed practice rooms and ensemble rooms for its musicians.

So after seven years, at last there are final plans for the new national music school, though not quite the original concept of two connected buildings. Work on the carpark building will start next year. The NZSM anticipates it will open its teaching spaces to students in 2026 and the NZSO will occupy the space at the same time. The Wellington Town Hall is scheduled to reopen two years earlier.

As for the site of the Municipal Office Building after the council has demolished it, no plans have been revealed. The neighbouring Civic Administration Building is also on the council’s demolition list. So there’ll a large amount of public land in the centre of the city to be redeveloped. Open space for a bigger Civic Square? New council offices? Will the land be kept in public ownership? Or will developers be pushing their case for new privately-owned buildings? No doubt discussions behind closed doors have already started.


  1. Dave B, 14. December 2021, 18:56

    Why can’t Willis Bond do something really useful for the city such as designing how a new railway station complex might sit alongside a revitalised Civic Square, on the much-needed rail-extension to the airport which would largely take over Jervois Quay and be landscaped-over? And why can’t the council fix its admin buildings with the insurance payout it has received? Demolishing public buildings, just to replace them with private buildings (assuming this is what is to happen), hardly seems like moving the city forwards. And retaining the present ‘traffic-sewer’ along the quays will guarantee the city remains car-dominated and severed from its waterfront.
    Extending the railway and creating a major public transport node adjacent to Civic Square would be as transformational as Auckland’s new “City Rail Link” will soon be. Please, WCC and WB, get a real vision and stop messing about.

  2. Richard Keller, 17. December 2021, 20:37

    Wellington transport issues and discussions have always looked like an any-way attempt to keep the dominance of the personal motor car. Dave B’s suggestion of a rail hub at Civic Square would help knock that car desperation off balance. Similarly, closing the Library without a restoration plan, and now suggestions from Council staff to privatize Civic Square buildings, always looked like a way to destroy the concept of the public good in favour of private accumulation of wealth, surely a major goal of the neo-liberal coup of the 80s.

    In all of this it would look like the NZSM is being kicked around under the table. Is the University determined to help the NZSM?

  3. Andy Foster, 18. December 2021, 8:59

    Dave B
    1 – plans for stations will come at the next detailed design stage of LGWM, and we’ll aim to integrate that with Te Ngakau Civic Square.
    2 – The insurance payout, while tens of millions of dollars, is not enough to make the Civic Admin building a resilient building, and indeed the expert advice is that we would not be able to do much better than mid 60s %NBS at best. We are better off starting again. Municipal Office Building similarly – $85m or so to get to c80% of code, doesn’t stack up for a probably C grade office building.

    Richard –
    1 – The Library closure was done promptly at the time (March 2019) because of engineering advice that the floors would be likely to collapse in a major quake, putting potentially hundreds of lives at risk. Had the angle of the EQ waves been slightly different it could have been the Library, not the CAB, that was damaged by the Kaikoura quake. Planning a major strengthening and refurbishment job is not a 5 minute exercise, so it is not possible to reconcile the need for immediate closure on safety grounds with all that planning. The planning is advancing well and I am looking forward to sharing it with the city.
    2 – The University is absolutely not ‘kicking the NZ School of Music around! Absolutely the reverse. The University (along with the NZSO) has signed up to a significant investment in both the Town Hall fitout and the new building on the MFC carpark precisely to deliver what will be a fantastic cultural and educational asset for our capital city.