Wellington Scoop

Bringing Civic Square back to life

civic square perfect ex expedia
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by Andy Foster
Rejuvenation of Te Ngakau Civic Square as Wellington’s democratic and cultural heart is well underway. Over the next five years the beating heart of our city will progressively come alive as a vibrant public space of music, celebration, protest, relaxation and fun.

The 1980s vision to create Civic Square was a great one.

However the Square is poorly connected to outside streets. There are large areas of poorly activated space. None of its buildings activates or engages with the Square or surrounding streets at all well. Most of its buildings are seismically challenged, especially those built during the 1980s, and the Town Hall – which underwent very limited strengthening then – would today have been red stickered and unusable if it were not now being properly strengthened.

civic square council drawing
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Capital E, which also forms the access to the City to Sea Bridge, leaks badly and is earthquake prone.

civic admin building fate of

The Municipal Office Building (MOB) meets only 35-40% of current building code, and strengthening is uneconomic at an estimated $85million plus. These vulnerabilities aren’t merely theoretical. The adjacent Civic Administration Building (CAB) was significantly damaged by the Kaikoura earthquake, and will be demolished now insurance has been resolved. Building services (heating, ventilation, air conditioning etc) are at the end of their lives. The Square itself is the roof of a carpark which can leak (from above and below) and is also seismically challenged.

However we are sowing the green shoots of rejuvenation.

In September, the Council adopted the Te Ngakau Civic Square Framework to provide integrated, strategic guidance for the precinct’s future. The Framework aligns with Wellington’s goals of a resilient, green, compact, vibrant, prosperous, inclusive and connected city, seeking to deliver the beating heart of our city – safe, inclusive, welcoming, telling our many stories, celebrating heritage and mana whenua values, integrated with surrounding areas, and mass transit.

We’re making decisions and there’s action on the ground.

town hall foundations

Strengthening our Town Hall is challenging and complex, but excellent progress continues, testimony to innovation and great teamwork between Naylor Love, specialist subcontractors and consultants and the Council’s Project Management team (Te Toka).

town hall visit

Visiting again last week, 330 of 460 piles have been drilled and screwed 15-16 metres down and grouted into the ground, with 130 piles for the main auditorium to come later in the project.

town hall strengthening

Ultimately, the 117-year-old building will be separated from the ground, and rest on massive reinforced concrete beams. These penetrate right through the exterior walls and sit atop 148 base isolators (90 now installed) and 17 sliders, themselves sitting on an all new – massively reinforced – concrete base. There is an enormous amount of reinforcing going in under the building, and the walls and roof are being extensively reinforced.

Heritage features and fittings have been laser located, carefully removed and will be refitted before the Town Hall reopens.

andy music school view

In September we also approved leasing the Michael Fowler Centre carpark for a superb new building which will house the National School of Music’s offices and teaching spaces – a joint venture between Victoria University and the NZSO, now confirmed by the University Council and NZSO Boards.

This partnership is a powerful statement for our Arts, Culture and Creativity Capital. In the words of School of Music Director Sally Jane Norman, it will ‘fill Te Ngakau Civic Square with contagious new rhythms. People will come when they feel that vibe.’ Fantastic!

Last year Wellingtonians, whether wanting a strengthened Central Library or a new building, overwhelmingly supporting highly resilient options for Te Matapihi. And we’re working on it.

The Library will be a highly resilient, base isolated, modern building properly integrated with the Square and surrounding streets. It’s been suggested it be heritage listed, but given the need and desirability to make significant changes to the building, that would add significant cost, and potentially years of delay to reopening it. List it afterwards if needs be.

It will incorporate Capital E, City Archives, Service Centre, cafes, and lots of books! I look forward soon to sharing exciting designs as they develop and to seeing hard hats on site.

The Framework also envisions Te Ngakau Civic Square again being the Council’s principal home, while encouraging life and helping pay for redevelopment through a mix of public and private uses, as we see in most of the world’s great squares. There’s a lot more work to be done here.

And what about outdoor sheltered space, rooftop gardens, technological information and entertainment innovation? Incidentally we have no ‘secret developer deals’ as some fantasise!

Te Ngakau Civic Square will be a hive of construction activity over the next 4 – 5 years, as new and existing buildings come to life.

Together we will restore and repair this precious space for us and for future generations and ensure the heart of our city re-emerges as a vibrant, beautiful, connected centre of arts, culture, civic and community life. A place we are all deeply proud of. A place of life. A place where we love to be.


  1. aom, 18. December 2021, 13:13

    “…we have no ‘secret developer deals’…” Except, who saw any advertising or documentation calling for expressions of interest in regard to the lease of the MFC parking area? A bit like some other leased sites or the deals surrounding the Conference Centre.

  2. Andy Foster, 18. December 2021, 15:05

    Aom – all the necessary information is in a publicly available paper for a Council meeting on 30 September this year. You will read there that selling/leasing the site was consulted on in the 2015/25 Long Term Plan, and that Council went to market with a competitive two stage process in 2016. You will also read that Willis Bond were selected on the basis of how well they met the design brief objectives and financial benefit for Council/ratepayers. You will also read that the process was paused, first as a result of the Kaikoura earthquake, and then the IMO poor decision to locate the temporary building for the ballet on the site.
    We have now picked up and updated that existing deal, and I think we have a very attractive design which will add immensely to this area, and a home for the National School of Music, and a huge statement for our Arts and Culture Capital.

  3. Lindsay, 18. December 2021, 17:09

    Andy. Thank you for the clear explanation of the process by which Willis Bond was selected to build on the MFC carpark. Please can you provide a similar explanation of the process by which Willis Bond was selected to build the Convention Centre.

  4. Traveller, 18. December 2021, 18:11

    The mayor’s optimism is catching. But many decisions have not yet been made. He confirms that two big buildings on the edge of Civic Square are to be demolished (they’re at the left in the top photo), with no plans as yet for what will take their place. One building? Two buildings? More open space? Decisions on what is done with the soon-to-be-vacated sites will play a key role in livening up the Square. When one of the buildings was to be the home of the Music School, the published design showed a bold new entrance into the Town Hall from Civic Square, linking the two buildings. So that’s another decision that now needs to be made – how to open up the Town Hall on to the square. An architectural forum, perhaps, to share ideas?

  5. Wendy, 18. December 2021, 18:31

    Andy, please advise once and for all – is the City To Sea Bridge, which is the main access way from the square to the waterfront, going to be another casualty in the grand plans and replaced by a road crossing, as indicated in the framework? And is Jack Ilott Green, a vital “useable” inner city green space for local residents, also for the chop?

  6. Helene Ritchie, 18. December 2021, 21:04

    Andy. You forgot to mention the Town Hall cost escalation. How come the Town Hall now needs 460 piles and 148 base isolators? It went through thousands of earthquakes and some very big ones, for well over 100 years, without this palaver. This seems a bit like overkill. Anyway, after being deprived its use now for nearly nine years, I can’t wait to walk inside it again.

    I love your term “seismically challenged” for public buildings which are not earthquake prone but which you want to demolish and have them fill up our landfills. In my Civic Centre article ‘Losing our Heart’ I asked: How it is possible to take away (demolish) a body, including the guts, and still have a beating heart? Divine intervention?

  7. Andrew, 18. December 2021, 21:30

    Four to five years to get civic square up and running? If you believe that, I’ve got a gully with a state of the art road running through it to sell you.

  8. Dave B, 20. December 2021, 15:50

    Helene Ritchie, I believe you are right about overkill in the “earthquake risk industry”. I remember a similar thing happening with the methamphetamine risk industry. Many perfectly serviceable buildings were required to be gutted and completely re-lined if so much as a trace of “P” was found. This requirement was eventually exposed as ludicrously expensive nonsense and ditched overnight. Unfortunately we seem to have been sucked into the same type of thing with earthquake risk. Sure, some buildings present greater risk than others (mainly certain newer ones it seems), but the idea that buildings which have stood the test of time and many past earthquakes, all of a sudden need demolishing or hugely-expensive rebuilding, just doesn’t ring true.
    Meanwhile we blithely continue to tolerate massive and on-going risks with our road transport industry which guarantees to kill hundreds and maim thousands each year. Where are the equivalent draconian measures to deal with this far more pressing risk? Why is our collective judgement so unable to see wood for trees?

  9. Rob T, 20. December 2021, 18:10

    Mr. Mayor – It’s difficult to comment on the Music School design when there has been so little publicly presented on the project beyond a few renders. It’s an incredibly important site linking Te Aro/the Waterfront and the Civic Square. Although it’s a shame that a green space isn’t planned for this site (in an area sorely lacking in parks), a green roof/terrace is the next best thing. But will this terrace be publicly accessible to enjoy the wonderful views to the north? How does this project fit into the masterplan (if it exists) and will a connection to life on the Civic Square be re-inforced? More details please.

  10. Lindsay, 20. December 2021, 18:35

    Quite a challenge to establish a connection to Civic Square when the Music School building is no longer on the Square, and is cut off from it not only by the Michael Fowler Centre but also by the Town Hall. Music students would however have had a direct link with Civic Square if they were housed in the Municipal Office Building, as the original plans proposed. They’d also have had a direct link into their performance areas in the Town Hall, instead of having to sprint through the rain (if it’s raining.)

  11. aom, 21. December 2021, 9:55

    Good points Lindsay, but when did commonsense ever get in the way of a bright shining new building on leased land that excludes (or even alienates) the bulk of ratepayers who own the land?

  12. Guy M, 21. December 2021, 10:29

    Helene – re your comment “How come the Town Hall now needs 460 piles and 148 base isolators? It went through thousands of earthquakes and some very big ones, for well over 100 years, without this palaver.” That statement is completely untrue. It is a fantastically good acoustic space, as a result of great design (Joshua Charlesworth was taught by my great-great-grandfather Stead Ellis) but also lots of mass (thousands of bricks and heavy stone construction) surrounding a large rectangular volume. However, after the earthquakes in the Wairarapa in 1942, much palaver happened to the Town Hall – the massive clocktower was removed completely, external decorative detailing such as column capitals were stripped back or removed, and the building had a major rebuild to simplify the external facade. That was, without doubt, a whole lot of palaver.

    The work to install base isolation to the building is extensive, yes, but requires that the large heavy brick and stone surrounding facade is supported by a completely new structural system – hence the need to install piles and ring beam. The building will sit on the new beams, and the base isolators will sit under that, themselves sitting on the extensive new piles. Its not a simple exercise, but up until now we have relied on luck in retaining our heritage buildings, and we all know that luck is going to run out one day. If we don’t install systems such as Base Isolation into our major pieces of heritage, then when the major faults rupture, as they invariably will one day, then any old buildings made from bricks will simply return to dust and rubble. Once the base isolation is installed, separating the weight of the Town Hall from the shaking of the ground (beachfront mud only 150 years ago), then we have a chance to retain this old treasure for the next thousand years or so. Charlesworth would be pleased, I’m sure.

  13. Helene Ritchie, 21. December 2021, 13:34

    I have to defend myself! Nothing I have said is untrue! Fact: The Town Hall survived from 1904 without the palaver of 460 piles and 360 base isolators. To me that does seem a bit like overkill. I am well aware of the significant alterations in the past especially the removal of decoration on the outside as a result of the 1942 earthquake and strengthening. The clock tower (and portico) were removed after the 1931 earthquake as a preventative measure, not in 1942. In the past I have often advocated that a light replica clock tower be built (similar to the 22 replica chimneys on the largest wooden building in New Zealand now VUW Law School. Restoration completed in 1996 for a cost of $25million).

    I will be very pleased to have the acoustics and facility of the Town Hall back for the public to enjoy, and the sooner the better. I have long and often advocated that. As I am still defending myself, you should know that the Town Hall is still standing (though closed to the public for years and at great cost) because of my determined effort in 1982 as a councillor to save it from demolition, as a result of my research and then motion, and after significant public outcry. The then mayor Michael Fowler wanted it demolished so that the (now) Michael Fowler building, which he intended to be the new town hall, could stand in splendid isolation.

    The Town Hall was strengthened in 1984 and again in 1990 as part of the civic centre project. Since its closure in 2013, as a councillor and a member of the public I advocated for it to have priority attention by the Council, of all the buildings in Te Ngakau civic centre, and an early opening. But that was before the Council suddenly closed the Library (never assessed as earthquake prone), after I had left the Council, and we then had to mount a campaign to save that as well.

    I am pleased you have a family stake in the Town Hall. Like you (or was your great-great-grandfather a teacher, or both?) I too come from a legacy of well known family architects but I will resist name dropping. Thanks Guy. See you at the next concert. Some time soon?

  14. Dave B, 21. December 2021, 22:00

    Guy M, the kind of loving care given to the town hall to preserve its glory “for the next thousand years or so” is great, provided it can be afforded. The decision was made to go ahead with this and bear the cost, knowing that other council projects might have to be de-prioritised. Most of us probably don’t begrudge this, but I doubt this level of TLC would be affordable for every grand old heritage building. Is there not a cheaper option to strengthen such buildings for occupant-safety only, without the massive cost to fully-proof the building against armageddon? This is like a very expensive insurance policy to keep a few lucky buildings untouched by a major disaster, while everything else around would be written-off.

  15. Guy M, 24. December 2021, 9:50

    Hi Dave. I think that New Zealand has at last woken up to one of its best inventions – the saving grace of base isolation. I predicted after the Canterbury quakes that probably all new big buildings in Wellington would virtually have to have base isolation – even if it adds 10% to the cost then the payback is worth it when you consider the replacement cost of the building. It’s so easy to do on a new building when you are putting in the new foundation system, and there are even systems for houses as well – not seen one in real life yet.

    But a building like the Town Hall is really a once in a lifetime opportunity. Thanks to Helene and her efforts in saving the old Town Hall (and other buildings – thank you Helene!!) we still have the building and I feel it is our moral obligation to work as hard as we can to save it from destruction. You ask if we could have taken a less expensive route just to save the people, rather than the building as well – but isn’t a heritage building just as valuable? It’s not something that we could ever replace or rebuild – we simply don’t have the abilities or the craftspeople these days. This is a vision from the past that can never be repeated. Yes, it is unfortunately a damned expensive way of saving an existing building, but we don’t have too many options. What we need to do when it is finished is to make sure that we make the most use of the auditorium as is possible, make sure it is packed out every night, full to the rafters with life and music and song. Then it will be all worth while. And we can sing the praises of Helene Ritchie and to the team doing the latest transformation, for hanging onto a vision.

  16. Helene Ritchie, 24. December 2021, 12:10

    Thanks Guy. Life, music and song sounds a great way to be in the New Year in Wellington, and in the Town Hall! Let’s all just do it!

  17. Claire, 24. December 2021, 16:22

    Helene. I had not realised your role to that extent. I hope that enough of us joining together can preserve larger parts of our precious heritage suburbs.

  18. Tākina commercial development general manager David Perks said more than 60 conferences were provisionally booked … Inquiries were being made for conferences in the early-2030s, he said. The first event was a 1200-delegate Festival for the Future. [via twitter]

  19. Penelope, 5. January 2022, 12:42

    David Perks. Please give us details – name of each conference, number of attendees, and date. Or does provisional just mean you ticked some you would like to have? 60 exactly? How come?
    But I thought Te Papa was handling all of this.