Wellington Scoop

Why old places matter

places of character

by Ben Schrader
Over the last 24 months, Wellington’s built heritage has come under a sustained attack that’s been confronting for those of us who value it. Heritage has become an emblem and scapegoat for range of city ills: unaffordable housing, restrictive and officious planning practices, poor health among renters, generational warfare, nimbyism, colonialism, and more.

A catch-cry of built heritage critics is that it’s people, not buildings, that make cities what they are. This infers that a city’s urban identity and sense of place arises from the people who live there and has nothing to do with its physical form. This would mean that people would still flock to places like Cuba Street even if it was made up of high-rise modern mirror glass tower blocks, rather than the whimsical, hotch-potch of low-rise and different-aged structures that characterise it now.

We only have to look at the lifelessness of northern Lambton Quay in the weekend to know such a scenario is unlikely.

It’s more true to say that both people and buildings make cities what they are. The diverse built environments of cities, and the different ways people engage with it, is what provides urban identities and a unique sense of place. As the urban guru Jan Gehl puts it: ‘First we shape the cities – then they shape us.’

It’s therefore worth reminding ourselves why built heritage is important. To do this I’m drawing heavily on the work of the American heritage practitioner Thompson Mayes and his compatriot the architectural historian Max Page. In his book Why Old Places Matter (2019), Mayes identified 14 reasons why old places are important in community life. I’m going to consider six of these: continuity, memory, identity, beauty, history and architecture.

1) Continuity
Old places provide a sense of continuity. In a world that is constantly changing, old places provide people with a sense of being a part of a continuum, which is necessary for them to be psychologically and emotionally healthy. As the architectural theorist, Juhani Pallasmaa acknowledges: ‘Architecture enables us to see and understand the slow process of history and to participate in time cycles that surpass the scope of an individual life.’

This is obvious here in places like Mt Victoria where we have cottages dating from the 1870s; villas from the 1890s; 1930s Art Deco apartment buildings and 1950s Modernist ones. There are 19th century workshops and 20th century factories adaptively reused as apartments. There are also many townhouses dating from the 1970s up to the present. In other words, the passage of time is manifest in Mt Vic’s streetscapes.

2) Memory
Old buildings serve as mnemonic aids. They are important in activating both individual and collective memory (shared by the larger society). As the American conservation architect Mary DeNadai writes: ‘Old buildings are like memories you can touch’

embassy interior

An personal example is the Embassy Theatre. Often when I go there, I recall earlier visits as a child or seeing Wellington Film Festival films there during the 1990s. This is both an individual and collective memory – being shared with other film goers.

Memories are often contested. The history of old places may be viewed differently over time and reinterpreted as our conceptions of what is important changes. A good illustration of this is the colonial villas debate. For some they are tangible links to settler endeavours to create a prosperous city; for others they are painful reminders of the impact of colonialism on the region’s mana whenua. The fact these arguments occur underscore the importance of place. Despite conflicting points of view, the place itself transcends specific interpretations.

3) Identity
Similarly, old places are important in the construction of individual and collective identities. As the influential geographer Yi-Fu Tuan explains:

What can the past mean to us? People look back for various reasons but shared by all is the need to acquire a sense of self and of identity. … the passion for preservation arises out of the need to for tangible objects that can support a sense of identity.

embassy signage 3

In terms of my own sense of identity, I often reference my childhood experiences of going to places like the Embassy, to explain why I still like filmgoing. For me it’s not only about the film, it’s also about the place I’m watching it in.

Old places also contribute to collective identities, such as the Treaty House at Waitangi. It was deliberately constructed as national monument in the 1930s to relate the ideal of New Zealanders as one people. The process of redefining who “we” are is continuous and contested. We saw this from the 1980s when the Treaty House and grounds became a place of Māori protest. Protestors rejected the one-people discourse and shone light on the perennial failure of the Crown to honour its Treaty commitments. In this way the Treaty House became a tangible site for transforming identity.

People can survive the loss of places that support their identity. And often these places survive in memory. But the continued presence of old places helps us know who we are and who we may become in the future.

4) Beauty
As Mayes notes: ‘regardless of how beauty is defined, people perceive and desire beauty in their lives and in their communities. And they find beauty in old places.’ Old places may be beautiful for their design, but sometimes they’re beautiful because of the mark of time that has been left on them – ruins have long been the exemplars of the sublime.

Feelings and opinions about beauty change over time. The history of preservation demonstrates a process of the ugly transforming into the beautiful. Victorian buildings were condemned as the worst expressions of a degraded era; Art Deco was considered commercial and hideous; industrial buildings were treated as having no architectural value; Mid-Century Modern was dated. All of these were once considered ugly and now (generally) considered beautiful.

gordon wilson flats

It’s always easier to save a place that people consider beautiful than a place – no matter how historically significant – that people think is ugly. The Gordon Wilson Flats on the Terrace is a good example of that. Despite its recognised national heritage values, few Wellingtonians can see past its perceived ugliness.

5) History
The capacity of an old place to convey or stimulate a relation or reaction to the past is part of the fundamental nature and meaning of heritage objects. Many people feel the exhilaration of experiencing the place where something actually happened.

As Joseph Farrell writes:

‘old places and old things stimulate my historical imagination in a personal way – that is, in a way that is different from reading about the past. … For many, places and things are a much more effective way of being in touch with the past than reading is.’

wellington museum - old

I remember as a history student learning about the 1913 Waterfront strike. I studied a photo showing strikers gathering outside Queens Wharf with the Harbour Board office building in the background – now the Wellington Museum. When I walk past the building I sometimes imagine the events that took place there. Without the building I doubt I’d have the same response.

6) Architecture
People love and revere historic buildings for their art and craftsmanship and for the way they make us feel. Few can feel unmoved standing in the aisle of a medieval cathedral and seeing the stone pillars rising to the heavens, or stepping into the dimmed space of a whare whakairo (like a meeting house) and viewing an iwi or hapu’s tīpuna in the building’s structure.

As Pallasmaa points out: ‘the significance of architecture is not in its form, but in the capacity to reveal deeper layers of existence.’ This is to say that it allows us to better understand the people who made the places and their value systems, sometimes through the symbolic and historic meanings that the places reveal. This is obviously much harder to do when the place no longer exists.

In providing a sense of continuity in a rapidly changing world, in activating our personal and societal memories; in contributing to our individual and collective memories; in providing beauty in our lives; in allowing us to see where history happened, and by enabling better understandings of the people who built them, old buildings really do matter.

It should now be evident that its buildings, as well as people, which make cities what they are. Cities are not made by people alone.

Ben Schrader is a Wellington public historian specialising in urban and built environment history. This is an edited version of a talk that he gave recently to the Mt Victoria Historical Society. His books include: We Call it Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand (Auckland, 2005) and the award winning The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 (Wellington, 2016).


  1. Claire, 20. December 2021, 11:11

    Ben: great article. Access to and immersion in living history is as important for wellbeing as sun, outlook and our own bit of space or garden. Wellingtonians are lucky to have such a great wooden city, low carbon, with seismic flexibility. Disregard for this is misguided. Building can be done in an organised way without carpet bombing historic suburbs.

  2. Conor, 20. December 2021, 15:03

    Ben – can you point to this sustained attack on built heritage? I haven’t seen anyone suggest the Embassy, or the Treaty House at Waitangi, or the Harbour Board office building be demolished. I have seen people suggest that protecting 90% of Wellington’s inner suburbs using blanket “character” provisions is not justified. I sincerely hope this isn’t a conflation of “character” with heritage.
    Also, do you like the Art Deco and Modernist apartments? If the character rules in place now had have been in place earlier (pre-1929 buildings protected) these probably would not have been built.

  3. K, 20. December 2021, 17:25

    “This would mean that people would still flock to places like Cuba Street even if it was made up of high-rise modern mirror glass tower blocks, rather than the whimsical, hotch-potch of low-rise and different-aged structures that characterise it now. We only have to look at the lifelessness of northern Lambton Quay in the weekend to know such a scenario is unlikely.”

    No one lives at the northern end of Lambton Quay, it’s all commercial offices rather than residential. A better example is Victoria Street which is teeming with residents in “high rise modern mirror glass tower blocks”.

  4. Traveller, 20. December 2021, 17:33

    We agree that Lambton Quay isn’t teeming outside shopping hours. But I don’t agree that Victoria Street is “teeming,” either on weekdays or weekends; its high-rise residents aren’t especially visible outside the tower blocks. Cuba Street teems however seven days a week, night and day.

  5. Ben Schrader, 20. December 2021, 18:20

    Conor, if you Google ‘Wellington heritage criticism’ you’ll come across many pieces attacking the the city’s heritage over the period I’m referring to and you’ll also be aware that it’s been a theme on social media – especially on Twitter.

    It’s true that heritage and character has sometimes been conflated in the present debate and this has confused some of the issues.

    Heritage in this city is defined as that which is offically scheduled in the District Plan; character refers to buildings and sites that contribute to heritage values but are not scheduled. Scholars often refer to these latter places as unofficial heritage, in that communities can still see them as part of their own heritage even if they’re not formally recognised. It is usual for official heritage to ‘begin life’ as unofficial heritage, which is why drawing a distinction between the two is not always helpful – think of the present pursuit to (officially) recognise more of the city’s (unofficial) mana whenua heritage.

    I have never argued for blanket protection of existing character areas and would have thought it was transparent from the piece that I support architecturally-mixed neighbourhoods – and socially-mixed ones too!

  6. K, 20. December 2021, 22:05

    Traveller: Cuba Mall is 50m from Victoria street (and left bank literally starts on Victoria street) – that’s where the teeming residents of Victoria street are contributing to the community feel day and night. If you had thousands of people living on north Lambton Quay you can be sure it would be a lot more lively at street level, just like all the high rise apartment dwellers of Te Aro bring vibrancy to Cuba & Courtenay.

  7. GG, 21. December 2021, 15:31

    Too many people think we can fix all of Wellington’s problems without changing anything. It’s all very well to call it scapegoating, but we can’t solve housing affordability issues without building affordable housing, and we can’t fix Wellington’s transport issues without building that affordable housing within walking distance of either the CBD or reliable public transport. This inevitably means replacing inefficient “character” housing with housing that meets the needs of the people. That “beautiful?” protected derelict apartment block is a poster-child of all that is wrong with heritage protection in Wellington.

    Something has to give to keep Wellington liveable for its people. If you protect heritage at all costs, but few can afford to live here or work here, you’ve got to ask who are the privileged few you are protecting it for?

  8. Claire, 21. December 2021, 16:54

    GG: old homes are not the problem; only 40% of the total of 3300 homes in Newtown are pre 1930 and have protection. There are many mixed forms of housing here – 250 units built in the last two years. Misinformation is the problem and the belief that you have to over zone to get houses built. 11% of the CBD is carparks … a good place to start. Protection of intact older homes that are 120 years old is a GOOD thing to do. In the meantime, no one is stopping building in Newtown. Come and have a look. We need to keep our history. Or we could be in Hong Kong.

  9. Morgan, 22. December 2021, 11:28

    People don’t go to Northern Lambton Quay on the weekend because it’s all office blocks. Cuba Street is lined with multi-storey apartment buildings, where a sizeable number of the inner city residents who keep Cuba St vibrant live.

    Nobody’s proposing demolition for the Embassy, and that would be counter to intensifying housing. But on the subject of the Embassy, those derelict eyesores beside it would be a perfect place for an apartment building with ground floor hospitality or retail.

  10. adeke, 25. December 2021, 13:41

    If they pull history down, there will be nothing left to share. I know our old home was demolished, the deeds say it was 1880, and our Brooklyn one was about the same age but gone…. I much prefer to see an old building than a modern one.