A new building awaits us on Wellington waterfront. Opening early on Waitangi Day this coming weekend, the new Whare Waka is being officially named and declared open.
We’re going to devote some room to an an-depth discussion of the building in our next Arch Centre newsletter, due out soon, where we will have a full architectural review, but in the mean time it is kind of hard to ignore – and so this post just touches on the context of its surrounding landscape. Which is, at present, all we can really see.
This building is heavily influenced by site conditions. It can’t be easy siting a large building on a narrow spit of foreshore, with a man-made lagoon on one side, and a heavily used promenade walkway on the other side. The building essentially has 4 frontages, and no back door – or rather, several side doors, and some very particular neighbours. As a piece of urban sculpture, it is trying hard to break up the roof line, so as to avoid any chance of ugly flat-rooftop syndrome. As a piece of contemporary maori building, it has the cultural baggage of a few hundred years of expectations lying on its strong, dark back. And as a building funded largely by a partnership of government and local maori trusts, it has to satisfy everyone in town.
The whare waka has been aligned primarily to the lines of the existing St Johns building, and heads out to sea. At its rear flank, the lagoon has been yet again re-aligned to provide a combination of seating and canoe ramps for the launching of waka. As a feature for launching of vessels, these ramps make a lot more sense than the steps that currently surround the nearby boat sheds – although, the rowing skiffs used are far lighter, and able to be lugged easily up and down the concrete arena steps. With the heavy nature of the waka, there’s going to be no lifting – its literally going to be a drag.
At the back of the building there is a slightly uncomfortable clash with the landscaping of the overall area – the original Athfield Architects landscaping influences the rear approach to the building, and there is an alleged alignment of the Civic Square with Te Papa along a projected (future) bridge branching off the site of the City to Sea bridge. We can see from the colonnade of lamp posts that a grand processional avenue has been created – unfortunately, it appears to align with Roger Walker’s charming little toll booth building, rather than the mighty entry walls of Jasmax’s Te Papa.
Over time, no doubt this building will settle into the mindscape of Wellington’s waterfront, until it feels perfectly natural. While the siting next to the boat sheds is provocative, even edgy, and at an angle that suggests going for the prime spot by the waterfront is a good idea – and a great place for a late afternoon drink, it seems incongruous to me that there are slivers of green – presumably grass – terracing down to the edge of the sea. While the grove of Karaka trees nearby has now fully bedded in and is proudly an urban forest, the green of the lawn as a suburban blanket appears alien and superficial: although no doubt welcoming to lounge on at the edge of the lagoon. We’ll reserve further judgement on the building until we’ve seen inside.