For most Wellingtonians, the Modernist Bowen State building is perhaps best known for the Ministry of Food, a haunt of civil servants seeking caffeine fixes and something to boost mid-afternoon blood sugar counts. In my case it is indelibly associated with wind and biking. The northerly whips around its southern flank and rushes up Bowen Street, where it commonly forces me to peddle hard just to remain upright on the downhill slope. Conversely, the same wind provides a welcome push back up the hill. So over the years I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with the building, cursing it as I struggle to get past it and praising it on the return run.
Over the last decade I’ve increasingly looked above my handlebars to the building itself and begun to appreciate its forms and detailing. The 10-storey structure is clad in a glass curtain wall with thin evenly spaced mullions. Projecting slabs delineate each floor and provide a strong horizontal line. The ground floor is recessed and features that pervasive Modernist motif: pilotis. The whole composition has a restrained elegance which subsequent government high-rises of the 1960s lacked. It has grown on me and is now my favourite Modernist Wellington office building.
It had opened in 1962. The Ministry of Works (under Gordon Wilson) and the prominent architects Jock Beere and Ian Reynolds designed the structure in the mid-1950s. It was intended as a foil and architectural companion to the low-rise Broadcasting House, opened the following year. A covered link foyer at the northern end of a sunny entrance plaza connected the two structures. However, the reckless demolition of Broadcasting House in 1997 severed this careful relationship.
The Bowen State building’s owner, Precinct Properties, recently announced new plans for the structure. In a similar vein to the Vogel Building makeover a few years ago, it would be given a new façade, be gutted of its internal fixtures, and be increased in size. In short, all visible signs of its Modernist origins will be erased. Until there is greater public appreciation (including architects) of such structures and a determination to preserve them, more of Wellington’s Modernist buildings will go the same way.
Still, I’m sure the wind will continue to circulate around the rebuilt building and its relationship with my bike and me will endure for some time yet.
The “My favourite modernist building …” series is in support of Gordon Wilson Flats which is facing threat of demolition.