6 Jul 2020

Heritage NZ considers listing Wellington Central Library

11:50 am on 6 July 2020

Wellington Central Library may be in line to become a listed heritage building.

The building was shut down last year when an engineer's assessment deemed it earthquake prone, and no decision has yet been made on its future.

Last month, the council expressed a preference to repair and strengthen the building rather than demolish and rebuild it.

But no option has yet been chosen and fears the building might be demolished spurred a developer to file an application to Heritage New Zealand for it to be listed.

Heritage New Zealand is putting together a report which will go to the board later this year.

Scaffolding by the metal nikau sculptures of the Wellington Central Library building.

Scaffolding by the library's metal nikau sculptures. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Why do people find the library so special?

The Central Library - an impressive example of post-modernist architecture, designed by the late Ian Athfield - now stands empty.

With its curving walls and towering nikau palm sculptures adorning the facade and contrasting with the austere Victoria Street frontage, it had been Wellington's most popular building, attracting some 3000 visitors a day.

For developer Richard Burrell it is "Athfield's most important public building."

"It's the hub, and the social use that it's been put to in the last 20 to 25 years, is all part of the Civic Square."

The importance of the building and fears it could be demolished led Burrell to lodge the application with Heritage New Zealand.

As soon as it was indicated demolition was an option "we immediately moved into action," he said.

"[We] employed a heritage architect to do a heritage assessment on the building, and lodged it with Heritage New Zealand."

The 30-year-old building is by no means the oldest in the capital, but age is not the only factor Heritage New Zealand considers.

"We measure against whether a place has aesthetic value, architectural value, it might have archaeological significance," area manager Karen Astwood said.

"It could be a place of historical importance, it might have social value, scientific value, cultural value, technical value, traditional value, all those types of things are taken into consideration.

Dr Ben Schrader - an urban historian - believes it's those social and cultural values the library has in spades.

"It's often been called the living room of Wellington," he said.

"There were few places in the city that attracted that diversity of city residents: in terms of it being a social hub but also its cultural values, [and] in terms of the ideas and the intellectual heritage embedded in the library itself."

Barriers in front of Wellington Central Library.

Barriers in front of the Wellington Central Library. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

What happens next?

While there's no a guarantee the library will get a heritage categorisation, Astwood said she had never known a case where a building was assessed and had not received one.

The question would come down to whether it was made Category 1 or Category 2.

With the library, there is a rich source of archival material which can be tapped into. Putting together a story for the library to help with the report would be no trouble, she said.

On 21 July a consultation document will be put to the public to help the council make a decision on whether to strengthen, demolish, or de-centralise. Though the council has expressed a preference for strengthening - all options remain on the table, including demolition.

Burrell has threatened to take the council to court if they decide to bring down the building.

Councillor Iona Pannett, who handles the heritage portfolio, said while a heritage status did not give the building any formal protection, it would be considered.

"Heritage New Zealand has no legal authority to stop or to ask for a building to be protected.

"But look, I've worked with them for a very long time and I've got a lot of respect for them. If they say that a building is of special significance, that does need to be taken into consideration."

Wellington Central Library

Wellington Central Library steps leading into Civic Square. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

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