Wellington Central Library recommended for top heritage status

5:57 pm on 10 September 2020

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga has recommended awarding Wellington's Central Library the top heritage status.

Barriers in front of Wellington Central Library.

The library has been closed since March 2019 after a report found its hollowcore floors were a hazard. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

If approved, it will mean the building becomes recognised as a Category 1 historic place. It would become the first building from the 1990s to be given the title.

It comes after an application to get the building listed was lodged by developer Richard Burrell last year. Burrell did so out of fear the building would be demolished.

The library has been closed since March 2019 after a report found its hollowcore floors were a hazard.

In its report, which is being published publicly tomorrow, Heritage NZ said the building was deserving of a Category 1 listing due to its significance as an eminent example of postmodern architecture, its value in being a consequential building for designer Ian Athfield, and its importance to the Wellington community.

Members of the public are being invited to have their say on whether they agree with the report. Following submissions, the final report will then go to the board at Heritage NZ, who will make a decision on which category it should be given.

Wellington Central Library

Wellington Central Library Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Heritage NZ's Central Region director Jamie Jacobs said: "We really want to hear what people think about Wellington Central Library.

"All submissions are really appreciated as they add to our knowledge of the library and how it is viewed."

'Wellington's living room'

In its report on the library, Heritage NZ concluded that it "possesses outstanding architectural significance as a highly esteemed postmodern building, employing classical architectural forms, historical references and varied shapes and materials to arresting effect".

In particular, the nīkau palm columns were singled out as "a symbol of the building as an institution ... beautifully rendered in lead, copper and steel with attention to detail evident in the ringed trunks, bulging crown shafts and featherlike fronds, all of which are true to life.

"More than mere columns, the nīkau palms are architectural sculpture, imparting strong aesthetic value to the building."

Dr Jacobs said: "The library is the centrepiece of Te Ngākau Civic Square and fulfils the design brief that called for an architecturally distinguished building.

"Winning three major architecture awards is testament to achieving that."

Beyond its architectural value, Heritage NZ also found the building had cultural and historical significance as a "repository of the city's intellectual heritage" and "a tangible expression of contemporary library design in the late 20th century".

The report also found the library's value lay in the designer, Ian Athfield, "one of New Zealand's most renowned architects of recent times, and represents the entry of his firm into the field of public architecture".

And it found further significance in its "social significance as a much-loved and visited institution", as "Wellington's living room".

What does it mean for the library?

The recommendations throw up questions for a prominent building whose future remains in doubt.

The library has been closed since March last year due to seismic concerns. The Wellington City Council is currently considering whether to strengthen the building or to demolish it and rebuild.

Public consultation on that ended on Monday, with oral submissions to be heard over the coming weeks.

Jacobs said: "Entry onto the (Category 1 heritage) list is an information or recognition tool and does not confer automatic protection."

"It does not directly create regulatory consequences or legal obligations on property owners, or create specific rights or controls over property."

However, it should complement the decision making, he said.

"The listing proposal report provides a wealth of information on the building and a detailed examination of its heritage values. It will inform the decision-making on the future of the building."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs