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Wellington Architecture: A Walking Guide by John Walsh


Wellington Architecture: A Walking Guide by well-known architectural writer John Walsh is full of fascinating stories about 120 significant central-city buildings, built over a century and a half, and the architects who designed them. Patrick Reynolds has artfully photographed them all.


It is divided into five very doable self-guided walks which last 2-3 hours, each with a map. A wide variety of architectural styles can be seen on each walk reflecting the fact that architects in New Zealand have been deeply influenced by changing architectural movements and styles overseas, although they did not slavishly copy them. When designing our public buildings, they had to contend with challenging conditions such as its windy climate and seismic vulnerability.


I know Wellington well having been to university there in the past and am still a frequent visitor as many of our family members live there. Although I am familiar with most of these buildings, I had never looked at them closely through an architectural lens. So, when in Wellington next we are planning a family expedition starting with Route 2: Te Aro Flat, which is close to my daughter’s apartment. John Walsh describes it as:


'An eclectic mix of styles from the early 20th century and the modern era. Included are hotels, religious buildings, and Wellington’s School of Architecture. It also visits the remnant enclave of Wellington’s China Town, and humanly scaled Cuba St, which over the last 2 decades has become the Bohemian centre of the city.’


A drawcard on this route for the foodies amongst us will be Moore Wilson’s Warehouse, designed by Athfield architects. Here the mystery behind a cracked boundary wall will be revealed (spoiler alert: it was a Post-Modernist prank to add a coda of seismic unease).


Athfield architects also designed the much-loved Central library, where they created an environment which is both relaxed and engaging and its much-admired colonnade of Nikau palms. But the seismic vulnerability of this building has proved all too real. It was closed in 2019 as it was considered an earthquake risk, which if the repair proceeds, will cost the city upwards of $200 million.


Although the commentary in this guide largely refers to the outside of these buildings, and their architects, some fascinating anecdotes about their social history are included. The Albemarle Hotel in Ghuznee St, designed by James Bennie in 1906, was the unofficial headquarters for the unionists during the 1913 Great Strike

Some architects came up with highly creative solutions. James Beard, faced with the challenge of designing The Hannah Playhouse (which he had to squeeze onto a tough, rhomboid-shaped corner) was inspired to design.


'Quite a rugged thing so they could do anything in the space and bash it about.'

The result, a seven-story Brutalist building with an asymmetrical roof to accommodate set changes.


Another astounding building on this walk is the contemporary multi-level gravity-defying skybox designed by Gerald Melling in 2001 for his own use which was somehow council approved.


Over time some of the buildings in this guide have been repurposed. The National Bank in Te Aro, an outstanding piece of classicism on Cuba street designed by Claude Plumer-Jones c1920, was converted to a restaurant in 1996.


The New Zealand Racing Conference Building was designed by the Structon Group in 1961. John Walsh writes that it possesses the power to delight to an uncommon degree. For us, an added attraction is that for the last 30 years its undulating verandah has sheltered the Lido Café where we will definitely be stopping off for coffees and a bite to eat.


I very much recommend acquiring a copy of this Guide. It is a great incentive to put your walking boots on and explore our capital city. Being pocket sized it is easy to carry with you.


Just a small cautionary note. Be prepared for some blustery weather and carry a raincoat.


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Massey University Press