Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 2 (September-May 1951-52)
Notes on the Town of Wellington
Notes on the Town of Wellington
The art of making our surroundings agreeable to live in, and of expressing our feelings through our environment is not much thought about in New Zealand and certainly never practised. No doubt the buildings that surround us do express the way we live and something of what we feel, though we will leave the distressing questions ‘How?’ and ‘What?’ to some more appropriate time. What we want to talk about now is the result—the boredom of drab streets, the monotony of the dreary, meaningless variation, and the clamant jumble of signs and advertisements. Do we see them? No. Are we affected by them? Yes, indeed we are. As proof of this, think how the heart lightens and the eye brightens when we leave the town and step through the wharf gates to the docks beyond.
Here is interest, vitality and visual excitement. No drabness, no monotony, no advertisements. Notices are clearly written, well placed, and say what they mean pungently and with character. Here we can walk without fear of being run over and can look about and enjoy our surroundings. The only pity is that the walk stops at Taranaki Wharf and we have to go out on to the road again if we are to get to Clyde Quay and the boat harbour.
Compare the way the wharves and the streets are ‘furnished’. On the wharves, look at the variety of bollards, well shaped and fit for the purpose they, serve; at the handrails and balustrades, their intricacy setting off the simple shapes of the buildings. The wharves and their sheds encompass the ships and form quiet precincts for them. Notice especially Queen's Wharf, its rather formal character, like a Georgian square, mixed with present-day machinery and brightly-coloured coasting vessels. Here is the example to follow if we should ever replan our city: the quiet precinct with the calm water replaced by a grassed or payed court set with well-placed trees, the sheds replaced by shops with flats over, the whole relying on the form of the enclosed space created by these elements.
In Wellington there are no squares, no quiet precincts for the pedestrian, nowhere we can shop and have our lunch away from the wind and the traffic. Yet Wellington stands in a setting that rivals Stockholm, Genoa, Edinburgh, and even Athens. The difference between those cities and our capital is that they conform beautifully to the landscape, while our builders seem to have regarded nature as an antagonist to be constantly struggled against.
Let us emerge now from the tunnels of Wellington City streets and look at the town from a distance. Stand at the end of Oriental Parade. The eye is caught and carried in a sweep round the road and up to the Monastery. The Monastery stands on a spur which both sets a limit to the commercial part of the city and sets a scale for the rest of its surroundings, giving proportion to the distant view.
Now climb up to Mount Victoria, still using the Monastery as a measuring stick; the city with its harbour becomes a map; we can see the relation of each part to the whole. The chiaroscuro effect lends enchantment to the view, heightened by the delight of seeing and listening to the activity of a town from above.
Such pleasures would be all the more enhanced if the eye were first led enticingly to some view, so that it caught a glimpse of what was to come but never seeing the whole picture until the summit was reached. Outside New Zealand there are many examples: walk from the dock, winding up through the narrow snickets and alleys of Genoa to the churches overlooking the town; walk from the Art Gallery up through the streets to Edinburgh Castle, where there is a view back across Princes Street and over the city stretching away to the Firth of Forth and the docks; the magnificent beauty of the Acropolis, first reached through the noisy seething markets of Athens and the narrow streets of the old town. On the Acropolis the rest of the world is forgotten, and not until the Parthenon has been absorbed does the faint noise of a busy city reach the ears, leading the eye to the walls and the jumble of houses lying below.
Common to these examples is the feeling of attainment after the first enticing view, and the ensuing realization of contrasts in volume and shape that grant to the eye final and complete fulfilment.
We have in Wellington some of the fundamentals of this visual stimulation which need only the finishing touches of whitewash, colour, well-designed handrails, and street furniture. How different the journey from Oriental Bay through Roseneath to the lookout on Mount Victoria could be if the occasional focal point of church, house or tree were accentuated by good handrails and well-kept pavements! Then the continuing interest and pleasure provided by the changing road as it winds from one side of the hill to the other, bringing view after view, would help to lead us upward.
In the town itself. Plimmer's Steps, with small expense and little work, could become a pleasant short-cut to The Terrace. But at present weeds grow and a rough broken wall, which could easily be whitewashed, mars the final emergence on to Boulcott Street.
The small things that make up the town-planner's notebook (which range from road surfaces, kerbs, gutters and drains, to fire hydrants and telephone booths) are the finishing touches that can accentuate the forms left us by our forefathers. For the fine work given us by the railway and road engineers and the good placing of church and monastery are not enough by themselves. We must be continually aware of their value, and by every addition and alteration see that they retain their individuality and at the same time blend with their surroundings.
Wellington is hilly and precipitous. The town-planner is beset with problems, but it hasn't stopped roads and railways from being built. Consider the scenic drama of a train journey from Johnsonville or Plimmerton to Wellington, or one by car through the road tunnels of Hataitai, Karori and Northland with the changing level and sudden disclosures. If the tunnels were used as links between the different townscapes we could turn the changes in level to things of beauty, provided we understood how to use and know the materials we are working with. Also, Wellington is a port. The hub of its activity lies along the water stretching from Wadestown to Oriental Parade. From many of the streets of the town we are aware of the ships and realise the large part they play in our life.
With these factors in mind we can set about bettering our surroundings. By making use of the examples of clear simple design given us by the docks and the ships, we can enhance the qualities of Wellington to make it at one with its landscape.