Designing Wellington: making every brick count

Building a thriving town is about many intangible things – building confidence, building neighbourliness, building networks between people and organisations. But we shouldn’t overlook the obvious stuff too – like how we build actual buildings. Since the early days of Wellington H2A five years ago, amid all the booking of jazz bands and printing of leaflets, we’ve taken an interest in physical development around the town and in the impact it has. We see the creation of every new building (and the restoration of every old one) as an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. And as Wellington buildings go, they don’t get much bigger than the one we’ve seen sprout up in Larkin Way over the last 12 months – the new civic centre.

Comprising a new library, registry office, leisure facilities and space for 200 staff, this is a huge site by Wellington standards, and as you turn the corner into Walker Street from the middle of town you can hardly miss it. That’s why, when plans were first mooted three years ago, a few of us took such a strong interest in the proposed design.

The council’s first press releases and consultation forms came with an artist’s impression that didn’t give us much confidence – a big powder blue concrete box dropped incongruously into the town (on the edge of a conservation area!).

We argued that whilst the facilities it promised would be fantastic, the building as planned would sit awkwardly in its surroundings and, far from inspiring regeneration, could end being up another unloved eyesore in two decades time – just like the former tax office a hundred yards up the road. We weren’t asking for some lame pastiche of an old building with faux beams and leaded windows, but we did want one more resonant with its context – with shapes and proportions and materials that contributed to the streetscape and the town’s identity, rather than undermining what was already there.

Looking back, I think the way we made our views known was important. It’s always easy to say ‘we don’t like it’, but ultimately pretty unhelpful unless you make alternative suggestions. So that’s what we tried to do in a short report to the council. Reflecting on the existing townscape, and taking inspiration from similar new developments elsewhere in the country, it set out our thoughts on what the underlying design principles should be. It wasn’t written by architects or planners, just one or two people who had a clear idea of what could work (and who threw in some of the right technical jargon for good measure).

Frustrating though understandable, there were people who thought we were just nit-picking, and that the town should be grateful for whatever it was being offered. ‘Wellington needs something now!’ one town councillor told me. Something perhaps, but should that mean ANYTHING? Wellington was going to be stuck with this building, however it looked, for at least 40 years – surely it was worth taking an extra couple of months to get it right?

To the credit of the borough council, its architect, the then cabinet member and leader not only humoured us, but responded. They went away, took our ideas on board and came up with something that looked very different to their initial interpretation.

We weren’t completely sold on everything, but they came much closer than we expected. Over the months that followed, the design team continued to be receptive to our suggestions when many would have told us to mind our own business.

Now, as the finished article takes its place in the centre of Wellington, those of us who stuck our noses in three years ago are pleased with the result. It’s happily of its time, but also responds to its hotch-potch, historic setting. It’s dignified and confident, but not try-hard or shouty. Perhaps above all, its a bricks and mortar testiment to the fact that councils DO listen when you ask them to. We didn’t write angry letters to the paper lampooning them; we didn’t sit in meetings shouting at them – we just made our case and gave them a few ideas. Is this the way of the future in our age of ‘co-operative councils’? Hopefully so. And if it is, it’s something that we as citizens need to get used to as much as the council itself.