The Architectural Centre is a group of (mainly) architects, established in 1946 to promote their vision for a modern city. Wellington in 1946 was not a modern city – but was ripe for redevelopment. Since that time they have worked to influence the development of Wellington in a particular direction. As well as architecture, their vision encompassed design, arts, craft, and industrial design, with the various strands fluctuating in their importance from time to time.
The Centre has undertaken many activities, from writing position papers, forming a manifesto (although that took 60 years to crystallise), promoting education, presentations, and debate, to hosting exhibitions and campaigning for political influence. They also published a magazine on design topics, and built a demonstration house. I’m no expert, but would categorise their approach as strictly “modernist”.
The membership of the Architectural Centre has fluctuated, but is around 200 members. They may only have built one “demonstration house”, but their mission was, and is, to teach and persuade the planners and builders, politicians and residents of Wellington, and their influence on the city has been profound.
The modernist approach couples urban planning and architecture with visual arts, crafts, graphic design and even industrial design, and the Centre did not neglect these. And it isn’t always buildings: one line of the Centre’s Manifesto is “Fresh air is better than some buildings”. Open spaces, and of course Wellington’s hills and harbour, are all part of the picture.
Many activities came and went, but the focus has always been on planning. Planning to improve the urban environment, making it liveable as well as well-designed. They have had a profound influence on the development of Wellington city since their foundation – mostly in the CBD.
Gatley and Walker have focussed on the 1940s to the 1990s, highlighting the enormous changes to Wellington in that time. I lived in Wellington in the 1950s and 60s, and along with most citizens believed that the only plan was to maximise profit by throwing up glass towers on any scrap of land. The authors do a great job of describing and reporting on the principles that underlay the enormous changes that Wellington − particularly the CBD and waterfront − went through, and why glass and steel towers came to be. This reader is disabused! (The one shown is a 1970 shot of the BNZ tower being erected, taken from Lambton Quay.)
The authors are both academic architects, and the book includes contributions from art historian Damian Skinner and Justine Clark, an independent architectural editor, writer and critic. The authors take a basically chronological approach, with discursions into design topics and broader issues. As well as the activities of the Centre, they chart the forces driving the development of the Wellington CBD during this period of rapid change.
The writing is crisp and clear, and accessible to those of us who are not architects or planners while still being unmistakably the work of academics. The physical book itself is a very well-produced hardback, on high-quality paper with many photographs. It looks great.
While not a mass-market volume, this work is important. And it fills a gap – Wellington has not been as prominent in the history of architecture as might be expected. Of course it will mainly be of interest to architects, designers and town planners, but current or former Wellingtonians will get something out of it as well.
Reviewed by Gordon Findlay
Vertical Living: The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington
by Julia Gatley and Paul Walker
Published by Auckland University Press