The changing pace of heritage

In the first of a series of blogs by students at the excellent post-graduate Museums and Heritage Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Anna Abernethy reflects on Wellington Mayor Justin Lester’s recent announcement of his intention to reduce the deadlines for owners of earthquake-prone buildings to upgrade, or demolish, their buildings. 

Growing up in Auckland in the 1980s, I mourned the loss of much of the city’s architectural heritage. It seemed as though just as I had the joy of discovering a building it was torn down in a wave of fast-tracked speculative development.  (See the video of the demolition of HIs Majesty’s theatre in the 1988 here.)


If developments never eventuated, they were often left as carparks for many years. Of the heritage buildings that survived, they seem to me to be those that were perpetually occupied, a central part of people’s lives.

The evolving relationships of people and architecture, give me cause to ponder the proposal of Wellington mayor Justin Lester mentioned in today’s paper, in reaction to last week’s earthquake. The idea of reducing deadlines for earthquake strengthening could demonstrate strong leadership and a commitment to disaster risk management. But by the same token I wonder as to whether communities will have a better understanding of seismic risk if deadlines are reduced.  Will fast tracking encourage ongoing research on how all buildings preform in earthquake situations?  The need for this research was a crucial lesson highlighted by the Canterbury earthquakes.

The motivations behind Lester’s proposal are certainly positive, taking steps to reduce risks from disasters is crucial. The question to me is the timeframe, what will it take to fast track processes?  What allowance will fast tracking make for technical investigations? Should we be continuing to use land in the same manner?  Would it be more appropriate to direct current resources towards the development of building performance rating systems such as Quake Star?  Thinking for a moment about the modern buildings which have suffered in recent quakes, do standards need to be established for using base isolators on reclaimed land?

To look to the past the past for a moment fast tracking certainly left a scar on Auckland’s architectural landscape. Maybe the real question is not the timeframe proposed but the approach to heritage management.  When decisions were made around the rebuild for the Napier earthquake there seems to have been a clear vision, strong leadership and a partnership between local architects.  The Art Deco style was practical as well as in vogue and building codes of the time were rewritten to support sustainable architecture. Perhaps it is time to look again to our past to build for the future?

Anna Abernethy

Image: Halsbury Chambers, Louis Hay, Napier, 1932 (26 January 2005.) Photograph by James Shook, who retains copyright and releases the image under the Collective Commons license, shown here.

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