The Kaori Teacher’s College campus is a complex designed by the celebrated Wellington architect, William Toomath, between 1963 and 1977, and is considered to be the best ensemble of Brutalist architecture in New Zealand.
It isn’t just Toomath’s individual buildings that are significant – there is considerable architectural significance in the coherent community of buildings on the 8-acre site. Architectural historian Christine McCarthy has written that the careful positioning of the buildings on the site provides ‘a spatial experience’ which is ‘crafted across interiors, exteriors and landscape to create unexpected and pleasurable moments’. The complex is also interesting for its use of concrete in a multitude of different ways in order to provide visual complexity – giving, as McCarthy has written, a richness which is ‘tactile as well as visual’.
The sky bridge, suspended amongst the trees
The school has also an important social history significance as the place of training teachers in Wellington for more than four decades. Furthermore, facilities on the site have been widely used by the community for many years, including since the university ceased to be based there, so there was high interest amongst the Karori community to find a solution that would keep the buildings in community use, an idea supported by some city councillors.
The sale of the site by Victoria University this week has brought the possibility of future public ownership of the site to an end. The site was sold to the retirement village operator Ryman Healthcare, in order to build a retirement home which will include independent and serviced apartments, as well as a care centre. Ryman have said of the site that ‘it will continue to be a significant community asset for the city’, but of course it is of course too early in the process for Ryams to have made clear how much of the campus buildings and surroundings will be retained, or whether any community access will continued to be provided.
For many heritage groups, the survival of the complex is crucial. The Architecture Centre, an organisation of architects, artists, designers and others with an active interest in the built environment of Wellington, has long argued that the buildings are well-placed to be adaptively reused as housing, and that since the complex is ‘incredibly well-built (apparently it meets 100% seismic code) … it would be a shocking waste (in terms of sustainability and common sense) to demolish it’.
Likewise, Ben Schrader, speaking on behalf of Historic Places Wellington, an independent lobby group working for heritage preservation, has urged that the new owners ensure that as much of the existing fabric of the Modernist campus be retained. He said ‘its wholesale demolition would be a huge cultural loss for this city and the country. Modernist architecture is presently not a universally loved style. This mindset will almost inevitably shift as it has for earlier architectural styles. We are sure that future generations will value Modernist buildings both for their architecture and for what they reveal about twentieth century New Zealand life.’
Schrader says that the organisation therefore exhorts the new owners to seek the adaptive re-use of the existing buildings on the site: “We’re sure that conservation and other architects could come up with new plans that could imaginatively meld the old and the new. This could be a big win both for Rymans and the residents who will make the place their home”.
Unfortunately, despite its significance, the site is not on the Heritage New Zealand List of Heritage Places, nor is it on the Wellington City Council’s district plan as a heritage item.
Claire Craig, Deputy Chief Executive at Heritage New Zealand, said that while Heritage New Zealand has not yet formally recognised the campus, it has received two nominations for listing and is currently assessing the value of the campus. Prior to the sale, she said, Heritage New Zealand also worked with Victoria University of Wellington and the sites prospective purchasers to ensure that the values of the campus and the extent of their adaptability has been fully appreciated.
The result of the Heritage New Zealand’s list nomination will inform any future consideration of changes to the City Council’s District Plan list, but such consideration could be some time away. Unfortunately, both processes can be long and complex.
It seems to me that there is a real opportunity resting within the existing fabric of the campus. As well as to preserve the buildings, and the spaces between them – taking advantage of the potent idea of an already living and breathing campus – it should be possible to ‘bring the Karori community in’ to the retirement village. Allowing the community to continue to use some of the spaces and buildings would assist the retirees to remain an active part of the suburb that surrounds them, providing much benefit to both groups. The challenge for Rymans and their architects is to use care, imagination and creativity to make the most out of the beautiful brutalism in Karori.
Source: Christine McCarthy’s essay on the buildings in Long Live the Modern: New Zealand’s New Architecture (edited by Julia Gatley), p200. Images: Elizabeth Cox and Vivienne Morrell (Historic Places Wellington). For more of information about the site see the Architecture Centre’s information. This essay has focussed on the future of the site, rather than the previous discussions about its controversial sale. If you are interested in those discussions, you could start here.