Some thoughts on the recent exhibition held at Wellington Museum, Immersive Legacies: 320 The Terrace, by Wellington heritage professional Cherie Jacobson.
After visiting 320 The Terrace, Wellington, I felt a bit unwell. Not because of its very sorry state, which is enough to make anyone who appreciates its architectural and historical value feel quite ill, but because I’m not used to flying up stairs and walking into walls. To be fair, I had been warned that the visit might give me motion sickness, but it’s hard to comprehend how that’s possible until you’ve actually experienced it.
Of course, 320 The Terrace (also known as Gordon Wilson Flats) has been closed to the public since May 2012, so I hadn’t physically set foot on the property at all. My visit was made possible by Virtual Reality (VR) technology and the exhibition Immersive Legacies: 320 The Terrace at Flux, Wellington Museum, from 19 October to 3 November 2019 as part of Wellington Heritage Week.
Immersive Legacies was created by postgraduate students and staff of the Faculty of Architecture and Design at Victoria University of Wellington. It was promoted as ‘an interactive exhibition that explores how New Zealand’s heritage can be captured digitally and disseminated through various evolving digital technologies such as Virtual Reality, 180° spherical projections, and 360° videos.
Advertising for the 2019 exhibition
The exhibition journey
As an exhibition, Immersive Legacies was well-presented and engaging. The first section used text panels, images, plans and objects to explain the history of 320 The Terrace, as well as the process used to create the exhibition’s VR experience. A scale model showed the building’s original colour scheme and enabled viewers to appreciate the western elevation not visible from the The Terrace. Other scale models showed the three different internal configurations of the maisonettes (small flats) inside the building.
The scale model built for the exhibition, showing the main elevation and rear of the building
The second section of the exhibition was a dimly lit area with a 180° projection of footage taken from a camera moving through the building in its current state. Standing in the centre of the curved screen onto which the footage was projected encouraged a feeling of travelling with the camera and having the same sightlines as walking through the building, looking both straight ahead and side-to-side. However, it was quite a slow journey dictated by the footage, so if, like me, you were eager to get to the VR section where you could control your path, the 180° projection probably didn’t get the attention it deserved.
The layout of the exhibition built anticipation for the VR experience, moving from text-based introductory information, to the 180° projection as a kind of ‘warm-up’ to experiencing the interior, then the area where three headsets offered three different VR experiences. Each headset was on its own plinth behind a small square marked on the floor for the headset wearer to stand in. Instructions for how to use the handheld controller connected to the headset were given and an exhibition attendant was on-hand to assist users and make sure they didn’t move beyond their square and bump into furniture or other users.
One headset offered the user the opportunity to ‘fly’ through and around the building, to see it from all angles. Another showed the interior of each of the three internal configurations and the handheld controller enabled the user to switch between a very basic ‘as new’ rendering of the interior and real images of the current state of the building with all the vandalism and deterioration it has suffered. The third headset presented a site office with information about the construction of the building (like its own little VR exhibition within an exhibition) and the controller allowed the user to switch between different stages of construction and watch the building rise up out of the earth. You can see some clips from the experiences in this YouTube video.
I really enjoyed the fly-through experience which gave a sense of the scale of the building and its overall layout, but the highlight for me was getting to see inside the three different maisonette configurations – a studio, a one-bedroom flat and a two-bedroom flat. The organisation of the two-storey maisonettes is one of the rare and important heritage features of the building.
A voiceover that accompanied this experience provided information about the history and features of the building which was useful and interesting, but sometimes the concentration required to use the VR technology meant the voiceover became more background noise than complementary commentary.
A view of one of the kitchens, through the VR headsets, depicting the current state of the flats.
The ‘as new’ renderings were useful in that they presented the spaces without the distraction of the contemporary graffiti, broken windows and damaged walls and fittings. However, it didn’t feel as if the ‘as new’ rendering was true to the interior décor of the late 1950s, particularly the furniture. Perhaps this wasn’t the intention and the furniture items were merely there to help provide a sense of scale in the rooms.
The flats did seem quite small, particularly the children’s bedroom in the two-bedroom configuration. However, as someone commented while I was at the exhibition’s opening, ‘Most people didn’t have quite so much ‘stuff’ in 1959 as they do now’ and as we see with the Tiny House movement, there is a shift away from the ‘bigger is better’ school of thought in housing. Plus, if I really needed an affordable place to live and I was offered a place that had been newly built or restored to be warm and dry, where the city’s parks, waterfront and cultural institutions could be my backyard and living room, I don’t think I’d be quibbling over square meterage. People live and raise families in apartments of all sizes all over the world – the New Zealand quarter acre dream is just that, a dream and not one shared by all.
The opportunity to try out VR and move through an all-encompassing 3D digital world as part of Immersive Legacies felt very novel and exciting. While we may regularly hear about VR technology as something that offers a whole new world of possibilities in all sorts of contexts, it’s still not commonly accessible. I had only experienced it once before in 2016, at a Francis Bacon retrospective at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum where visitors could put on a VR headset and find themselves inside Bacon’s (very cluttered) studio.
The VR aspect of Immersive Legacies meant the exhibition could have appealed to some visitors purely on a technological level, regardless of the content. However, as someone with a strong interest in architecture and built heritage who is also very nosey, I loved the chance to ‘see inside’ Gordon Wilson Flats. Having read about their history and followed the debate over their future, I was curious to see the flats’ different internal configurations and to try to understand why they may or may not be suitable for contemporary use if the building was strengthened and restored.
An inherently political exhibition
For all the insight and access Immersive Legacies provided to 320 The Terrace, there was a huge amount left unsaid, which, for anyone who knows even a little about the property’s current situation, says a lot. Immersive Legacies was an inherently political exhibition essentially created by the owner of 320 The Terrace – an owner with a vested interest in the project as a ‘showcase [of] how digital technology can help document New Zealand’s architectural history’.
As a quick recap, the Gordon Wilson Flats were designed as high-density inner city social housing by Government Architect Gordon Wilson, who died before their completion in 1959 and for whom the building was named. Built during a housing shortage and a period of economic recovery in New Zealand, the building’s design was influenced by Modernist European social housing, such as Le Courbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille.
In May 2012, an engineer’s report ‘identified the need for urgent remedial work to large concrete panels on the building’s exterior facade’ and residents were given a week by Housing New Zealand to vacate their homes, ending more than 50 years of social housing at 320 The Terrace. In 2014 the site was purchased by Victoria University of Wellington for an undisclosed sum and has since sat untouched, surrounded by high metal fencing and falling further and further into disrepair.
One might think that the flats would make great student accommodation, something that has become more and more expensive and harder to secure in recent years. But the University seems to have other plans for the site, seeing it as a potential ‘gateway’ to the Kelburn campus above and a possible location for science and engineering facilities. The Flats are not on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero, but they are on the Wellington City Council’s District Plan – only as the result of a battle to keep them there. You can read more about the heritage values of the Flats in our previous blog post by Ben Schrader.
None of this is covered in Immersive Legacies, but in speeches at the opening of the exhibition, much was said about the potential of technology to preserve built heritage in a new way for future generations to experience, learn from and enjoy. The subtext I interpreted was: times change, cities need to grow, and if you have a VR version of the Flats, why would you hold on to the real thing which is derelict and would require a huge investment to refurbish?
I’d like to know more about the decision to refer to the building predominantly as 320 The Terrace rather than Gordon Wilson Flats, particularly in the exhibition’s title. Before visiting the exhibition, if someone had said to me, ‘Let’s go to 320 The Terrace’ I wouldn’t have had any clue where exactly on The Terrace that was. But I definitely know where the Gordon Wilson Flats are. It seems like a subtle way to encourage thinking of the site more as a property with a historical structure and less as a purpose-built building that still exists today with a strong architectural and social history. A game more than a bricks and mortar reality. Granted, most Wellingtonians might be more familiar with Gordon Wilson Flats as the so-called ‘ugliest building’ in town, although maybe they wouldn’t say that if they saw its excellent original colour scheme.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Immersive Legacies: 320 The Terrace. It was fun to experience VR and I was pleased to get the opportunity to see inside the Gordon Wilson Flats. But mostly because it was my only option to do so. I got a sense of their amazing location right in the city, the light the many windows would provide, the view from the upper levels. I felt very sad seeing how badly they have been destroyed by vandals and lack of maintenance.
But it’s just not the same as visiting a real building, seeing the little details for yourself, pausing to appreciate what catches your eye. A few months earlier I visited Chevening during an open day for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga members. I can imagine what a VR experience of those apartments might be like and it wouldn’t come close to the real thing – for one thing, VR is an individual experience, you can’t interact with other people as you walk around and share observations or enjoy social interaction. Buildings are about people in so many ways and I didn’t see any during my VR experience.
Plus, a big question I’m left with is what happens when the technology becomes dated, which it will do quickly. If Gordon Wilson Flats are demolished next week and all we have is this VR experience and the data collected to create that experience at this moment in time, how useful will that be in 50 years – or even ten? How long does an ‘immersive legacy’ really last for?
Images of the exhibition are taken from the exhibition’s VR experience, reproduced on Youtube. Other images taken by Cherie Jacobson.