Design Anthology - Asia Pacific Edition
A flâneur is an urban explorer — a connoisseur of the street. In our rotating column, guests share their musings, observations and critiques of the urban environment in cities around the world. In this issue, Hong Kongbased Wellingtonian Elizabeth Beattie
Just before leaving my home town of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, to move overseas, I took a walk to the Mount Victoria lookout. This was always my favourite Wellington walk for its wise old trees and abundance of flowers, but also because it shows the whole maze of the city, and it always reminded me how small the city is, despite how big it once felt.
In Māori mythology, the North Island of New Zealand is a large fish, caught by the demigod Māui. Wellington Harbour and Lake Wairarapa are the fish’s eyes, and the Remutaka, Tararua and Ruahine mountains its spine. Even now, the region’s rugged geography has an untamed wildness to it.
In the city itself, much of the street life falls around the thoroughfare streets and intersections that crisscross the city, and because of its compact nature, many people get around on foot rather than by car. The area around Cuba Street is probably the most iconic location, home to galleries, bookshops, restaurants and cafes. The street is also home to one of the city’s most controversial figures: the colourful, clumsy and erratic Bucket Fountain, designed by architect Graham Allardice of Burren and Keene and built in 1969. It used to bother me, as it does many Wellingtonians, but when I last visited the city, before the pandemic hit, I found its outsized personality somewhat endearing (a recent cameo in a local TV show saw it portrayed as a portal to hell).
In the 70s and 80s, Vivian Street, which crosses Cuba Street, became Wellington’s red-light district and a hub for the city’s LGBTIQA+ scene. Today, pedestrian light signals bearing the likeness of drag queen and activist Carmen Rupe mark the historical passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act, serving as a reminder of the activists’ hard-won victories.
Veer left at the bottom of Cuba, through Manners Street and onto Willis and you’ll land up in the CBD. Wind is a constant in Wellington, and on particularly gusty days, rubbish bins here are crammed with broken umbrellas. Staying on course will lead you to Lambton Quay, passing the historic Old Bank Arcade, today a retail space and coffee spot. It’s not lost on residents of this quake-prone city that many of the heritage buildings possess heavy, even deadly, ornate protuberances.
Keep walking and you’ll eventually reach the executive wing of New Zealand’s parliament buildings, better known as the Beehive — a Brutalist edifice designed in 1964 by Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence and refined by government architect Fergus Sheppard. Surrounding it is a large lawn where people picnic and protesters gather.
Indeed, the city will need to heed calls for change if it is to meet the challenges it currently faces, such as accommodating a growing population by increasing residential density and, with heritage housing stock prone to damp and other issues, balancing what is worth protecting and what isn’t. Another is harnessing the ideas, energy and perspectives of returning New Zealanders as the pandemic draws bright minds to the capital, whether to shelter or live long-term. But if history reveals anything about my home city, it’s that its face can change while its character remains very much intact.