Do we really need to heritage list any more of central Wellington?

Heritage NZ are currently consulting on Category 1-listing the Hannah Playhouse. Some bigwigs support it but guest poster Peter encourages us to oppose it in the consultation – open til 3 March

Much criticism of heritage listing modern buildings, particularly those of this architectural style, Brutalism, is rooted in architectural snobbery. This post is not about that: this building is great, and should be preserved. 

Great building.

However, I don’t think heritage listing will create the outcomes people want, for Wellington or this building, and the thinking around this heritage listing proposal is indicative of everything wrong with our heritage system. 

Do we want to lock in “Low Rise city”?

First of all, this is a relatively low-rise building is in the centre of a growing city. Our city planners are still wedded to the idea that the Te Aro and the Courtenay Place area of Wellington City Centre should be part of the low city, an idea based on what the city looked like in the 1980s. However, in the last 40 years the purpose of this part of the city has changed: There are fewer factories and warehouses, and more people want to live here, in dense, medium rise apartments.

Our city should be able to change to respond to the changing needs of our people.

In the context of a new district plan to enable more housing choices and density, should we really be making our decisions on the basis of the Wellington City Centre design guide, developed in the 1990s, adopted in 2000, and last amended in 2012?

The High city low city plan codified in Wellington’s city design guide

We should consider the tradeoffs of heritage listing – Heritage NZ won’t

While we may want to preserve this building today, I don’t think that means we need to decide – effectively forever, that preservation of this building is the most important thing to do with this site. Between Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (Heritage NZ) and WCC’s own heritage areas, a lot of the most valuable, accessible places in Wellington are already locked up as heritage buildings and heritage areas, and we need to be clear about the impacts of any decision to heritage list more of the city. But that’s thinking about tradeoffs, which are never part of heritage discussions.

L: all the buildings on the Heritage list  in central Wellington. Centre: WCC’s Heritage Areas in the district plan.
R: WCC’s absolutely bonkers map of heritage buildings

Heritage New Zealand’s empowering legislation means it does not have to face, or even acknowledge the trade-offs in its decisions to preserve buildings: Its Act is based on the idea that every building with heritage value should be protected. The only criteria it has to consider are heritage criteria. There is no acknowledgement that other values may compete with, or even outweigh the value of preservation. This attitude is on display in Heritage New Zealand’s submissions on the district plan, where they called for even more character areas in Berhampore, Mt Cook and Newtown because “Wellington’s character housing areas are a significant and valued resource, which form a tangible connection with our history, and confer a sense of place and identity” – there is no acknowledgement that we’re in the midst of a housing crisis, and heritage areas will make us unable to provide homes for people near the city center, where they want to live.  

Heritage Listing is based on slight, subjective evidence

To be listed Heritage NZ only needs to be satisfied that it “has aesthetic, archaeological, architectural, cultural, historical, scientific, social, spiritual, technological, or traditional significance or value”. Almost any building would meet this test, especially if it is fronted by a 44 page report glowingly reporting on its value.

Heritage New Zealand’s report identifies some of the standout features of Hannah Playhouse including its distinctive New Brutalism style. But it’s a bit weird to be so proud of the fact that in “a bustling commercial area with numerous… picture theatres, restaurants, coffee lounges and shops” this building was the only one that housed both a restaurant and a theatre. And, apparently, “it wasn’t successful” as a restaurant either. 

Definitely a landmark.

I’d also challenge the claim that it’s “a prominent and striking visual landmark in the Wellington city streetscape”. I’ve certainly used it to navigate around Central Wellington. It’s cool, but it’s a low rise building among low rise buildings. You can hardly even see it from more than a couple of hundred meters away. In contrast, love it or loathe it, the Majestic Center is a landmark. The Old Public Trust Building is a landmark. Hannah Playhouse is not. 

The report also notes a number of features that will feel depressingly familiar to anyone flatting in Wellington, including “unsympathetic” renovations and the fact that “Although double glazing was specified by the architect, economy resulted in the installation of single glazing”.

We need to get it right: It’s pretty hard to ever undo this decision

Heritage listing effectively forever prevents us from deciding there might be a better use of this site. It is extremely challenging to remove any item from the Heritage List. Unless it has been destroyed, the only way to remove a building is to prove that the building no longer meets the criteria to be listed. These criteria are a subjective, broad and an extremely low bar. 

Heritage NZ can remove items from the heritage list if they are demolished, or after a review of the heritage value. This information wasn’t readily available, but after an OIA request I was able to find out that in the last 40 years, and over 1000 listings, Heritage New Zealand has removed 39 entries from the heritage list following a review. None of these were category 1 listings, the category proposed for Hannah Playhouse. However, even that is an overstatement. Of the 38:

  • 13 are mining debris or old quarries that got onto the list as archaeological sites, 
  • three are individual postboxes (don’t worry, six more post boxes are still listed)
  • one is an old oven
  • seven were delisted because the building was relocated (some to unknown locations, while others have been relisted in their new locations)
  • seven were only removed so they could be re-listed as part of wider Category 1 listings
  • two are historic areas rather than buildings (Greymouth and Park Terrace in Christchurch, which lost most of its heritage buildings after the Earthquakes)

That leaves seven heritage buildings that have been removed from the heritage list, in 40 years, because Heritage NZ has reconsidered their heritage value.

Heritage listing isn’t even a good way to keep things working

I don’t even think this is the best way to protect this theatre. Heritage protection preserves the form but not the function. It cares about buildings, but not about the communities that use those buildings. It misses the wood for the trees. The Heritage list is littered with former banks, former post offices and former courthouses in small towns that have lost these aspects of their civic function, but which the town is forced to maintain anyway. 

In our big cities, local and central government fight to protect tram suburbs that haven’t had a tram in 70 years, hotels that haven’t seen a guest in over 100 years and warehouses that haven’t stored goods in living memory. All because of the “potential” to tell us about the past, or because a famous person visited it once. What about their potential to be useful buildings for people today?

In the worst cases our heritage system demands a building be expensively preserved as a monument for how things were, rather than contributing to how they could be. .Just look at Wellington Train Station where Heritage NZ has opposed wheelchair ramps, modern ticketing machines and even bike parking – things that would make the station work better – because they mess with the architect’s 1930s vision. How depressing that this 90-year-old building should represent “the culmination of the development of the railways in the Wellington Region” – If the 1930s were the peak of rail, what ambition and space does this leave for the future? LGWM has a goal of nearly half of people getting around by public transport, walking and cycling – and trains need to be able to be part of this.  Even minor required changes such as information screens and new signage required careful consultation with Heritage NZ to ensure the colours and designs didn’t clash with the 1930s aesthetics – this all adds cost.

My parents own this ruin in Otago. It’s the result of a hotel that burned down more than 100 years ago: It has spent three quarters of its life as a ruin. The tin roof on the hexagonal outbuilding needs replacing, the windows are all broken and none of the buildings are really safe to use as buildings. However, the ruin is now heritage listed, and an archaeological site to boot, meaning an archaeologist has to be in charge of any renovations. This means that it will never be affordable to use these buildings as buildings again. Heritage restrictions are effectively preventing a building constructed to be a hotel from ever being a hotel again. 

Heritage listing could be a curse for the actual theatre company

Heritage listing may just make it harder for Hannah Playhouse to stay as a theatre, because any seismic upgrades, repairs, refurbishments or any other work will end up needing to be done in a more sensitive way – pushing up costs. And it’s not like our arts organisations are swimming in money. Listing the building ignores that the important part of a theatre is the performances and the community of artists – not the box the performance happens in.

The Downstage Theatre Company, that famously occupied Hannah Playhouse for decades, didn’t close in 2013 because they didn’t have a theatre to perform in – they closed because they didn’t have enough money.

Theatre companies have a hard road as it is, without having to pass the hat even further for expensive building works

So, what should we do?

A better honour to the Downstage Theatre Company would be to revive it and continue its legacy of performances, rather than focus on preserving the building they performed in. If you want to preserve this theatre as a theatre, ensure it gets enough funding to stay a theatre full of actual live production. Push the powers that be to give them funding from Creative NZ, Lotteries, Council. You can support live theatre by donating yourself, directly, to places like the Capital Theatre Trust, Young & Hungry, Bats or Stagecraft, or production houses like Barbarian. Funding will allow performing artists to thrive, and the theatre to upgrade its facilities, employ staff and take a gamble on cutting edge shows.

Submission Cat in action

(Plus, don’t forget to have a say)

Here is the link to have your say on the proposal to heritage list Hannah Playhouse.

Make sure Heritage NZ knows that heritage is not the be-all and end-all, that it can’t just keep locking up more of our city. While public outcry might not be enough to stop the bureaucratic inertia in this case, it helps build momentum to question whether our heritage system is fit for purpose: is it doing what it was intended to do, and is it doing what we want it to do?

Are the actions of Heritage NZ contributing to the sort of city we want to live in, or are they holding onto a history that is no longer fit for the future?

Further reading:

Image credits:

  • Majestic Centre – Investec
  • Hannah Playhouse –
  • Pass the Hat play poster – Stonest Theatre

5 comments on “Do we really need to heritage list any more of central Wellington?”

  • Marko says:

    Superb and very well written. Maybe a follow up on how to reform the heritage system/Act?

  • Common Senser says:

    You could substitute Significant Natural Area for the word Heritage in this article and in many cases reach the same conclusion. Surely there is a place for balance, buildings do need to be useful and landowners should have agency within agreed parameters to use their land as they wish. The Gordon Wilson flats are a case in point, too expensive to repair so they sit empty going to wrack and ruin on a site that could potentially provide quite a lot of student accommodation. The current heritage settings do seem to encourage demolition by neglect. If the owner leaves things long enough they eventually fall down and salvage and recycle opportunities are reduced or lost altogether as in Shelly Bay.

    • Peter says:

      I agree there’s a place for balance, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I don’t think our heritage system is giving anyone the outcomes they want: either by placing excessive and unproductive restrictions on what people can do with their property, or not actually doing a good job of preserving historic buildings the community values.

      This is particularly the case when Heritage decisions seem to be increasingly being made without social license. Gordon Wilson Flats is a perfect example: No-one except a rarified coterie of architects and heritage professionals seem to think preserving it is a good idea. The University doesn’t want it and is under no obligation to maintain it. Our heritage system does seem to encourage demolition by neglect of “inconvenient” heritage buildings, and that’s not a good outcome, whatever your views.

      Until we fix the heritage system though, I don’t think there’s much point in adding more buildings to a system that we know isn’t working. Opposing listings such as this is one way to put pressure on decisionmakers (Ministers, Councilors, etc) to fix the system. Opposing the smooth operation of a bad system is the first step to getting it changed into a good system.

  • Frances says:

    Hi I am not sure if this article has it right. Heritage Nz only lists with full criteria. It is very important to have a range of older buildings to root us to the present. The number of buildings that have been already pulled down over the last fifty years is far far greater than the listed ones. Some perspective in your article is needed.
    Do you want to cancel heritage?

  • Zoe says:

    Thank you I found this article enlightening and refreshing. We can’t and shouldn’t make important decisions about spaces without considering what you are giving up. It is important to protect the past, but also to protect the future. Who is promoting those future citizens and their needs?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for our Newsletter

Unsubscribe any time.