The stories told by spaces, Zachary Athfield

New Zealand’s Lost Heritage: The Stories Behind our Forgotten Landmarks
Richard Wolfe
New Holland, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869663872

New Zealand’s Lost Heritage: The Stories Behind our Forgotten Landmarks discusses 20 formerly intact New Zealand buildings, dating from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. From the outset and throughout, this book is a lament and a commentary on what a shame it is that these buildings are not now preserved and still with us. The introduction is philosophical to some degree and points out that buildings must, at times, perish, and also that developments may, in their turn, be thought worthy by future generations. But the pervasive tone is that these buildings are lost and that we should mourn and regret their passing, even be punished for permitting their demolition.

Wolfe adopts a melancholy tone that tends towards accusation: “if there is an afterlife, it would be comforting to imagine a purgatory where those developers and compliant demolition companies must spend eternity restoring, brick by brick, the buildings they destroyed”. Indeed, I had a vague sense that, as the reader, I was myself in a hand-wringing purgatory, being repeatedly admonished for living in a place where history is offered so little respect. I would rather this book had taken a more neutral stance and bore witness without passing that kind of judgement. Without dwelling on that, this book represents a collection of buildings and built environments with which to think about how to appreciate heritage and, indeed, to think about what our architectural and social heritage actually is.

Some of the buildings which Wolfe discusses were possibly more correctly machines – for war, making powder or telling the time. Others were built by great visionaries with wildly optimistic plans never to be realised. Others were buildings whose societies evolved away from them, I think, rendering them without their intended meaning long before they were eventually cleaned away in what must be thought of as a continual process of destruction and rebirth. Almost all of these 20 buildings required their own clearing of virgin forest, the reshaping of hillsides, or the demolition of previously existing buildings, to allow for their progress and construction. Some of these buildings were destroyed through fire, earthquake or the ravages of time, others were demolished to make way for progress and the construction of other buildings. This small and diverse selection of buildings is certainly representative of times and techniques that should be celebrated. Yet, in many of these examples, it is possibly far better that they are celebrated in books and as histories, rather than preserved.

Ruapekapeka Pa was a machine of war. I was intrigued by the beautiful and detailed drawings, and descriptions by British troops of the innovative planning, design and construction of this place. The purpose of this building was not to last, and a defensive structure is surely more compelling and less terrible in ruins than it is intact. This building was intended to be destroyed or to eventually be dismantled by the victors on one side or another. The fact that the victory was questionable and thus the earthworks remain may make this a more interesting historical site than it would have been as an artificially preserved relic. What really makes this site interesting is that, in its decay, we can see the passage of the story of the place: the route of the advancing forces is now the state highway; the dugout and the clearings with the views they would have obtained of the enemy; the absence of the ramparts which were burned by the colonial forces; the remains of space effected by these events. Perhaps the history to be celebrated is that which evolved in the empty spaces here.

Wolfe’s story of the reshaping of the Auckland harbour and the removal of a stately grounds and manor (belonging to John Logan Campbell) to allow for the reclamation of the port area and for the railway to access it, makes me wish to know more of the quality of what was lost. I wanted more photographs, letters of commission, stories from inhabitants, and design drawings to help recreate this place, now gone from the observable landscape. It is hard, however, to lament one house (or indeed many) too much, when the rail system which overlaid it is now historic and was responsible for countless equivalent wonders: some of the finest of the remaining historic buildings on the sites created are rail stations, post offices, arcades and port buildings.

These subsequent buildings have often remained because they have remained relevant and more or less functional. Sometimes this is because technologies and occupations adapt to buildings; other times, buildings must adapt to changing occupation. In either case, there should be a recorded history of the kind Wolfe attempts here. This record can be a valuable component in itself, but is most valuable if it can be applied to the future.

Some of the buildings featured should arguably never have been either built or missed. “The Admiral-less House” is possibly the best example of the wrong idea, for the wrong place: not wanted by the intended resident, with a short unhappy life of neglect, followed by a fire. This, and others, would indeed be treasured buildings had they survived. But the question remains – should they?  Should not history rather empower us to move on?

The Victoria Arcade had, by all accounts, a full life, was rich architecturally, and must have thousands of stories associated with it. I wanted to see more of them in this book. Its construction demanded “the removal of the existing buildings” (these would now also be treasured had they remained – but should they have?); its deconstruction made way for “a decidedly undistinguished Bank of New Zealand Building” (possibly a misunderstood expression of late modernism). “It would have been of some satisfaction to Alfred Smith’s Gothic Arcade that its replacement lasted a mere quarter of a century before it, too, was cast aside and superseded by the Deloitte Centre”, a larger office tower. This latest, let’s call it a built chapter, is decried because it retains only the facades of another heritage building (Jean Batten House), but this building will also have a life and a lifespan and will, I hope, also become historic, and then may itself be demolished (or, hopefully not, fall down disastrously) in its turn.

This evolutionary inevitability is acknowledged by Wolfe in the introduction to these chapters, but I think the collection spells it out only subconsciously. I’d like now to read more about New Zealand’s lost and obscured heritage and I’ll make a point of learning more about some of these buildings. I think we can leave the lament and qualify the judgement a little. Let’s celebrate the interesting bits and embrace the continual push and pull of heritage preservation, appreciation and creation. These cannot be mutually exclusive. I hope this book will encourage debate and stimulate more effort on developing diverse strategies for heritage appreciation.


Zachary Athfield is a Wellington-based architect.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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