Monday 25 January 2016

More to Like

One of the many things I like about this city of Wellington - and one of the most unexpected - is the wonderful variety of building styles, most of which have a distinctive charm and lightness about them. Away from the compact and (as such things go) architecturally inoffensive city centre, much of Wellington is built of wood - this is earthquake country - and spreads out across a range of almost impossibly steep hills. The oldest of the wooden buildings date back to the mid-19th century, but they are still being built today in essentially the same style - a wooden core, usually of one or two stories, with pitched roofs and gables topped with decorative finials, prettily detailed verandahs and balconies galore, usually painted white (the default colour of New Zealand cars too), often with very English sash windows and equally English stained-glass inserts, and luxuriant roses in the small front yards.
 Houses of this general style can be tiny cottages tucked between buildings on back streets, or grand seaside mansions, or anything in between (those in the picture above are towards the upmarket end); the style is infinitely adaptable and perfectly suited to Wellington.
These charming wooden houses give a curious Wild West feel to parts of the city, and that is enhanced by the covered sidewalks - verandahs supported by elegant decorative cast-iron columns - of many shopping streets. I've never been to San Francisco, but Wellington reminds many of that other steep, quake-prone city.
 Generally speaking, the grander buildings of the city don't become very interesting until the Twenties and Thirties, the Victorian and Edwardian efforts being provincial English in style - but with a happy lack of heavy and monumental buildings (the earthquake factor again).
With the discovery of Art Deco and its more frivolous sister Moderne, Wellington architecture came into its own, finding a light, cheerful, decorative and streamlined style that would adapt to everything from office buildings to cinemas, seaside apartments blocks to public buildings (e.g. the splendid Central Fire Station). Happily Wellington is aware of what it's got, and there is an official Art Deco heritage trail around the best of these delightful buildings.
 More recent developments have, predictably, been in the direction of International Bland modernism, but so much remains of Wellington's abundance of likeable, enjoyable buildings that the city retains its unique look and feel. Long may it do so.

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