Should we hang on to our heritage buildings?

Photography by Andy Hansen

Denis is a retired Court
of Appeal judge. He is a
life-long Wellingtonian,
and these days a keen
reader and walker with
interests in history, the
arts and gardening.

Featured in Capital #89
Subscribe to get the
real thing here.

As Te Whanganui a Tara shapes its urban future, heritage is a contested notion. Denis Clifford explains why the value of heritage is not in opposition to our future.

Heritage, what it means and what its value (if any) is, are fiercely contested notions, nowhere more so than in Te Whanganui a Tara in the third decade of the 21st century as we try to shape our urban future.

Legislative recognition of heritage, and interpretations of the substantive content of these notions, are to be found in variations of the provisions of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014. The legislation continued the eponymous entity, and the role of the Māori Heritage Council and its kaitiaki; it is charged with promoting the “identification, protection, preservation and conservation of the historical and cultural heritage of New Zealand”. There is no definition in the Act of what constitutes the “historical and cultural heritage of New Zealand”. The role of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga is specified by reference to the defined terms historic places, historic areas, wahi tapu and wahi tupuna. And its first function is to itself identify, record, investigate, assess, list, protect and conserve all such places, and to support others with legal or equitable interests in those places to do likewise.

So, historic places and historic areas as defined in the legislation are to be seen as embodying the notion of heritage. With quite a degree of circularity, they are defined as land, including archaeological sites, buildings and structures, and inter-related groups of such places, that form part of the historical and cultural heritage of New Zealand. Which brings us to urban Wellington now.

There can be, I would suggest, no argument with the proposition that the Victorian and Edwardian homes of inner Wellington, be they mansions, double or single villas, terraces, – detached or joined, cottages, cribs, baches or whatever, collectively, and inter-relatedly, constitute historic places and areas. They are historic in the straightforward sense of originating in surviving from the past and reflecting values and circumstances that differ from those of the present.

Consider, as a way of experiencing the city today, places where Wellington’s earlier architectural heritage is extensively evident. Try starting from the grandeur of Oriental Bay, walking up the Oriental Terrace steps to Moeller and Hawker Streets and St Gerard’s, and on through sunny Mt Victoria, perhaps via Shannon Street, Pat Lawlor Close, Claremont Grove and Batham Drive to Queen and Elizabeth Streets. Or down Tasman Street, peering into the special Tainui and Ranfurly Terraces, through Upper Cuba Street to Te Aro. Walk slowly up the first 100 or so yards of Ohiro Road, noting number 45’s close relationship with the footpath, then round into Maarama Crescent and back down the alleyway through the early cluster of cottages that sits above the north end of Brooklyn Road and then up Aro Street itself. From 32 to 44 the clusters of cottages and then villas typify the area.

Tired? A short climb up Devon Street, just as far as the entrance to the turf at Wai-te-Ata Road, and then an almost flat traverse of Kelburn Park, and the lovely lane from Gladstone Terrace to Salmont Place, brings you to the Gardens, Anderson Park, Tinakori Road, the remarkable five-storied sextet (ma, pa and the kids?) of 298–308, the Western Park, the Wedge and its neighbours between Tinakori Road and Parliament, and finally Old St Paul’s and the Thistle. And everywhere, you will see Wellington treasures, homes that have been lived in by the people of this place now for 100 years and more. All the concentrations of early buildings are places where people love to walk and look, and pay dearly to live.

But so what? Those treasures are admittedly often are a bit, or more than a bit, run down: shady, damp, and yes, cold.

But, and as more people are recognising as time passes, they need not be. These mostly simply wooden structure, are relatively easily restored, often with recycled inputs, and warmed, and many can be extended. They are the inner-city housing that people value, increasingly, as a means to sustainable living, reducing commuting and car dependency. The trashing and dumping of the carbon stores they constitute, and the carbon-intensive emissions involved in their replacement with six-storied, efficient i.e. ugly and uncomfortable, replacement bunkers are both inimical to the principles of sustainability. If some legislated protection is necessary to tip the balance away from replacement toward preservation, then it is arguably worth it.

Many times over, I would say.

And the value of heritage per se? Looking to the past, and valuing the past, in this debate is often set in opposition to the need for, and the virtue of, living in the present and looking to the future. But we need to consider the nature of this present we are encouraged to live in, and recognize the unknown and unknowable dimensions of the future we are encouraged to look to.

The whakatauki Kia whatatomuri te haere whaka mua* speaks to a Māori perspective on time, where the past, the present and the future are seen as intertwined, and living as a continuous cosmic process. To lose the past, to forget it, to allow it to decay or to destroy it, is thus to impoverish the present and the future. The perspective suggests a useful corrective to the assumptions about progress that underpinned the architecture and design of the twentieth century and shaped modern-era urban environments and ways of life.

Wellington has a remarkable heritage of Victorian and Edwardian housing stock, having mostly avoided ill-thought-out, destructive urban “renewal” by sheer happenstance.

But that remarkable heritage is what we are on the verge of throwing away. If its destruction is not stopped now, the folly of it will become painfully clear in the future. Auckland now realises the folly of taking the trams away, and Wellington faces comparable realisations about the liveability of its city fringe.

If we walk forwards, but looking backwards, we can avoid that folly.

*I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on the past.


Sign up to our newsletter