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the author's sketch of the old library layout on a blue and orange gradient background
The old library’s best feature (Illustration: Sharon Lam)

SocietyApril 2, 2023

The future of Wellington central library – and what made the old one so good

the author's sketch of the old library layout on a blue and orange gradient background
The old library’s best feature (Illustration: Sharon Lam)

A refurbished, expanded and more earthquake-proof building is a still few years away. Can it live up to the impeccable postmodernist vibes of its predecessor?

A long time ago, my non-Wellington then-boyfriend was visiting the windy city and asked the barber what he recommended in town. “Dunno mate,” the barber replied. “Read a book?” That then-boyfriend soon left and never returned, while I stayed and read a book.

The barber was right. Free of distractions like MoMAs and theme parks, void of encouragements like reliable public transport or pleasant weather, Wellington is the place to read a book, and the central library was the Notre Dame of letters, until it too, was fated to elemental disaster. In March 2019 it was found to pose “a high level of potential failure” in an earthquake, and it has remained closed ever since, with the new design finally teased to the public last year. 

The potential seismic failure of a library was designed by Athfield Architects under the late Sir Ian himself, opening in 1991. It was a civic stamp of late postmodernism, which was perhaps the last time mainstream architecture had fun. Po-mo meant wacky shapes, bold colours, random wavy stuff, why not.

Athfield’s library was part of a larger Civic Square regeneration scheme in central Wellington, replacing the former library, which became the City Gallery. The new library had nikau palms as columns, a serpentine glass wall and electric blue carpet, all efforts to fulfil a brief of creating a “comfortable, accessible and stimulating” setting, instead of the serious formality of the previous library. It seemed to work – in its first year visits went up by 90% and borrowings by 50%. 

I loved the library immediately. It was a 21-year-old building by the time I first stepped inside – it was nostalgic, functional, unpretentious but creative. The café sold raisin cake and the soup of the day was declared in 48pt Times New Roman in a Perspex stand. The book selection was huge, the spaces were cosy, the energy was right. For six years I only read books from its shelves, and on Carin Wilson-designed chairs I worked on three university degrees, two theses, one novel, met the faces of friends and sought the ambient comfort of strangers.

The new design will be continued by Athfield Architects, as a refurbishment and expansion rather than a complete demolition and rebuild. The only glimpses released so far are a handful of renders alongside unhelpful descriptors like “iconic library space” and “vibrancy to our inner city”.

exterior view of the planned new wellington central library from civic square
Image: Wellington City Council

From the images, what immediately appears as good is the decision to drop the entrance from the square to ground level, bettering accessibility, and what immediately appears as bad is what local cult architecture blog Eye of the Fish describes as a curious new bed-side table on stumpy legs”. 

It’s unclear what will be inside the bedside table (passports? vibrators?) as there are no plans publicly released yet, and I had no luck contacting the powers that be. The best guess is this render, which shows the drawer host to some perfectly diverse, healthy-seeming characters sitting on buckets and some decorative books that are too high to reach.

artist's render of the new library featuring a bookcase with books that are too high to reach
Image: Wellington City Council

There will also be two new entrances from the City to Sea ramp and Harris Street, making for four in total – though without a full plan it’s hard to understand the overall circulation, and if that many entrances are really needed. Once inside, the previous escalators appear to be replaced with floating staircases and presumably, lifts. This could be a promising improvement – the old escalators would often switch around for some reason, tripping people in moments of autopilot, or just be out of order (although they did add a sense of mall-chic to the space), and the lifts were shushed away from the main circulation.

But the one thing that I miss the most, and see no trace of in the renders, is the perfect desk layout of the old library. Along the wavy glass wall ran a long row of desks, with bench seating snaking along the window side, and chairs on the other. Thus, the perfect working in public setup was created.

The bench side was perfect for when you didn’t want anyone seeing your screen (e.g. when committing the deeply shameful act of writing fiction), and the chair side was perfect for when you did want people to see your screen, the implicit pressure of strangers motivating for emails. The tables themselves were the perfect depth, you could sit with a stranger without being too close, but still close enough to shoot your shot, if so inclined. If I remember correctly, there were two floors with this double-sided set up, and by some magic, no matter how busy it got, a free seat would always emerge. 

the author's sketch of the old library layout
Diagram: Sharon Lam

The brief of the previous library was clear – to be a cool fun place in the 90s, goodbye to the stuffy old library of yesteryear, and Athfield did just that. But the brief of this library is much harder – the previous library never really failed, except in a hypothetical earthquake, and while getting a bit retro and scruffy it was still exceedingly popular, with 1.24 million visitors in its final year of opening. 

So far, the new design reads as a lukewarm marriage of old and new. Remnants of the previous library remain – the palm colonnade, the wavy glass wall, half the stock of the original chairs. The signifiers of contemporary architecture are there, too – try-hard chunks of angled metal on the outside, and well-meaning but tame light furnishings on the inside.

But design never goes as far as it wishes – so much of what made the old library a success was immaterial. It was the 8pm closing time, the allowance of outside food and the extremely welcoming staff. When it does reopen, the number of books will be halved, following international trends of libraries being less about physical books and more a sort of big educational multipurpose room, with board games, AV studios and crafting spaces, as seen in Christchurch’s Tūranga.

Will moving in this direction help the value in libraries? Does the modern library need a 3D printer? Or does it just need enough outlets for laptop chargers and permission to eat a sandwich? 

artist's render of the new library decor, which is overwhelmingly white
Image: Wellington City Council

Libraries are one of the only remaining places where you can exist in public, warm and dry, for free, guilt-free. I learnt to read in libraries and I will use them forever. I started writing this at a library, where the man next to me was elbow deep in loose leaf, the one legible scrap I saw reading “end of France”, and a glance at his computer screen showed the Wikipedia page for the Nazi Party. You cannot manufacture this enchanting milieu! 

It made me think of Wellington’s own questionable opus-writer, a stalwart figure in the old central library. Donned in hi-vis, they would write small lines into a thick notebook within a small desk fortress of books, seated almost always at the exact same table in a back corner of the first floor. Their deep focus came to be a reliable, enigmatic library presence.

The $188 million project still has another three years before reopening, and when it eventually does, if the hi-vis fortress figure returns, then we will know that the library is worthy. 

Keep going!