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Wellington's Gordon Wilson Flats Remain Heritage Listed

Gordon Wilson Flats to remain heritage listed

The Architectural Centre is thrilled that the Environment Court has upheld our appeal against Plan Change 81 which proposed to delist the heritage building Gordon Wilson Flats in order to facilitate its demolition.

"Gordon Wilson Flats is a hugely important building in New Zealand's architectural history. It is a rare example of high-rise social housing built under a National government, and was at the leading edge of progressive post-war architecture. It is one of only two such buildings in the country and reflects an important part of our social housing history" said Christine McCarthy, President of the Architectural Centre. "We hope that with this clear statement about the importance of the building's heritage value that the Gordon Wilson Flats will be given the TLC it deserves."

The decision (attached) noted that the appeal process had:

"provided information that raises the heritage significance architecturally, socially and technically ... of the GWF. Rather than diminishing the building's heritage value ... it has in fact strengthened the reasons for it to be listed" (at [51]).

The decision also noted that:

"It seems to us that in a time of apparent scarcity of social housing in Wellington and the increase in the level of homelessness reported in the media that great care should be taken before demolition. The fact that the proposed use of the site (post demolition) is the creation of a park/green space and a strategic land banked asset by Victoria University for some yet unidentified Victoria University purpose further strengthens our view" (at [55]).

The Gordon Wilson Flats is a memorial to possibly our most important government architect. Gordon Wilson was an advocate for improved living conditions who facilitated innovative housing designs during a time which parallels our own present housing crisis. He is one of our country's unsung architectural heroes. The flats were one of only two high-rise state housing blocks built to the same design under a National government. The other National government high-rise state flats is Upper Grey's Ave Flats in Auckland. The design of the building drew from progressive international architecture including Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles, and was contemporary with the London County Council's famous Alton West slab block housing. The Gordon Wilson Flats is an early, if not the first, use of mechanically-ventilated internal bathrooms in domestic architecture in our country, and a rare example of maisonette planning in New Zealand. These are two-storied flats which were considered to create the impression of living in a house, as distinct from living in a flat.

The building is also technologically-significant. Its foundations are thought to be nationally unique, and the way it was diagonally-constructed was also a first in New Zealand. More significantly, Gordon Wilson Flats was the first fully-instrumented building used in seismic research in the country. The WCC proposal earlier this year to instrument buildings to better understand their performance during earthquakes is an idea which can be traced, in this country, to the scientists of the Dominion Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) Laboratory who tested the seismic characteristics of Gordon Wilson Flats in similar ways.

While years of deferred maintenance means that the facade needs significant repair to prevent the cladding from falling off, the building was well made, as was typical of the Ministry of Works, and the main structure of the building is sound.

Gordon Wilson Flats is a large presence in our inner-city landscape. According to the WCC's first heritage inventory in 1995, it contributed to establishing a new urban scale. The architecture of its post-war modernism is gaining appreciation around the world as representing a brave new world which pro-actively engaged with 1950s housing shortages and aimed to curb the problems of urban sprawl. Gordon Wilson Flats is a valiant architecture which represents New Zealand's assertive engagement with important social issues. The Architectural Centre supports its retention because it is an important heritage building which if repaired can provide much needed inner-city housing.


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