Lambton Quay and The Terrace are two of Wellington’s earliest streets. Lambton Quay, originally known as The Beach, used to run along the narrow, muddy shoreline, while The Terrace (originally known as Wellington Terrace) ran more or less parallel along a line of steep cliffs that rose behind the foreshore.
Lambton Quay has always been a street of commerce, while The Terrace was where the gentlemen settlers built their residences. These days, The Terrace is occupied by office blocks and coffee shops, while Lambton Quay is lined with high street chainstores. With successive reclamations of land, the shoreline has long since disappeared from here. The only reminder is the slow sinuous curve of Lambton Quay, at odds with the orderly grids of the streets on its seaward side. And the cliffs, occupying the space in between the two streets, have disappeared beneath concrete.
The building over of the land in between the two streets at their different levels, has created a space of transition, a place of unexpected voids and intersections. In some places, the street is straddled by the same building, with a ground floor on Lambton Quay and a higher floor on The Terrace. But in other places, the space in between is a strange and seemingly unplanned juncture of buildings, driveways, car parks and bin storage with dizzying drops down sheer concrete banks.
The space in between is riddled with numerous pedestrian routes, linking the office workers on The Terrace with the shops on Lambton Quay. Some of these are official and longstanding routes – like Mason’s Lane, named after William Mason who had a blacksmiths shop at the back of the site, perhaps in the vicinity of where John’s Kitchen and Takeaways is now. This was originally a steep, slippery track through manuka scrub up to The Terrace. Nowadays it is a dark, dank passageway with steep and uneven concrete steps, covered in pigeon droppings and lame murals.
Farmer’s Lane, originally called York Lane, and then Tokio Lane (it was renamed Farmer’s Lane in 1942 for patriotic reasons), takes you on an even darker journey around blind corners beneath concrete brutalist overhangs, past humming ventilator shafts and wheelie bins.
There is more daylight in Woodward Street, built on top of the Kumutoto Stream (which I wrote about here). The spinning top sculpture at the top which looks like a giant drawing pin from some angles, is a reference to a vehicle turntable installed in the late 1970s before the street was pedestrianised, because it was too narrow for cars to turn in. Apparently motorists would reach out of the car window and pull on a rope to make it rotate. It sounds like a completely mad concept and I’d love to know what it looked like, but I’ve not been able to find any photographs.
Plimmer Steps is a route of plaques and memorials. At the bottom, you are asked to note the site of the Wellington Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Institute, which hosted both the first services of the city’s presbyterian church and the inaugural meeting of the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors. There is also a plaque commemorating John Plimmer, the self-proclaimed ‘Father of Wellington’, as well as the much-photographed statue of Plimmer with his dog Fritz, at the entrance to the steps. Further up is another plaque marking an oak tree supposedly planted by John Plimmer, and at the top is a brick planter with painted tiles depicting the Brig ‘Gertrude’, which transported the legendary man to Wellington in 1841.
On the site of the Athenaeum, is the imposing art deco Prudential Assurance Building. Heading up towards the steps, around the back of the building was a moribund supposedly Britsh pub called the Bull and Bear, but last time I went up there, it was being converted into a bar that looked altogether more upmarket. A tiered and and rather rickety-looking multi-storey car park rises up between the buildings here, behind an ivy-covered concrete wall that looks as if it has been roughly sheared off at an incomprehensible angle. A shaft of light comes through, that makes me think of Sunday School pictures of the resurrection. It looks unfinished, but it’s not clear what it was ever meant to be.
The concreting over of the space in between has created numerous other routes through buildings. Usually there’s an ulterior purpose, like the escalators that lead you through the Lambton Square arcade and food court. Or the lift in the Morrison Kent building that takes you from The Terrace to the floor of your choice in the Farmers Department Store. No less than four lifts take you from The Terrace to the shopping experience that is the Capital on the Quay arcade, including my personal favourite, the glass-fronted lift that whisks you down the front of the building.
Some lifts are clearly meant for public use, like the surprisingly busy lift that takes you from the James Cook Arcade on Lambton Quay up to the lobby of the James Cook Hotel where you walk past the bar, with the footage of a wood fire playing on a TV screen, past the reception and out onto The Terrace.
Some buildings, usually occupied by government departments or hotels, have ‘no through route’ signs on their doors, but in others, particularly those in multiple use, you can wander in and take a lift at random. There’s often a star on the lift button to tell you where to get out, but other times you have to guess, or if you’re not alone, casually ask your fellow passengers clutching their lunchtime packs of sushi, as if it has momentarily slipped your mind.
At the Fujiyama Cafe on Lambton Quay, once you have finished your enormous plate of noodles, you can take a door at the back of the first floor that leads out onto a stairway. If you keep going up the stairs, past Amarin Traditional Thai Massage, you emerge blinking through a standalone doorway at the side of a car park that leads onto The Terrace.
Despite all these pedestrian routes, the space in between is not really a space for pedestrians. As with other places in Wellington, pedestrians win by accident of geography, because they can go where vehicles can’t. Most of the routes are for people in the know, for occupants of the office buildings, in a grey area between public and private space that can be closed off outside office and shopping hours. Many of the public routes, like Mason’s Lane and Farmer’s Lane, take the notion of grim, univiting spaces to extremes – in a way, they are for people in the know too, people who are confident that they actually lead somewhere, and that desperate muggers are not lurking around their unlit corners.
Much of the space in between is in fact a reservoir of car parks. Many of the pedestrian routes and lifts provide access to car parking that is tucked into floors of multi-storey buildings, or stacked up in a convenient void. Walking along The Terrace, you pass one driveway after another. Gilmer Terrace, a dead end lane that runs into the space in between is almost completely dedicated to multi-storey car parks crowding in on each side of the narrow street. Guests at the Travelodge on the corner of the street have to edge their way down the side of a car park to get to the entrance.
Nosing around behind a groovy octagonal office building towards the end of Gilmer Terrace, I found an astonishing series of driveways leading to stacked carparks at different levels. I looked down a sheer drop and realised I was standing on the tiered car park looking down into the space behind the Prudential Assurance building and the entrance to what used to be the Bull and Bear pub where I had previously been looking up – a supposedly pedestrianised space abruptly overshadowed by the needs of motorists.
Page from a book titled Views of Wellington 1840-70, with a photograph of Lambton Quay, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-031083-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23063489
Lambton Quay and The Terrace, Wellington. Burt, Gordon Onslow Hilbury, 1893-1968 :Negatives. Ref: 1/4-018017-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23132482