In my last post, I wrote about the many pedestrian routes in between The Terrace and Lambton Quay, two roughly parallel streets at different levels in Wellington’s CBD. This space in between the two streets, which started off as rough manuka-covered cliffs of slippery clay, has been progressively built over since the 1840s, and now it is nearly all covered in concrete. It is a space of transience, where pedestrians move between offices, car parks, coffee shops, and sushi bars. Everyone is on the way to somewhere – to work, to appointments, to buy lunch, to the gym. It’s not generally a place where people linger.
And yet there are places where you can sit and drink your takeout coffee – some more pleasant than others. There are even gaps in the concrete where you can contemplate nature, both planned and spontaneous.
The largest areas of green space are right at the end, alongside Bowen Street. Here, there are a couple of patches of grass that dry brown in summer, one of which has a seating area recessed from the street. On the corner of this patch of grass is a group of elm trees, all that remains of the garden of ‘Elibank’, a two-storey wooden house that stood here in the second half of the 19th century. Elibank was the home of Walter Turnbull, a successful Wellington merchant, who arrived here from Scotland in 1857.
Among Walter Turnbull’s many children was Alexander, who over the course of his life amassed a huge collection of books, prints and ‘curios’, relating to New Zealand and the Pacific among other things. After his father’s death, with debt problems, a coke habit, and the need for a more suitable home for his collection, Alexander Turnbull sold Elibank, keeping a small portion of land to build a new home for himself and his library out of non-combustible brick. Sadly he died shortly after the Scottish baronial-style house was completed in 1918.
The house narrowly escaped demolition in the early 1970s and is now used for events, although it is currently closed for earthquake strengthening. Alexander Turnbull bequeathed his collection to the nation, and it has since been moved to the nearby National Library. Elibank was converted into a nurses’ home for the Bowen Private Hospital which was built in Walter Turnbull’s garden. Elibank and the hospital were eventually demolished to make way for the multi-storey blocks that now overshadow Alexander Turnbull’s house.
At the opposite end of the space in-between, on Plimmer Steps, stands another survivor from a garden – an oak tree which was supposedly planted by John Plimmer and is now in very un-garden-like surroundings. Next to the tree is a narrow passageway running between the Plimmer’s Emporium building and a multi-storey car park. At the back of the building is a small gloomy space, which is a sort of parody of a garden, with a bench and neglected-looking planters.
If you carry on around the building and back out to Plimmer Steps, there’s a small outbuilding with two toilets in it, doors hanging open and full of wind-blown rubbish.
There are neglected-looking planters all over the space in-between in unlikely places. These are mostly filled with indestructible agapanthus, dead or self-seeded plants. They look as if they might have been distributed all at once as part of a council beautifying project perhaps, and have long since been forgotten.
You don’t often see people sitting in the seats dotted around the space in between. Maybe they looked good in the architect’s drawings, or perhaps they were included to fulfil a planning requirement.
People have also made their own places to sit, for smoko purposes: upended crates outside doorways round the backs of buildings.
Likewise, plants have found their own places to grow, in cracks in buildings and rooftops, in spaces where the concrete ran out and in dark neglected corners wherever they are left alone.
You can of course linger indoors, in the shopping arcades. These arcades were seen as the future of shopping in the 1980s when many of the buildings along Lambton Quay and The Terrace were built. I’m not sure whether they have lived up to expectations. Most of them are too small for wandering through without a fixed purpose, unless you like looking into empty shop units. It seems strange that some even call themselves arcades, like the curving corridor that runs through Bowen House, home to a sushi place, the empty space that used to be Bennetts bookstore, and security scanners for those wanting to access the ministerial offices on the floors above.
I don’t often go into these arcades, but it seems to me that recently there has been an outbreak of places to linger in some of them, with cafes spilling their tables out into the wide echoing corridors. It feels odd to me, a pretence of street life in a pretend plaza. There are park benches dotted around the arcades too – places where you can sit without buying a latte, where you might watch people walking by or stare at the pot plants pretending you are in a real park.
Creator unknown : Photograph of the house Elibank, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-032297-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22324790