Buildings are a way of communicating a place’s identity, and the image it wants to project, both to inhabitants and outsiders. Towns and cities changed as buildings were constructed or demolished. However, from the 1980s a growing interest in historic preservation meant that constant rebuilding was no longer accepted as inevitable.
Buildings as progress
Buildings – their height, materials and architectural qualities – are a visual representation of the hopes and ambitions of boosters and promoters. The simple presence of buildings where once there were none was a sign of civilisation in early days of colonisation. Later, the use of more permanent materials like stone, brick and concrete for bigger, ornate buildings showed the progress and permanence of a town or city. Impressive buildings were one of the best advertisements a booster could hope for.
The opening of a new town hall has always been a significant moment in the life of a town or city. New events centres and sports arenas can boost civic pride and the local economy.
Earthquakes have played an important role in the country’s built environment, particularly in shake-prone places like Wellington. A quake in 1848 badly damaged brick, stone and earth buildings, but left wooden structures relatively unharmed – so timber became the building material of choice for the next few decades. Ironically, fear of earthquakes has proven far more destructive than actual shakes. Most of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the Wellington central business district were demolished in the 1970s and 1980s when new building codes assessed them as earthquake risks – and their owners did not want to spend money on fixing them.
Before the 1980s corporate firms, retailers, manufacturers and governments were often responsible for the buildings in town and city centres. Institutions such as banks and insurance companies were known for impressive buildings that became local landmarks, while the government constructed its own buildings to house ministries and departments.
After financial markets were deregulated in the 1980s, investment companies had more freedom to invest in sectors of their choice, such as commercial real estate. Property developers used this new money to demolish existing buildings and construct skyscrapers clad in reflective glass, radically changing the appearance of city centres. The government and corporate firms increasingly leased buildings from developers, rather than being owner-occupiers.
Property developers want to make an impression on cities through their buildings. Wellington developer Terry Serepisos has stated his desire to ‘leave my landmark in Wellington and to be remembered for that,’1 while Dave Henderson set out to make part of inner-city Christchurch ‘the coolest urban quarter in the country’.2
Some buildings or objects come to symbolise the place in which they are located, and are described as ‘iconic’. Some, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, have even been credited with reviving the economic fortunes of the cities in which they are located. Cities throughout the world, including those in New Zealand, have hoped that constructing iconic buildings will prompt similar success stories.
The original meaning of the word ‘icon’ is a devotional image of Jesus Christ or other religious figures such as saints. Because of the connotations of worship and deep respect, it is also applied to people or things who evoke a similar reaction, or who symbolise something greater than themselves. Today, however, the word is used indiscriminately – for example, by real estate agents describing office buildings – and has lost some of its value.
New Zealand city buildings recognised as iconic are locally or nationally significant at best. While they are not big economic contributors, some do put their cities ‘on the map’. The Beehive, Parliament’s executive wing, is probably New Zealand’s most instantly recognisable building, and represents Wellington as much as it does the government. Auckland’s Sky Tower is a close second, and while the architectural merits of Te Papa (The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) are still debated, it has put Wellington on the country’s tourist trail.
In the past, an unchanging town or city was a booster’s nightmare. Lack of development due to a depressed economy equalled failure. Recently though, places such as Ōamaru and Napier have capitalised on the large number of buildings from a past era, and marketed themselves as heritage destinations.