For six years, the towering Gordon Wilson Flats have sat empty and decaying, as its owner has fought to demolish the heritage-listed building. Now it hopes it can end the impasse by capturing the building in virtual reality before knocking it down. Max Towle reports.
Look up, Wellington. You’ll see a building that is the last of its kind, stubbornly clinging to its place in a world that no longer values its presence.
It is something of a right of passage for newcomers to the capital to pass by the Gordon Wilson Flats and marvel at a lumpen concrete slab in disrepair, alien to its surroundings. Not that passing by is necessary, you can see the 10-storey, 87-unit bully from just about any vantage point in the city.
Located on the edge of the city, on The Terrace, it towers, almost menacingly, over modern townhouses, cute Edwardian homes and small apartment blocks.
Six years ago, the former state housing complex was diagnosed with “concrete cancer” and evacuated. Its paint has since faded, much of its glass has smashed, and chunks of concrete have crumbled and fallen from a facade covered in graffiti.
Inside, it is silent. Mould creeps up the banisters and seeps through the floor, plaster peels from the ceiling and walls, and opportunists long ago stripped each apartment of its copper pipes and water cylinders.
For six years it has seemed like the Gordon Wilson Flats have been discussed in the past tense. A monument to a post-war era mindset of high-and-wide living, it has decayed and embraced its own ghost story. A neighbour living in its imperious shadow calls it a “rat-infested eyesore”.
The flats were diagnosed with "concrete cancer" and evacuated in 2012.
And yet it lives on, its frustrated owner, Victoria University, has been unable to demolish. The university has railed against the argument that the building is vital to New Zealand’s architectural history and must be saved. In the midst of a housing crisis, it insists the flats, that could house so many, are beyond redemption.
So far, and unusually for the university, it has been losing. But it’s got a revolutionary new game plan it hopes will appease heritage advocates: Using drones, modelling software and laser scanning, the university is recreating the flats in a virtual reality world. That way, it says, the building can forever have a digital legacy without being an “ugly blot” on the cityscape.
But should they be removing a 59-year-old building, no matter how unsightly, from the landscape at all?
Can an ugly building be heritage?
On an overcast day, standing next to a chain-link steel fence adorned with ‘warning’ placards, urban historian Ben Schrader grudgingly accepts the Gordon Wilson Flats could, and perhaps should, be described as “ugly”.
Schrader has lobbied for the preservation of the building and last year wrote an essay on its history. “It’s clearly derelict. There’s graffiti all over it. It’s been poorly maintained and you can see where bits of concrete have come off, and I can understand why people want it to come down,” he says. “But can an ugly building be heritage? I really think it can.”
From a young age, Schrader has had a habit of walking around cities with his head tilted up.
“I find Wellington to be a fascinating, eclectic mix of ideas and designs, from the colonial cottages in Thorndon to the modern buildings on Lambton Quay.”
He tilts his head, once again. “I see an eyesore, yes, but I also see what the architect envisaged at the time, and what it said about society.”
The Gordon Wilson Flats were designed by, and named after the country’s most famous modernist architect, and built in the late 1950s as an urgent symbol of renewal. “The idea of modernism is to create new cities … this form of state housing was seen as a vision for what Wellington might look like in the future,” says Schrader.
The building has an unusual maisonnette (French for “little house”) structure. There are 12 single floor bedsits on the ground floor, and 75 two-bedroom, two-storey flats with their own staircases. They are linked by open balconies and the building’s lifts and stairs.
The flats will soon be the only remaining maisonnette structure in New Zealand. Earlier this month, its sister building on Greys Avenue in Auckland’s CBD was condemned for demolition, to make way for newer state housing and rentals.
Christine McCarthy, a staunch advocate for keeping the Gordon Wilson Flats, says the design represents a political expression. “In the 20th century, a group of architects, including Wilson, became interested in designing buildings for the people, rather than the elite,” she says.
“Wealth and status were being pulled away from architecture, as industry leaders became interested in building functional buildings, rather than just ornaments. This ugliness also reflects a virtue.”
In 1959: Brand new, warm homes
The flats opened under the Second Labour Government in 1959, and new tenants - mostly young, immigrant families - were selected from about 500 applications.
“They had been living in dives at the time, sharing bathrooms, and were desperate to move to brand new, warm homes,” says Schrader.
One woman was so delighted to finally own her own bathroom, she told anyone who would listen she planned to sleep in her bathtub for the first week.
A few years later, 4-year-old Ray Wallace moved in. The now-Lower Hutt mayor lived there for most of his childhood. “Everyone knew each other, and we loved living in a building that towered over anything else in Wellington,” he remembers. “Us kids were constantly getting into mischief, but it was difficult because all the neighbours knew who you were.”
Wallace recalls playing backyard cricket and bullrush, building forts and Tarzan swings in the bush, and sliding around on the roof “a bit like Bruce Willis did in Die Hard.”
His family moved out in the early 70s.
Over time, as most buildings do, the Gordon Wilson Flats deteriorated. A family friend of the Wallace’s remained there for most of her life, and though she didn’t want to be interviewed, she told Wallace that tenants gradually lost their pride in the building they called home.
In May, 2012, over seven days, everyone was moved out. The concrete facade had wasted to the point where engineers feared it might topple in a strong wind. In 2014, the government happily sold the building to Victoria University.
Wallace still passes the building from time-to-time. “When I was young, there were a couple of Scottish custodians who kept the place looking so immaculate,” he says. “It is very sad to see a great building slip away.”
University's great plans for the site
Grant Guilford sits in a building that was also once evacuated and earmarked for demolition, before a determined volunteer organisation fought for it to be saved and refurbished, and sighs.
Victoria University’s iconic centrepiece, the Hunter Building, should not be compared with the Gordon Wilson Flats, though, the Vice-Chancellor says. “The flats are dysfunctional, lacking aesthetic qualities, and will remain this way over time. I’ll be pleased to see the building gone once we have that opportunity.”
He calls them an “ugly blot” on Wellington’s cityscape. But the flats are also a blot on the university’s property portfolio.
There was criticism when it bought the building for about $6 million. Wellington Central MP, Grant Robertson, said he was “outraged” by the idea of Housing New Zealand selling a block of land to the university when social housing was in short supply.
Guilford says the university wants to build a new facility on the site, perhaps for its science and engineering department, but for now the priority is a pedestrian route up the steep Kelburn hill to its main campus. He says trekking up the current route - the nearby Salamanca Road - can be tough and risky for staff, students and visitors.
But the plan hasn’t gone as expected. “We knew there would be some difficulty, but we envisaged it would be down within a year or two,” says Guilford.
The city council greenlighted demolition by removing the flats’ heritage status but, following an appeal, in 2016 the Environment Court sided with Christine McCarthy and the Architecture Centre, ruling the flats had “significant heritage value”.
The court said, “It seems to us that in a time of apparent scarcity of social housing in Wellington and the increase in the level of homelessness … great care should be taken before demolition.”
'A turd covered in glitter'
Ben Schrader wants Wellington to use its imagination. “I want people to imagine the flats renovated. I want them to imagine them painted. I want people to imagine the windows fixed and the balconies returned to their original red and grey colour,” he says. “This can be an impressive building again.”
Eternally optimistic, he reels off options: accommodation for the homeless; a hotel; or a developer stepping in and refurbishing the building.
Of the latter idea, local developer, and Queen’s Birthday honouree for services to heritage preservation, Maurice Clark, says Schrader is dreaming. “It could be fixed up, but it would be ridiculously expensive and beyond redemption from a developer’s point-of-view,” he says.
“For a start, it was crazy to build a big high-rise on the edge of the city on the edge of a hill. You can fix up anything in this world, but that doesn’t mean it won’t end up looking like a turd covered in glitter.”
Why can’t the university make use of it, Schrader asks. “This is a university that’s trying to attract and accommodate students, I would have thought this building would be ideal.”
Out of the question, Guilford says. “Our experts explored all the options when we bought the flats, and they thought it would cost between $30 and $40 million to fix up, which is money we don’t have. That could be even more now,” he says.
“Plus, it’s just not feasible for student accommodation considering its open walkways and balconies; and we couldn’t get enough people into it for it to be cost-effective.”
McCarthy says the university is paying for a bad assumption. “I would assume the university isn’t a naive property developer, but it knew the risks. It knew it was buying a heritage building. It knew the building needed a lot of work yet went ahead with the assumption it would be able demolish it,” she says.
She believes the most practical solution is for the building to return to its original purpose - social housing. “We’re in the midst of a housing crisis and here you’ve got 87 dwellings in a great location that fits the type of housing we want. You’re not going to be able to build something this high in this place again,” she says.
“There needs to be some kind of coming together by different agencies, whether that includes the government or council.”
But Housing New Zealand has gladly washed its hands of the flats, and Guilford says the university doesn’t want to sell, and has never considered it. “This site is so valuable to us and will continue to be over the next 100 years and more. We haven’t lost heart. We’ve got lots of options.
He wants Wellington to use its imagination.
A revival in virtual reality
Deep within Victoria’s School of Architecture on Vivian Street, the Gordon Wilson Flats are being recreated in a virtual reality simulation.
Months ago, armed with a laser scanning camera, students Jessie Rogers and Hannah Rushton painstakingly toured every apartment in the building. “There were some we struggled to remain in for more than a few seconds because the smell was so bad,” says Rushton.
Their project is described as an “immersive, multi-dimensional virtual experience” of the flats. The university plans to exhibit it in a museum early next year.
“Try not to get nauseous,” they warn, as they offer giant goggles, or a VR headset as they’re technically known.
A demo of the virtual reality project showing how a flat looks now.
And how a flat looked in its prime.
Inside the simulation, you can explore, from a first-person perspective, the building’s entryway and apartments. A flick of a button allows you to toggle between viewing the flats in their prime, and the flats now, complete with graffiti, mould and broken glass.
As you pass through the rooms, past tenants can be heard recounting their experiences, through your headset.
“This is a way to preserve historical buildings,” says Rogers. “Many get destroyed, and others aren’t even completed beyond their original plans. This way, the buildings live forever … except if someone accidentally deletes the file.”
Rushton adds: “This project gives people a chance to form their own opinion of the flats, beyond the decay they now see in front of them.”
Virtual preservation isn’t new - sites such as Pompeii, gothic cathedrals in France and Shackleton’s Antarctic huts have been recreated since the turn of the century.
The technology is improving, and scanning teams are tackling more and more sites, but the university believes its project could be a first for New Zealand.
Despite some people’s perceptions, the university values heritage and “the important role this building has played in our history,” says Guilford. Virtual preservation will be an important way cities evolve, and in this case, it will show “what not to do” in terms of design, he says.
“We must respect the history of buildings and their heritage, but we can’t be entrapped by them. That’s what these flats are doing. We’re being entrapped by a failed experiment in social housing that resulted in a building that is now imposing itself on the city and not adding any value.”
'No feasible way it can be kept'
Earlier this year, the fight for the Gordon Wilson Flats took another turn. The city council voted to change the site from an inner-residential area to an institutional precinct. In other words, despite the building’s heritage status, the university can now file a resource consent for demolition.
The council’s urban development head, Andy Foster, is firmly on the university's side. “Right now we’ve got a big chunk of land, and a large building with parts falling off of it, doing what?” he asks. “We can’t afford to be in this situation, and I just can’t see an alternative beyond demolition. There’s no feasible way it can be kept.”
Guilford says the university will file a resource consent in a few months, once the virtual reality project nears completion.
It is rare for demolition to be granted for a heritage listed building, but Guilford is confident. “We think the city council and the Environment Court will see the value of our virtual preservation.”
He stops short of admitting the project is a savvy way to sway the decision in the university’s favour: “We are conscious that the building is valuable to our students of architecture.”
McCarthy is not a fan. “We would still lose a physical treasure,” she says. “And no one can live in a virtual reality world.”
But she is unsure whether to keep fighting the university: “The Architecture Centre is a small group with limited funds. We might have to hope we’ve already done the work to demonstrate why the flats needs to be saved.”
A few years ago, the Catholic University of America published a study that found looking at architecture could be as potent as meditation or prayer.
Looking at beautiful buildings, like older churches and libraries, can have positive effects on mental state, and spark contemplation and personal reflection, it found.
It therefore stands to reason that ugly, imposing architecture might have the opposite effect.
When the council originally debated whether to keep the Gordon Wilson Flats on a heritage list, every neighbour who was interviewed wanted them gone.
Kerry, a builder who lives directly underneath the flats, hopes they disappear. “I would love to see them demolished. Especially when you consider there could be a nice, green space behind my house.”
Across the street at a backpackers’ lodge, a small group sits drinking and smoking in the sun. One looks up and says: “It’s horrible - it might be the ugliest building I’ve seen in Wellington.”
“It looks nicer than where I live,” an English voice jokes. “But it’s still grotesque.”
A student living a few houses down says he’s not bothered by the ugliness, he just wants something - anything - to happen. “It’s feels like a constant kick in the teeth to have this massive building be empty for so long when I know people who are struggling to find somewhere to live.”
Wellington is a city that features almost every major architectural style of the last 150 years. And as Christine McCarthy explains, sometimes buildings that were cutting edge at birth, grow old and tired and are discarded. Yet as generations pass, those same buildings can be embraced by a new generation that recognises them for the value that hides deep within their walls.
The Gordon Wilson Flats will live on, whether in a virtual reality simulation, or as a refurbished, rejuvenated phoenix rising from the ashes, or as a decaying behemoth, forever haunting the city.
This article was originally published by RNZ.