10 Questions with John Walsh


Q1: After the success of A Walking Guide to Auckland Architecture and A Walking Guide to Christchurch ArchitectureWellington must have seemed inevitable. But was there a special pull?  

I spent the first 20 years of my life in Wellington, which I suppose constitutes a special pull. Or unfinished business.


Q2: Because you grew up in Wellington you no doubt thought you knew its buildings well before you began the book. What did you quickly begin to realise?

That, despite the usual New Zealand carelessness with heritage buildings and its own particularly destructive moment in the 1980s, Wellington packs a lot of interesting architecture into its central city area.


Q3:  It’s the biggest book in the series yet. How so?

Maybe I’m getting into the swing of things? Also, Wellington’s status as the capital city and its geographical condition — a surfeit of steep hills and a shortage of flat land — have combined to produce the most intensely occupied downtown in the country. There are a lot of buildings to write about.  


Q4: Some key figures emerge as pivotal to the early fabric of the city. Who are they?

Thomas Turnbull (1824–1907) was very busy in the late nineteenth century, designing Gothic Revival Protestant churches, the General Assembly Library and, with his son William, the old Bank of New Zealand buildings on Lambton Quay. Frederick de Jersey Clere (1856–1952) also designed numerous churches, including St Mary of the Angels, but many other buildings as well, including the harbourside warehouse that is now Wellington Museum. Before the Second World War, William Gray Young (1885–1962) designed hundreds of buildings, including Wellington Railway Station. New Zealand used to have a Government Architect. When he held that position, John Campbell (1857–1942) was responsible for Parliament House and the old Public Trust Building. In the 1930s, Edmund Anscombe (1874–1948) designed some lovely small apartment buildings — models of their type.  


Q5: Favourite heritage building?

If ‘heritage’ can stretch to the 1940s then it might be Gummer & Ford’s State Insurance Building which ripples around the corner of Lambton Quay and Waring Taylor Street. But the AMP Building (1928) on Customhouse Quay, designed by Clere & Clere, is solidly impressive and William Gray Young’s 1927 Wellesley Club (now a hotel) is idiosyncratically cute — who doesn’t like a bit of Georgian Revival?


Q6: Most interesting from the Brutalist era?

The National Library of New Zealand (1987) on Molesworth Street — a striking example of the Ministry of Work’s infatuation with concrete construction. There have been several attempts to make the National Library building friendlier, but it’s still as staunch as an old-school librarian jealously guarding a special collection.    


Q7: Most interesting modern-era one?

Structon Group’s New Zealand Racing Conference Building (1961), on the corner of Victoria and Wakefield Streets, is a surprising departure from rote Anglo-Saxon modernism. It looks like it was transplanted from somewhere loucher and more indulgent — mid-twentieth century Beirut, perhaps. Allan Wild’s Jellicoe Towers (1968) on The Terrace is scarily skinny, and for post-modern strangeness, it’s hard to go past Ian Athfield’s First Church of Christ Scientist (1983) on Willis Street.


Q8: The book’s five routes are all in the inner city and walkable. But you do urge readers to make a special trip out to Karori to see John Scott’s Futuna Chapel. Why?

Futuna Chapel (1961) is a little miracle, really. It was designed by a singular architect, John Scott (Ngāti Raukawa, Te Arawa, Ngāti Kahungunu), for a conservative client — a branch of the Catholic Church — and built by barely-skilled labourers. It has simple materials, a beguiling form and everything is held up by a thicket of trusses branching off a pou tokimanawa or central post. The deconsecrated chapel is not often open, but it is unique, and worth a visit if it is hosting a public event.


Q9: What do you hope Wellington people will take from this book?

I’m sure Wellingtonians are well aware of this, but the centre of their city is a wonderfully urbane place. The city has had its challenges — fires and earthquakes, reckless developers and short-sighted councils, purblind traffic engineers and, yes, some mediocre architects — but, aided by its topography, it remains a diverse and diverting environment. Wellington has a strong architectural legacy, and its citizens should expect that to be preserved and continued.


Q10: And the rest of us? Get thee to Wellington?

Yes! (Covid willing). Wellington has some of New Zealand’s most characterful streets — Oriental Parade, Cuba Street, Lambton Quay, The Terrace, Aro Street — and it’s a great place to walk around. There’s a century and a half’s worth of architectural styles, plenty of pit-stop cafés and the city, being the capital, is well endowed with cultural institutions. Pack solid shoes and a rain jacket — an umbrella will be deconstructed as soon as it is unfurled (a life lesson, courtesy of a Wellington upbringing).