24 September 2022

Disease, Demolition and Developers

Typhoid grips a suburb, a prescient planner envisages the pedestrianised harbour we know today, and the Harbour Board's reclamations set the foundations for our commercial heart; fascinating nuggets revealed by some little-known maps from over a century ago.

Proposed Extension of the City of Wellington (1877)

In 1877 Danish architect Conrad Seidelin – working under the pseudonym of 'Mr Darnoc' – drew up plans to transform Wellington’s waterfront. His imagination was fueled by a big reclamation a year earlier, which created 190,000m2 around the northern end of Featherston Street – almost a third of all Wellington’s man-made land.

Seidelin’s credentials had been established by his masterplanning the redesign of Copenhagen, where his scheme to demolish the city's walls won Denmark's Medal of Merit two decades earlier. Wellington was an ambitious city, and the Danish architect didn’t hold back, with designs straight out of the Renaissance urban planning playbook. Heavy on symmetry (a challenge given our terrain), the city’s centrepiece was to be a curved waterfront basin where Te Papa is located today, with tree-lined avenues drawing people to the waterfront.

The plan was a rejection of the closely packed laneways and squalor that characterized Te Aro. Seidelin's map left the ghostly outline of the recently completed Queens Wharf in his layout as a reminder that his vision was of a modern city, rather than a colonial outpost; public facilities and major businesses would have to make way. Ornamental gardens at Herd Street would have required the demolition of the recently opened Te Aro Baths, and warehouses around the northern end of Taranaki Street were to be replaced by a large piazza – a concept that has never really worked in New Zealand.

Wellington's city councillors sensibly considered the design impractical and expensive: curved docks and enormous land reclamation were luxuries the capital could ill-afford. The proposal was rejected, and expansion into the harbour continued piecemeal for the next 50 years – a situation not too dissimilar to Copenhagen's remodeling, where many of the ramparts and lakes Seidelin wanted removed were retained and are popular parts of the Danish capital today.

Seidelin’s vision is intriguing because it merges radical urban form with the streets we know today. The map was drawn before the railway arrived in the city, but the Government Building (opened in the previous year) is clearly identifiable the end of Lambton Quay. 

The idea of an accessible waterfront would have seemed fantastical in the latter part of the 19th Century – yet 150 years on visiting cafes at the water’s edge as envisaged is central to the Wellington experience.

Typhoid Area (1892)

Wellington’s emergence as a shipping hub facilitated the spread of diseases, with SS England bringing smallpox to the city in 1872. Surges in measles occurred every five years, and Pertussis (whooping cough) killed 24 people in 1891 alone. Typhoid first appeared in New Zealand as an epidemic disease in 1860, and the period between 1886 and 1891 became known as the ‘typhoid years’ with 548 Wellingtonians dying from bacterial infections (including cholera). 

Meanwhile the city grew from around 15,000 in 1875 to 49,344 in 1901. Densely packed Te Aro was particularly vulnerable, with infrastructure hopelessly unable to keep up. It was hardly surprising that many Wellington families fled to settlements like Karori, including the Beauchamps with their young daughter Kathleen (writer Katherine Mansfield), following the death of their baby Gwen from cholera in 1891.

William Chapple, a 28-year-old doctor fresh from his previous practice in Motueka, set about mapping the deaths in the tradition of English physician John Snow, who Chapple would have learned about as a student at King’s College London. Snow (one of the fathers of modern epidemiology) had pinpointed the source of a major cholera outbreak in London four decades previously by plotting the location of cases, and traced them eventually to a contaminated water pump at Broad Street.

Chapple quickly identified Holland Street as the centre of the Wellington outbreak, where he found blocked pipes and lavatories causing excrement to flow under the cottages’ floorboards, sewers venting directly into the houses, and residents without plumbed lavatories emptying their ‘night soil’ onto the street. Unsurprisingly an inspection of the hospital’s admission records showed typhoid cases soaring after heavy rainfall, when excrement sluiced into the harbour in rivulets around and under people’s homes.

None of this squalor is obvious in Chapple’s deceptively simple map. The colour of the dots reflect cholera’s ‘blue death’ nickname, with the victim’s skin turning bluish-grey from loss of fluids, their distribution reflecting the slums that lined Te Aro’s laneways.

Chapple recommended ‘a complete system of sewerage on modern principles’ to empty the city’s waste into Cook Strait, rather than Lambton Harbour, via a sewer tunnel under Mount Victoria. The cost was controversial (£165,000 – $35m today), but the incidence of sewage-related diseases treated at Wellington Hospital fell dramatically once the infrastructure was completed in 1899.

Chapple later became a prominent eugenics advocate (‘habitual drunkards and nocturnal house-breakers’ were included on his list of undesirables). He holds the unusual distinction of being elected to parliament in both New Zealand and the UK, and retained his New Zealand medical registration throughout, returning to work at Wellington Hospital as the Resident Casualty Officer in the 1930s – perhaps he regaled the junior doctors with accounts of the city as he recalled it four decades.

Plan of 12 Building Sections on the Te Aro Reclamation (1906)

Established in 1880, Wellington Harbour Board was tasked with operating and expanding the city’s port. Starting work three years after Seidelin’s master plan was rejected, the Harbour Board embarked on a programme of reclamations driven by Chief Engineer William Ferguson that laid the foundation for the inner city waterfront of today.

Ferguson aligned the new wharves so that the prevailing winds would help ships manoeuvre, and reduce the requirement for tugs to help vessels berth; he also drove investment in hydraulic cranes. The port was recognised as one of the best equipped in the Southern Hemisphere. Ferguson created a partnership with the government and City Council to deliver a series of new wharves and land reclamations – including the Taranaki Street Wharf development, completed in 1905.

The reclaimed land was ‘a magnificent block’, according to auctioneers George Thomas & Co. ahead of its sale in February 1906 – and for once the real estate hyperbole was justified. A flurry of investment had transformed the surrounding area since the turn of the century, with a new fire station (reassuring for commercial building owners) on Lower Cuba Street, opposite the City Council’s impressive new Town Hall which opened on December 7th 1904. Concert-goers arrived on the electric trams that had commenced service in the preceding months, and in the summer rowers in the Star Boating Club’s boathouse enjoyed music from a new bandstand on the Cuba Street side of Jervois Quay.

It was all remarkably modern. The map reassured buyers that the land on offer was anything but the Te Aro of the typhoid years; it even shows the Polhill Gully Watercourse (described by the Evening Post as ‘exceedingly offensive’ a decade earlier) now buried in a long culvert under the city’s streets. The map omitted the city’s waste incinerator at Chaffers Park; it was expanded shortly after the Taranaki Street reclamation was auctioned off – caveat emptor.

The sale was well attended and two buyers bought all but one of the allotments; the State Coal Department purchased the land south of Cable Street (a new road named after the Harbour Board’s outgoing Chairman William Cable). The modernist John Chambers Building was completed in 1918, and the smaller Inglis Brothers bicycle workshop occupied the Taranaki Street end of the block – the Wakefield Market food stalls was the building's final incarnation prior to its demolition in 2007.

The land to the north was purchased by timber merchants C & A Odlin’s. The company completed its eponymous building within 19 months of acquiring the site, with Shed 22 built as a wool store by the Harbour Board when Odlin’s moved its timber yard to Petone in the 1920s. In the mid-1990s there were plans to raze the empty buildings and replace them with a reviled casino-hotel, but resource consent was withheld when the extent of the public opposition became clear.

Aside from those replaced by the One Market Lane development, the buildings that sprang up from the 1906 auction remain in situ, historic waterfront buildings that are fully renovated, earthquake strengthened, and home to blue-chip businesses like the Stock Exchange and architects Warren and Mahoney. A magnificent block – just as the auctioneer promised 115 years ago.

First published in Capital (Issue 81).

29 July 2021

Wellington: an active earthquake engineering laboratory

Earthquakes may be a way of life for Wellingtonians, but the city has been home to cutting edge engineering developments since the 1960s that have helped keep us safe. So here are four buildings that stand out as globally significant seismic engineering designs – with the wider public that see them every day largely unaware of their significance.

Jerningham Apartments (1968)

First use of ‘capacity design’

Wellington’s post-war baby boom and predictions of enormous population growth unleashed a new generation of high-rise apartments. To the casual observer these 1960s behemoths look relatively indistinguishable, but in the world of seismic engineering the large block at 20 Oriental Terrace is a global icon.

Design work on Jerningham Apartments started in 1964, with the tall structure stepped back from the street to take maximum advantage of the town plan’s height limits. Developers Wilkins and Davies were experienced hands in the Wellington apartment market, having completed Wharenui further along Oriental Parade in 1960, and Hollings & Ferner (a relatively new Wellington engineering practice) was engaged as the project’s structural engineers.

John Hollings was interested in improving the performance of concrete frame buildings in earthquakes, which typically failed in a brittle manner as movement occurred in a single storey low down, ultimately risking a ‘pancake’ collapse. He envisaged the new development as a tall building with movement evenly distributed up the height of the structure, and flexing occurring in carefully specified areas, a concept he described as ‘lead hinges’ protecting the ‘glass-like columns’ from damage.

Jerningham’s concrete columns were strengthened considerably relative to the beams so they would not fail. The connection of the concrete beams to the columns including extra steel reinforcement to allow them to flex and dissipate energy without losing integrity during a big shake. The precision of the calculations in the era before calculators or computers was extraordinary, but Hollings was still not fully satisfied as to the performance of the junction between the floors and internal columns. He had his team build a full-scale rig at the building’s base to undertake testing at the start of construction – the design passed with flying colours.

Holling’s structure had significantly better seismic performance compared to the conventional approach proposed by the developer; it was also commercially more attractive. The revolutionary design reduced the scale of the foundations required, saving $100,000 on the original cost estimate (around $8 million today). And by opting for a low-profile floor system he had fitted in an extra level of apartments for the developer – all of which helped increase the affordability of the high-rise housing needed to accommodate Wellington’s steep population growth.

The strong columns, weak beams design philosophy sounds like common-sense now, but it was a revolutionary concept at the time. It was refined by the University of Canterbury to become known as ‘capacity design’, and is now a fundamental aspect of almost all seismic design codes around the world. Meanwhile recent property listings state Jerningham has been assessed as 84%NBS – better than some apartments a third of the building’s age.

The Beehive (1979)

First use of diagonally reinforced coupling beams

In 1951 a young refugee family arrived in Wellington, sponsored by Catholic students at Victoria University of Wellington. Tom Paulay, 27, had fled Hungary three years earlier, after his two years as a cavalry officer fighting the Red Army on the Eastern Front had put him at odds with the new Communist regime in Budapest. Paulay completed his engineering degree in Christchurch and returned to Wellington, where he spent eight years as a consulting engineer, before taking a 35% pay cut to return to the University of Canterbury as a lecturer on structural design in 1961.

1960s New Zealand was a curious mix of forward-thinking confidence and lingering attachment to the Mother Country – epitomised by plans to replace the rat-infested, earthquake-prone 1871 Government Buildings at the southern end of the Parliamentary Estate. The Parliament Building’s incomplete Edwardian design was viewed as old-fashioned, and Britain’s star architect Sir Basil Spence was engaged to make the case for something more progressive. Construction on his circular, modernist tower (quickly dubbed ‘the Beehive’) started in 1969, just as Paulay was completing his doctorate on the vulnerabilities of interlinked shear walls during earthquakes.

Paulay’s research was perfectly timed: damage from the 1964 Alaska Earthquake had confirmed his hunch that the existing approach to reinforcing the beams coupling shear walls was inadequate, with the side-to-side rocking of the building stretching these links diagonally, producing large X-shaped cracks that significantly weakened the structure. The improvement Paulay landed on was simple: introduce steel reinforcement in an X-shape to mirror the stress from the building’s movement, and allow ductile steel to take the load, rather than brittle concrete.

New Zealand’s reputation for earthquake engineering was growing rapidly – Paulay’s peers would greet him at international conferences by crossing their arms over their heads, imitating his new design. A culture of co-operation between academia, the engineering profession and government was spurred on by the 1968 Inangahua Earthquake on the West Coast, the strongest felt in the capital since 1942, and encouraged by the Ministry of Work’s enthusiasm for seismic design innovation, under Chief Structural Engineer Otto Glogau.

It began a new period where we stopped copying what was coming from California and became an innovative world-leading laboratory for seismic design.The Ministry was overseeing the construction of Parliament’s new Executive Wing, and Glogau immediately requested that the new ‘diagonally reinforced coupling beams’ be included for the remainder of the building; the circular concrete lift core was modified to accommodate the new design from Level 5 upwards.

Half a century later, Paulay’s coupling beam reinforcement design is global standard practice. Yet with the steelwork encased in concrete it’s invisible to the general public: a hidden witness to the Beehive’s place in earthquake engineering history. 

The William Clayton Building (1982)

First use of lead rubber bearings

The Wellington Urban Motorway ripped a long gash though Thorndon when it was built in the 1960s. Whole streets disappeared following the government’s compulsory purchase of properties, leaving awkward slivers of land adjacent to the roaring traffic, and too far from the CBD to be attractive to commercial developers – but the perfect location for the new Ministry of Works headquarters, which was to be named after William Clayton, the architect of the 1876 Government Building at the other end of Molesworth Street.

The building was located on the site of May Street, a cul-de-sac off Tinakori Road lost under the motorway, and would have a long, low form sympathetic to the surrounding houses. It was also 100m away from the Wellington Fault – and an ideal candidate for Otto Glogau’s interest in seismic isolation. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Ivan Skinner devised sacrificial steel dampers: then a conversation in the staff tearoom prompted his metallurgist colleague Bill Robinson to hunt out a metal with better damping qualities. Two hours later Robinson had identified lead: its low melting point could turn pressure from an earthquake into heat, it had the right crystal structure to ensure ductile behaviour at low temperatures, and was cheap to buy at a high purity for consistent performance.

Robinson’s genius lay in using the combined properties of simple materials in his revolutionary ‘lead rubber bearing’, where a lead core is contained by a ‘spring’ formed by layers of rubber and steel, which allows lateral movement. The elastic properties of rubber isolate the building from the ground movement and return the bearing to its original position once shaking has stopped, the steel plates maintains the bearing’s shape, and the lead core damps the action.

The experimental bearings were tested by a second-hand Ministry of Works Caterpillar bulldozer that was modified to power a rig called ‘MASHER’ – the Machine for Simulating Earthquakes. By 1978 the concept had been proven, and 80 isolators were despatched to the construction site at the top of Molesworth Street. The building was something of a prototype, with an overly-strong structure in case the isolators didn’t work, and too little ‘rattle’ space for the building to move in a major shake (this was later rectified by Beca).

Bill Robinson died in 2011 having spent most of his working life in Wellington. Robinson Seismic (still based in Lower Hutt) is a global leader in seismic protection devices, with their lead rubber bearings (like those visible underneath Te Papa) manufactured under licence around the world; their effectiveness has been proven by countless earthquakes. The William Clayton building was refurbished and extended five years ago: one of its 1970s vintage isolators as removed for testing by Robinson Seismic and performed like it’d just rolled off the production line.

8 Willis Street (1987 / 2021)

Breakthrough in modelling fluid viscous dampers

Older Wellingtonians will remember the partially completed steelwork of the BNZ Tower (dubbed ‘Darth Vader’s pencil box’ by Ian Athfield) during the late 1970s. The Boilermakers’ Union’s strikes turned a 48 month construction programme into 11 years, and drove up costs fourfold by the time the building was completed in 1984.

The saga contributed to the Lange Government’s labour market reforms, which in turn fuelled an economic boom. Understandably the 1980s property developers weren’t keen on steel, opting for precast concrete floors made with non-union labour. Quick to install, they were manufactured offsite, lifted into place by crane, and held in situ by the adjacent beams and the building’s structural frame – like very rigid sardines in a tin.

Today central Wellington has dozens of buildings with precast concrete floors. The 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake’s long, powerful shaking hit these structures particularly hard, with flexing in the buildings’ frames damaging the edges of the concrete units. Built in 1987 on rock and to higher ‘investment grade’ standards as Trust Bank’s new home, 8 Willis Street – opposite the BNZ Tower (now the Aon Centre) fared better than many of the CBD’s buildings from the 80s and 90s, and came through the shake undamaged.

So what makes the building next to Stewart Dawson’s Corner so interesting? Many of the structural upgrades incorporated reflect lessons learned from the Kaikoura shake – more concrete to stiffen the building, and improvements to the floor units’ seating. However the building’s new tenants will quickly spot large pistons running diagonally from floor to ceiling. These ‘fluid viscous dampers’ were first developed for NASA’s Apollo moon landers, and work like giant versions of the shock absorbers in a car, stiffening the building when it starts to move.

Compared with the simple concept of base isolation, configuring the optimum damper arrangement in a relatively tall structure like 8 Willis Street is complex. Install too many dampers and you risk creating unwanted forces in the structure; too few will leave the building vulnerable during a large shake.

Previously the modelling approach would have been trial-and-error: running different configurations through a range of historical earthquakes, adjusting the damper arrangement, and rerunning the tests. The breakthrough is engineering firm Beca’s work to automate the process to determine the best damper layout – which is then tested against dozens of historic earthquake models. This world-leading approach enables a level of evaluation that would previously have been impracticable.

The optimised damper configuration means the building, now rated at 130%NBS (IL2), has significantly increased resilience to shaking than conventional strengthening work, without the complexities of costly retrospective base isolation – unrealistic for many of Wellington’s tightly packed buildings. It has also paid a large sustainability dividend, with the materials used in construction substantially reduced and thousands of tons of concrete retained, rather than sent to landfill – demonstrating a low carbon way of delivering high performance structural retrofits.

First published in Capital (Issue 77). Illustrations by Kumiko Matsumoto.

11 April 2021

Concrete dreams

The rise of private car ownership, the baby-boom and post-war reconstruction were catalysts for drastic urban planning interventions around the world, a fashion that inevitably reached New Zealand. Metropolitan Wellington’s population increased by 63% in the space of two decades from 1945 – and was projected to reach 398,000 in 1981 (wildly inaccurate – this did not happen until 2014).

This growth, largely concentrated in the Hutt Valley and Porirua, was a headache for planners, but it also gave the civic leadership confidence to invest. It stimulated a decade of radical proposals for the capital, and came close to destroying much of what Wellingtonians now love about the city.

Comprehensive Transport Plan for Wellington (1963 / 1966)

By the late 1950s rapidly increasing traffic volumes on the Hutt Road (comparable to Adelaide Road today) caused a fear of gridlock, and work on the first part of the Urban Motorway from Ngauranga to Aotea Quay started in 1959.

There was bitter debate about the next phase of the road, between a ‘foothills motorway’ route through Thorndon, and one along the waterfront – the latter preferred by the City Engineer and the Ministry of Works. In 1960 American transport consultant De Leuw, Cather & Company was commissioned by the Wellington Regional Planning Authority (a predecessor of the Regional Council) to resolve the matter and create Wellington’s first Transportation Master Plan.

Despite its being the cheaper option (at £13,000,000 cost – close to $570 million today) the initial report in 1963 made the waterfront route look as unpalatable as possible. Projected traffic volumes would require ‘a double-decked structure approximately 40 feet [four storeys] in height with three lanes in each direction’. This would have run from Bunny Street to Cable Street, with offramps required at Kings Wharf, Post Office Square and Mercer Street. The report warned of conflict between the motorway and what was still a working inner harbour, and the impact on the amenity of the waterfront, pointing out how quickly San Francisco’s officials had come to regret building their new freeway above the Embarcadero.

The foothills route was duly recommended, even though it was projected to cost almost 50% more and need streets of houses demolished, with the Mount Victoria tunnel to be duplicated during the first phase of works. The time required to dig the Terrace Tunnel meant Te Aro would need a one-way system to speed up traffic (half a century later the Council has voted to slow traffic down), with southbound vehicles routed up Cuba Street.

Public transport was also considered, with a recommendation that once the motorway was completed the railway should be extended in a 3km subway to the end of Courtenay Place – with underground stations at Parliament, Lambton (located under Boulcott Street), Cuba Street and Courtenay Place – all for £11,000,000 ($480 million in 2020).

As proposed the complete the motorway would have buried half the Basin Reserve under motorway offramps, a deep trench cut across the top of Te Aro and a ‘full-diamond interchange’ at Taranaki Street – designs familiar to Wellingtonians who successfully defeated the Tunnel Link proposals a quarter of a century later.

The focus on roads alarmed Wellington’s retailers. They feared that greater mobility would send shoppers to more convenient destinations outside the city, and commissioned a rival proposal from architects Gabites and Beard. ‘Precinct Planning for Wellington’ (released in 1965) had some bold predictions, with ‘public transport vehicles running on air cushions rather than rails’ and ‘combined air and ground vehicles in general use’ by the year 2000. But the pedestrianisation of large parts of the CBD, rather than a focus on cars, proved popular with Wellingtonians, and this influenced the final version of the Comprehensive Transport Plan in 1966, including retaining the Basin Reserve.

Draft Town Plan (1965)

With the transport masterplan complete the City Council was free to focus on transforming the CBD. In 1957 Robert (‘Terry’) Kennedy arrived at University of Auckland to take the first Chair of Town Planning. He was retained as a consultant by Wellington City Council from 1965-75, and the 1965 Draft Town Plan clearly reflected his previous job remodelling Britain’s blitzed cities.

Some ideas were developed from the De Leuw report and ‘Precinct Planning’, including Cuba Mall, and the Farish Street Extension which pushed Victoria Street through to the top of Te Aro – to feed a future Western Suburbs motorway running through a tunnel from the top of Aro Street to Karori.

The plan was also critical of central Wellington’s small commercial plots and streets laid out for the era of deliveries by horse-drawn vehicles, now resulting in increasing conflict between vehicles and pedestrians. European cities were able to ‘take advantage of’ extensive bomb damage to unleash ambitious redevelopments – and Wellington was to follow suit with the ‘Willis Street redevelopment area’, a three tier ‘superblock’ similar to London’s Barbican, to tackle ‘the bottleneck between Stewart Dawson’s corner and the sea’.

The development would have been enormous, stretching between the top of Plimmer Steps and the waterfront. The existing street layout was to be maintained but built over, with garaging and warehouses at ground level, and car parking above them, accessed via ramps from Jervois Quay and a Willis Street flyover connecting Victoria and Boulcott streets. Above that to be a pedestrian deck, with shops, offices and hotels.

The sheer chutzpah of the Town Planning Committee’s report was admirable: the Willis Street superblock was ‘economically feasible’ and would ‘rehabilitate the centre of Wellington’ in combination with the proposed Civic Centre and new Cuba Mall. The City Engineer pointed out to doubters ‘this sort of integrated development is already taking place in larger cities overseas’.

The project stumbled at the first hurdle: the population growth projection was criticised as overly optimistic (a failing among Council officials), and the indicative £50,000,000 cost ($2.1bn in 2020) was seen as wildly unaffordable. Councillor Turk called the proposal ‘a Utopian flight of fantasy’ – and by the mid-1970s Kennedy’s departure from WCC’s payroll and the city’s stagnation meant the idea mercifully faded into the long list of municipal what ifs.

Report and Development Plan for the Wellington City Council Civic Centre (1974)

The idea of a municipal precinct dates back to the 1942 Wairarapa Earthquake, which led to the demolition of the old city library building and technical college buildings on Wakefield Street – now the site of the Council’s closed Civic Administration Building and empty Municipal Office Building (or MOB). Work started on MOB in 1946, and the popular lawn in front of the building was referred to as the Civic Centre.

The Council had gradually acquired land at the harbour end of Cuba Street from the 1960s, and the section of Mercer Street between the Town Hall and Central Library was often closed for civic festivities, so it was a small leap of imagination to pedestrianize the space. Terry Kennedy and Ken Clarke (the council’s City Planner) embarked on a scheme to banish vehicles and create a ‘true and pleasant centre of the City of Wellington’.

The masterplan that emerged had all the hallmarks of European post-war design. The demolition of the seismically prone Town Hall would clear the way for a decidedly Soviet looking 10,000m² office building; a conference facility was to be built on the corner of Harris Street and Jervois Quay; and pedestrian subways would give access to the waterfront and the new shopping arcade that was to be built over Mercer Street through to Willis Street. Kennedy realised changes in opinion and finances would alter the plan, but he suggested a 15 year development programme – the new library and conference centre were to have been completed by 1986.

Instead Mayor Michael Fowler championed the construction of the new concert hall: it was commissioned in 1975, but the challenging ground conditions delayed work. The building was opened in 1983, by which time campaigns to promote the heritage and acoustic value of the old Town Hall had made its removal untenantable, leaving the two buildings uncomfortably close to each other. The waterfront had been transformed from potential motorway route to an increasingly popular open public space – and a rethink for the precinct was required.

While the development Kennedy proposed would have been built at the height of Brutalism in New Zealand, some of the core ideas from the 1974 masterplan shaped today’s Civic Square, including turning the 1937 library building into a ‘City Gallery’. This stimulated the council in 1980 to create exhibition space at 65 Victoria Street, before demolishing the building and using the site for the new Central Library (another Kennedy recommendation). Interconnected elevated walkways linked the library and council buildings – until they were deemed seismic risks earlier this decade – and the space enjoys good sunlight.

Kennedy died in 1997, with his superblock vision for Wellington’s civic precinct largely realised, and especially the underground parking and wide pedestrian expanses. With the Civic Administration Building likely to be demolished, perhaps the lawn in front of the municipal offices which coined the precinct’s name could be restored – bringing the Civic Centre concept full-circle?

First published in the Summer 2021 issue of Capital.

4 August 2020

The lost and forgotten fountains of Wellington

Our public fountains are part of Wellington’s visual identity. The Bucket Fountain is top of many visitors’ bucket lists. Oriental Bay’s Carter Fountain lends magic to a walk around the waterfront. And the Water Whirler is fascinating – when it’s not broken. 

But some of the city’s most interesting water features have been demolished, recycled, or overlooked; as the memory of their benefactors has faded, they are increasingly obscure footnotes to our city’s history. Which is a pity, because they all help tell the story of how our city was shaped. So here are four fountains that you probably hadn’t heard of, and all but one still exist in some form.

John Martin's Fountain

Lambton Quay & Featherston Street / Oriental Parade

Built 1875; moved circa 1909; scrapped 1938 

The Martin fountain on Lambton Quay was built by one of Wellington’s rags-to-riches millionaires, Irishman John Martin, who arrived in Wellington in 1841 aged 21. He quickly progressed from manual labour to property development: his projects included the second Government House (on the site of the Beehive) and the creation in the 1880s of Martinborough – one of New Zealand’s few ‘squire towns’ founded by private developers.

Most of all, Martin craved recognition by the establishment. Naming places after his family was one way he sought inclusion – hence the eponymous Martin Square, with Marion Square and Jessie Street nearby for his wife and youngest daughter. The drinking fountain he presented Wellingtonians with was another, conspicuously located amid the imposing bank buildings that had sprung up on the recently reclaimed land at the Willis Street end of Lambton Quay.

Martin’s Fountain became a Wellington landmark. It was around six metres tall, crowned by three large gas lights (a recent innovation). The water spouts supplied safe drinking water – real philanthropy when the Government’s principal scientific advisor had recently warned that ‘no water collected from within the crowded part Wellington, from either wells or house taps, is safe or proper for human consumption’.

True to Martin’s roots, the drinking fountain’s water was laced with whiskey the day it was unveiled in 1875. The roll-out of reticulated water and electric lighting, however, meant the fountain was soon viewed as an anachronism. The magnificent gas lanterns were removed shorty after Martin’s death in 1890, and the fountain was moved to Oriental Bay just before World War One. It was sold for scrap iron in 1938 after being irreparably corroded from salt spray – today the Oriental Terrace bus stop stands in its place.

Centennial Fountain

Centennial Exhibition, Rongotai / Kelburn Park

1939-1940; rebuilt in 1955

The highlight of New Zealand’s 100th anniversary was the Centennial Exhibition in Rongotai. Financed by share purchases from government and local businesses, the 22-hectare site, with shows and pavilions from across the Empire, took two years to build.

At the heart of the exhibition grounds was the magnificent Centennial Fountain, which cost an extraordinary £246,735 ($26 million today). Set in a 30m-diameter pool, the main bowl featured classical figures and towered over the throngs of visitors. Water was pumped high into the air – always risky with Wellington’s wind – with lighting adding to the drama. Architect Edmund Anscombe leaned heavily on the Art Deco look – his Post and Telegraph Building (now the Chaffers Dock Apartments) was completed at the same time in a similar style.

Advertised as ‘six months of fun and pageantry’, the worthy exhibits from around the Empire were overshadowed by rollercoasters and miniature ride-on versions of Britain’s famous steam trains at ‘Playland’, a freakshow with ‘Mexican Rose’ (billed 'the world's fattest girl' at 343kg) and a Shark Pool that boasted ‘a dozen large man-eaters caught off the coast of Australia’ (how this was determined was unclear).

The show attracted over 17,000 people a day, and traffic volumes forced the Council to ban bicycles and horses from the recently opened Mount Victoria tunnel. Gates closed in May 1940, with numbers falling far short of the 4,200,000 expected; anger from shareholders left out of pocket was hushed up as the war situation was looking increasingly bleak. The exhibition buildings burnt down in 1946 after wartime use by the air force; by then the fountain’s motor had been carefully packed up, and was revived in 1955 as the slightly less grand Kelburn Park fountain.

Gibbs Memorial Fountain

Mercer Street / Harris Street

1956-1991; relocated 1990s

Nestled behind the City Art Gallery, and away from the dull roar of Civic Square’s infinity-edge water features, are the charming gargoyles of the Gibbs Memorial Fountain. 

Relatively little is known about David John Gibbs, whose £1,000 bequest funded the fountain. There is a tantalisingly brief glimpse of 25-year-old Lieutenant Gibbs marching his troops down Lambton Quay in archive film of the 1908 Dominion Day parade. He survived the trenches of the Western Front, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the 1918 New Year Honours list. After the war he served as Secretary to the Harbour Board in the 1920s and died in 1946.

The Gibbs Memorial was an early commission by sculptor Jim Allen (whose enormous marble panels were removed from 61 Molesworth Street during its demolition in 2017). It features Neptune with a pair of dolphins similar to those on our city’s coat of arms. Older Wellingtonians will remember the hemispherical pool with underwater lighting in front of the City Council’s 1951 Municipal Office Building, and the adjacent lawn that was a popular spot for lunch on sunny days.

The fountain’s construction predated the renaming of Mercer Street as the ‘Civic Centre’ by a year, but its inscription ‘On becoming soldiers we have not ceased to be citizens’ perfectly anticipated the precinct. The 1974 masterplan for the area retained the pool in situ (the Town Hall was to be demolished and replaced by a brutalist office block); sadly the 1987 Athfield master-plan bolted the ghastly curved Civic Administration Building onto the front of the Municipal Offices, so the fountain had to go. The gargoyles were saved, but their new brick setting, hidden off Harris Street, is a serious downgrade for a generous gift to the city.

Nathan Memorial Fountain

Hobson Street / Queen’s Park

Cast in the 1880s; moved in 1904 & 1951

Alfred de Bathe Brandon, a 31-year-old lawyer, arrived at the New Zealand Company’s fledgling Wellington settlement on the London in December 1840. His practice flourished, despite the challenges of looking after a young family following the death of his first wife shortly after they reached Wellington, and he was made the Provincial Solicitor in 1853.

Thirty years later Brandon’s law firm was passed onto his son (also called Alfred), and Alfred senior turned his focus to building a large family home on Hobson Street, completed in 1880. While settlers could buy luxuries like silver cutlery by mail order from the Mother Country, Alfred de Bathe Brandon’s wealth let him return to England to hunt out the finest garden ornaments from Coalbrookdale. One was a fine romanesque fountain featuring cherubs and a partially robed goddess, which was duly installed in his garden.

The fountain was moved to another Brandon family home on Hobson Street in 1904, where it remained until 1942 when the third Alfred Brandon sold the property and moved to Heretaunga. The Brandons were friendly with the Nathans, who were mourning their son Benson, killed the previous year in a friendly-fire incident during the Battle for Crete, and the fountain was given to George Nathan (Benson’s father) for use as a memorial. Lady Katherine Macalister, the Mayor’s wife, was sympathetic to locating the Nathan Memorial Fountain in Queen’s Park, and the fountain was unveiled in its new setting at the foot of Grant Road in 1951.

The fountain was restored in 2014 – dismantled, water blasted, and given seven coats of paint. Today it is in immaculate condition, as it would have been when Alfred de Bathe Brandon saw it in England 140 years ago.

First published in the April 2020 issue of Capital magazine

23 December 2019

Cutting shapes: the three infrastructure projects that made modern Wellington

“God made New Zealand,” said Sir John-Pearce Luke (Mayor of Wellington from 1913-1921). “But engineers made Wellington”.

Wellington's steep terrain, regular earthquakes and ferocious weather have been constant challenges, and Sir John knew good infrastructure was critical to making our city a success. Modern sewers helped rid the city of typhoid in the 1890s, trams and tunnels opened up new suburbs after the 1900s, and the urban motorway catered for the boom in car ownership in the 1960s. But three infrastructure projects – above all others – stand out as pivotal in shaping our city.

Queens Wharf (1860s)
The wharf enables the government to move to the city after two devastating earthquakes

As SS Airedale steamed into Lambton Harbour late in the summer of 1863 the noise of is engines subsided, and sailors high in the rigging furled the canvas. Passengers eagerly lined the handrails for their first glimpse of Wellington, and the brand new Government Wharf – its reddish brown timber yet to be bleached by the sun.

Illustration by Suzanne Lustig
Eight years earlier the Wairarapa earthquake had created a three-metre tsunami, which smashed ships onto the harbour floor and washed out low-lying properties along Lambton Quay. When the waves subsided, the seabed had risen two metres, ruining access to the quays. Tectonic uplift and the destruction of wharves meant goods had to be ferried ashore by lighters – very time consuming, and the rapidly increasing size of ships visiting Wellington meant they had to anchor further and further out.

So Queens Wharf was driven by a desire to play down Wellington’s shaky start. The devastating earthquakes of 1848 and 1855 could have been fatal for the young city’s reputation, particularly given Britannia, the New Zealand Company’s original settlement at Petone had been abandoned 14 years previously because of the Hutt River’s tendency to flood. The Chamber of Commerce (then as now an advocate for infrastructure spending) campaigned for a new deepwater wharf – considered ‘a universally recognised want’, with the surviving private jetties hopelessly too small.

The new 122m-long ‘double T’ Government Wharf was a mixture of ironwork imported from Britain and totara from Foxton. Storms delayed the supply of timber and the wharf opened three months late. Stretching out from the city’s first major land reclamation around what is now Post Office Square, it quickly became known as ‘Queens Wharf’ – not in celebration of Queen Victoria’s 25 years as monarch (the first silver jubilee celebrated Kaiser Wilhelm I and was in 1886), but more likely because of its location adjacent to Queens Bond Store.

Queens Wharf was a huge vote of confidence in the 6,000-strong settlement, and a shot in the arm for business, as commercial developments rapidly filled the reclamation. It was seen as ‘a symbol that Wellington was becoming a port rather than merely a harbour,’ said Wellington Maritime Trust D Johnson, and proved so popular the ‘T’s were immediately extended to cope with the explosion of traffic.

The new wharf impressed the Australian Commissioners who visited Wellington in 1864 searching for Parliament’s new home. MPs travelled to their electorates by steamship, and our central location and modern infrastructure proved compelling: the capital moved a year later.

Tawa Flat Deviation (1930s)
Modern electric trains opened up the northern suburbs to created metropolitan 'Greater Wellington’

In the 1920s Wellingtonians enjoyed a comprehensive electric tram network connecting the city’s inner suburbs, but access from the north was far more challenging. Settlements at Johnsonville and Tawa were served by the Wellington & Manawatu Railway Company’s steep single-track railway, with steam engines wheezing through numerous tunnels as they hauled passengers up the gradients on the mainline north.

Illustration by Suzanne Lustig
For a nation with more than 28 million railway journeys each year (according to Te Ara) the trip into Wellington must have been an embarrassment. There had been little progress since the line’s construction in 1885, and the railway was a chronic bottleneck in the capital’s growth. Rail travel was critical to New Zealanders wishing to travel around the country, and arriving in the capital via a steep single track mixed up with livestock movements did not send the right signals.

The Public Works Department formed a team in 1927 under railway surveyor Arnold Downer to build an express railway over 13km long, with 5.6km of double track tunnels. Downer later led the Mt Victoria tunnel project – his name lives on in the eponymous construction company.

The Tawa Flat Deviation was completed in 1935, and allowed a major overhaul of the Johnsonville line, where cutting-edge English Electric trains were launched with fanfare (and ten speeches from the dignitaries assembled) in July 1938. The ‘delightfully smooth’ journey was completed in 16 minutes – considerably faster than today’s scheduled services. Tawa got its electric trains a couple of years later.

Eyes were firmly on the Mother Country, and the electric railway bears strikingly similarities to the ‘Metroland’ developments that turned the countryside north-west of London into prime commuter belt. Tawa’s new station offered a heated waiting room, and male and female lavatories. It was a big improvement for the passengers, and was the catalyst for the suburb’s population growth from a few hundred in 1930 to just over 3,000 shortly after the war. Johnsonville was transformed from a sleepy agricultural centre nicknamed ‘Cowtown’ to a suburb with booming property prices and a population growing at double the city’s average. Meanwhile Wellington’s neo-Georgian station, opened in 1937, bustled with passengers obtaining news from press-the-button information machines, vying for pies at the highspeed cafeteria and taking nicely-framed pictures of themselves at a shilling a shot. News, pies and selfies – nothing changes.

Enormous pride was taken in showing we could match the Empire’s best, and the Tawa Flat Deviation, track electrification, new rolling stock and the gigantic Gray Young terminus were ambitious undertakings that laid the foundation for today’s Greater Wellington conurbation.

Rongotai airport (1950s)
International connections direct to the heart of the city after removing a hill

Charles Kingsford Smith's first view of Wellington was from the cockpit of ‘Southern Cross’, his Fokker Trimotor aeroplane. The Australian circled above the city at dawn on September 11th 1928, having left Sydney 13 hours earlier, but ended his trailblazing journey in Christchurch: Wellington had nowhere suitable to land.

Illustration by Suzanne Lustig
Kingsford Smith secured his place in history by making the first international flight to New Zealand. Aged 31, he told the crowds his ambition was simply to become the world’s oldest aviator. When he finally made it to Wellington (by ship) he advised Mayor Troup – another aviation enthusiast – that Lyall Bay would be perfect for Wellington’s main aerodrome. A basic airstrip opened in 1929, which often closed over winter when the grass runway became too boggy.

Rongotai was talked about as the ideal location for our city’s main airport for years after Kingsford Smith’s untimely death in 1935, but nearby facilities proved more popular: Trentham’s airstrip handled early mail flights, the Air Force operated seaplanes from its base at Shelly Bay, and by the late 1930s Imperial Airways’ Empire flying boats were a regular sight at Evans Bay. These were the height of luxury, and passengers were often warned not to rush to the lavatories at the rear to plunder the toiletries lest the plane slid backwards out of the sky.

Meanwhile Paraparaumu became New Zealand’s busiest airport in 1949: Rongotai airport had been forced to close two years earlier as the grass runway didn’t comply with safety standards. And Tasman Empire Airways Ltd flew flying boats a four days a week to Sydney from Evans Bay in the early 1950s. The airline’s terminal at Greta Point was decidedly ad-hoc, with garages under the Casa Del Mar apartments on Evans Bay Parade used by Customs to process passengers.

Wellington was missing out. Prime Minister Peter Fraser announced in 1948 that a modern airport would be built at Rongotai, but construction took 11 long years. Passengers onboard the flying boats attempting to land when Evans Bay was choppy must have looked at the building work with longing – waves under two metres high were acceptable landing conditions.

The new Rongotai Airport necessitated moving 3,000,000m3 of earth, and reclaiming 55 hectares of land to create Cobham Drive and the new runway (which was further extended in the 1970s to accommodate passenger jets). The earthworks were impressive, but the new facilities weren’t: the 1937 De Havilland factory was repurposed as a stopgap terminal, which was intended to be replaced by the 1960s. Inevitably the corrugated shed served Wellingtonians until 1999. But the building didn’t matter – we finally had a sealed runway capable of handling the latest aircraft like the Lockheed Electra that flew the Beatles in from Sydney.

Today the decision to build a modern airport 15 minutes from the heart of the city plays a big part in the compact urban form loved by locals and visitors alike – and is every bit as transformational as the Queens Wharf and railway upgrades in previous decades.

First published in the December 2019 issue of Capital magazine

24 November 2018

Post master: A H Fullwood visits Wellington

In the spring of 1906 a middle-aged artist sat halfway up Thompson Street with a small board balanced on his knees and a palette of oils at his side. The shades of greens he used for the quiet residential street gave way to the purples and grey of industrial Te Aro, and a skyline dominated by brick chimneys belching black smoke into a clear blue sky.

He paused to exchange some words with the driver of a horse and trap slowly clip-clopping up to Brooklyn. Decades of painting landscapes under the unrelenting Southern Hemisphere sun meant Albert Henry Fullwood’s skin was leathery and wrinkled, and thick black hair and beard added a certain wildness to his demeanour. But the speed at which Wellington materialised on the canvas was evidence of a master commercial artist working on a tight schedule to feed the first truly global craze: collecting postcards.

The city Fullwood arrived in was the bustling, confident capital of a young country that had rejected joining the Commonwealth of Australia five years earlier – and Lambton Harbour was its focal point. Ocean liners carried passengers to the far reaches of the empire, while tramp steamers and barques worked their way around the coast – the ascendancy of fire over wind not yet complete. The yachts must have caught the publisher’s eye back in London, with an approving caption on the card’s back stating the number of boat clubs meant ‘like true Britons, all the inhabitants love the sport’. And the elegantly dressed women walking their dogs unaccompanied around the Government Buildings and Molesworth Street were good material for postcard sales in Europe, with the small print reminding the world of our universal suffrage: ‘Measures that have only been talked of in other countries have been in existence in New Zealand for years’.

Fullwood’s streetscapes show the city (population 60,000) in the final year or so before the inexorable rise of automobiles – with pedestrians and cyclists mixing with horse-drawn carts. Wellington City Corporation had just taken ownership of the tram network, and the odd choice of Thompson Street for a city panorama was likely because of its proximity to the newly-opened route to Brooklyn. The electric tram would have passed hundreds of workers’ cottages packed into Te Aro Flat’s lanes – the harsh conditions of inner-city living were only a decade after the typhoid epidemics that ravaged Wellington and drove people to the safety of neighbouring boroughs like Karori. The Kelburn cable car and the Town Hall (opened in 1902 and 1904 respectively) didn’t interest him – a cynic would note the abundance of harbour and waterfront scenes were easier pickings for someone arriving by ship with little time to spare.


Fullwood was born in Birmingham in 1863 and emigrated to Australia aged 20. He spent his next three years travelling as a staff artist for the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, and the range of places he visited during his early career was extraordinary: Thursday Island, Torres Strait, Port Moresby, New Guinea, and later New Zealand. He married Clyda Newman in 1896. By then two of his paintings had been purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The economic downturn and collapse of the Sydney art market at the end of the 1890s was a catalyst for travels further afield. Fullwood took his wife and their two small boys to New York, Europe and Cape Town in 1900 before setting up home in London (and having another child; a daughter) – just as the world-wide postcard craze was hitting full swing.

Collecting cards was a phenomenon in the decade before the First World War, and Raphael Tuck & Sons – a postcard publisher owned by a London-based Prussian Jewish-√©migr√© family – were one of the biggest names in the business. In 1899 the company persuaded the British Postmaster-General that cards should be a standard size with both message and address on one side and the other side free for artwork, creating the postcard we are familiar with today – and the first truly mass media. Tuck’s ‘Wide-Wide-World’ series was launched in 1905, with bright, colourful ‘Oilette’ cards printed in Bavaria (the Tucks didn’t rate British colour printing) and exotic themes like ‘The Arctic Regions’, ‘Pleasure Resorts of Sydney’ and ‘Native Types of India’. The Oilettes were sold in sets of six scenes (half a shilling a pack) and promptly became highly collectable.

The extension of ‘Imperial Penny Post’ rates to New Zealand in 1905 helped Wellingtonians swap cards and news with friends and relatives back in the Mother Country for the equivalent of about $2 at today’s rates. Cheaper than telegrams and more widely available than telephones, the volume of mail exploded, with our post service handling 7,500,000 cards in 1909, a figure dwarfed by the estimated 1,000,000,000 cards posted in America at the same time. The General Post Office on Customhouse Quay must have been a hive of activity.

Like any rage there were detractors – Punch magazine said letter writing was being killed, mail carriers complained of exhaustion, and religious leaders condemned the ‘plague’ of cards. But it was good business for artists: the interest in collecting cards meant Tuck’s range had extended to a staggering 80,000 different cards by the time Fullwood settled his family in London. The postcard company promptly sent him back to the Antipodes to capture more scenes for the ravenous trade: the range of Fullwood’s scenes published in the 1907/08 series suggests he worked to a tight schedule in each of the cities he visited across Australasia, possibly staying in each city for two days or less. Ultimately he completed 130 Oilette scenes for Tuck. 

Postcard mania carried on unabated until war broke out with Germany in 1914. Fullwood – by now in his 50s – served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and ended up as Official War Artist to the Australian Imperial Force. His wife Clyda spent time in mental asylums before her death in 1918, and two of their children died at a young age – but Fullwood remained prolific until he succumbed to pneumonia in 1930. While never critically rated, his work was exhibited extensively during his lifetime (with multiple showings at London’s Royal Academy) and numerous paintings are held in Australia’s major state galleries. Raphael Tuck & Sons’ final hurrah was printing cards with secret escape maps for POWs during World War Two, with the destruction of the head office and artwork archive during the Blitz additional motivation for their work. The family sold the business in the late 1950s.

Fullwood’s depiction of Wellington didn’t last long. The fire that engulfed much of the Parliament Buildings in December 1907 would have happened months after Tuck published the set of Wellington cards. One card in my collection has the message ‘The houses here shown were burned four weeks ago, at present we have no Parliament House’

The spectacular General Post Office that towered over the adjacent masts and funnels was demolished in the 1970s, with the InterContinental Hotel building taking its place – progress, apparently. The waterfront scenes that caught the artist’s eye are a tantalising glimpse of the commercial bustle on Queens Wharf’s ‘inner T’ (now lost under the TSB Arena) that ebbed away with the rise in air travel and containerisation in the 1960s. But Fullwood’s talent for capturing cityscapes means the Wellington shared by postcard collectors over a century ago is still recognisable today – most of all, we are still a city of walkers.

First published in the November 2018 issue of Capital magazine

5 December 2016

John Key’s real legacy is his lack of blunders

Imagine a Tory Prime Minister chosen to lead his party in 2006, and stepping down in 2016 on his own terms with a long spell of successful leadership in government. The books had been bought back into surplus, troublesome referenda results quickly forgotten, he's still overwhelmingly picked as the 'most popular leader' – and his party is sitting on around 50% in the polls. Not, not the restless dreams of David Cameron, but the record of John Key, New Zealand's soon-to-be ex-PM, who unexpectedly announced his resignation earlier today.

John Key (Getty Images)
Arguably one of the world's most successful centre-right leaders since the Thatcher era, Key has dominated New Zealand politics in the past decade. His National party has held near-majority government despite a proportional electoral system that was meant to make such an occurrence impossible, and his departure has given Labour (currently polling worse than its British sister party) a sliver of hope – Andrew Little, the sixth opposition leader to be thrown into the amphitheatre to face Key, looked visibly relieved heaping praise on the man who'd devoured his predecessors.

Yet for Key's electoral success there isn't much that screams 'legacy' about his time in office – nothing like Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, or even Blair. His Labour predecessor Helen Clark created the KiwiSaver compulsory superannuation scheme, and renationalised New Zealand's railways. Key's triumph has been playing the hand fate dealt exceptionally well. He's delivered stable, business-friendly government against a backdrop of the global credit crunch, and ran deficits to shield New Zealand, a country heavily reliant on international trade, from the worst of the economic slowdown. There's been massive investment in transport infrastructure, welfare has been reformed, and the hard work of getting Christchurch back on its feet after the 2011 earthquake is underway – imagine demolishing the bulk of Central London and you get a sense of the task's enormity.

Key's goofy moments – memorably pulling a waitress's pony tail – sent the Left into meltdown, but my gut feeling is his 'embarrassing uncle' antics quietly endeared him to the majority of New Zealanders. He's the son of a single mother who grew up in a council flat, married his childhood sweetheart and became a self-made millionaire, yet enjoys popularity comparable to pre-Brexit Boris.

So why step down when he's on top, with another term beckoning? Key (who turned 55 in August) said he had 'left nothing in the tank'; he's a workaholic, not a chillaxer, and three decades of punishing work hours as one of Merrill Lynch's top currency traders and at the top of politics are enough. He's served his country, he's estimated to be worth £30 million – and wants to spend time with the family he's clearly devoted to, judging by the social media insights care of his now celebrity children. He says his decision to step down was made in September, and as his helicopter swooped over the shattered roads and railway tracks on his way to visit communities hit by last month's 7.8 earthquake I wouldn't blame him if he quietly felt relieved knowing someone else was going to shoulder responsibility for the rebuild.

The big shake almost certainly delayed his resignation announcement until today. New Zealand's three year parliamentary terms means resigning before Christmas gives his successor a clear run into the General Election. Key said he'd 'taken the knife to myself to allow others to come through', but the 19 (out of 60) National MPs elected by the list will need refreshing too – a messy job more easily accomplished by a new leader. There will be some nervous members in the party's caucus, keenly trying to ensure they back the right horse in next week's leadership ballot.

And for all the sense that New Zealand is doing well, with the government back to running a surplus, there remain some big challenges that Key has avoided tackling. Auckland's dysfunctional housing market is beginning to make London look like good value. The pension age remains unsustainably low at 65. Immigration levels are increasingly worrying some of the National Party's base. And while Key's government signed free-trade deals with Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong, years of work into the Trans-Pacific Partnership went up in flames during the US election campaign – so salvaging something out of the wreckage will be a priority for the next Prime Minister.

The collapse of the TPP ranks second to Key's biggest regret – failing to persuade New Zealanders to ditch our Union Jack-based flag in a $22 million, two referenda consultation. But in the scheme of things it's hardly an illegal invasion of Iraq, or making the wrong call in a Brexit referendum. Not a bad disappointment to have after eight years at the top.

First published by Coffee House on December 5th, 2016