Saturday, February 24, 2007

Charming Centre, Crumbling Suburbs

I am no architect, and perhaps not an aesthete either, but the architecture of Wellington seems to me to be one of its most attractive features. The whole city, like the museum, is in a state of agreeable disorder. In the central city, architectural features fit together without fitting into any obvious pattern. Beside the Art Gallery in a square lined with steel palms there is a café. Next to the café is a glass wall with white bands between the panels. The bands are arranged diagonally, and at variable angles, so that each door is an irregular trapezium. This is all very nice, but the thing I want to note is that, although there is no wall made in the same style anywhere in the vicinity (at least, that I could see), or even anything approaching that style, the slanting wall seems to fit in very nicely, and not be awkward or pretentious. Go around the corner and there is something altogether different, a shady area filled with traditional-looking flower beds, neatly symmetric and made of red brick. Go around another corner, and in another bed there is a set of weird, modern-looking cairns, like enormous, tapering piles of stone pikelets. One of the piles is inverted, so that the smaller pikelets are on the bottom.

Architectural curiosities abound in the central city, and mostly they are charming and arty. (This state of affairs my be contrasted with Christchurch, where there are also a few architectural oddities. In the southern city these features aim for the same look as the Wellington ones, but in my experience and opinion they just end up being arty.) The steel nikaus, palms opening very beautifully into a ring of metal arcs, are distinctive and popular; and so is the silver hanging ball, suspended two stories up from invisible wires, hollow and enclosed by curving native leaves. You can look up through it and see blue sky through the gaps in the leaves, as through the gaps in a forest canopy. In Plimmers alley there is the bronze man with a bronze jumping dog stuck to his left knee. A miniature cable car, set upon a pole, points the way to the somewhat larger cable-car that runs up past a botanic gardens and a cricket field. There are the giant bowling balls, the pinpong ball lamps, the fabulous wooden sculpture on the bridge, runnelled and vigorously angular. In one entrance to Cuba Mall there is a colourful, insectile object on top of a pole. In another place there are two large flat rectangles of silver metal sticking out of the ground. They are interesting because they are covered in large metal hemispheres, and look like a model of a skin disease, or a giant piece of Braille.

And of course there is the bucket sculpture in Cuba Mall. This may not be a spectacular sculpture, but it is charming and it was there when I was young and so I am going to describe it in more detail. Imagine a giant pear, just like a normal pear except giant and hollow and made of metal. Paint it in a primary colour of your choice. Then cut it in half, so you have two primary-coloured things that can hold water. Get five pears of the same kind, paint them in other primary colors then cut them in half as well. Attach all of these primary-colored pear-buckets to a black metal structure, so that when any one bucket is filled up sufficiently with water, it tips over and dumps the water out the thin end, the stalk-end if we’re still thinking pears. Get some hoses put in at the top of the structure, so that water goes into the top bucket. Arrange things so that all the other buckets share around the water that is dumped from the top bucket, and so you get an odd, fascinating, arrhythmic cascade of water, with periods of calm build-up where no water changes bucket, periods of short splashes, and periods of splashing, dunking chaos where all the buckets flip and roll and groan on their axles and mesmerized tourists stand around getting wet. This is the bucket-fountain on Cuba Street. It may not be quite as spectacular as it sounds, but it is a good idea and it’s been there for a while.

After you’ve drenched yourself in Cuba Mall, go to the cable car and slide up a hill in a quaint red carriage. Get out at Kelburn and walk around. If you’re like me, you’ll start at one place, go in what appears to be the right direction, get lost, retrace your steps in the wrong direction, and generally go around in what appears to be a circle while arriving at a place three blocks from where you started. The confusion here is due partly to my own dodderiness. But I think I am justified in laying some of the blame on the suburban architecture of Wellington, which can in turn be blamed on the hills, great humps that twist streets and confound vehicles in a way that would have pleased MC Escher, and generally conduct a happy revolt against rectangular neatness. The suburbs of Wellington look as if they are being constantly tossed about, and it is a miracle that anything stays in the same place. This may be compared instructively to the suburbs of Christchurch, which look as if they are being constantly steamrolled, and it’s a miracle that anything changes place. Grass curbs are a microcosm of the greater differences between the cities. In Christchurch, curbs are easy to maintain, and usually they are maintained, often in immaculate condition. The typical kerb is homogenous and green and well-shorn, and dull as billiard cloth. In Wellington, in the hill suburbs, it is impossible to keep an immaculate curb. The roads are too narrow, and there are too many funny angles. Instead of the staid rectangles of grass that you might find in Fendalton or Burnside, in the hill suburbs of Wellington you find overgrown lozenges, banks made of concrete, banks made of some kind of shingly conglomerate, or banks made of earth too steep to cultivate and overrun by grasses, flax, forgetmetnots, ivy. Odd bits of brick poke out in various places; loose stones crumble away from footpaths; here is an old concrete wall embedded in clay, and there are two or three bricks, chipped and still hemmed by cement. Steps twist up between houses, with strips of white painted on their edges so that midnight drunks and bag-laden housewives can get to the front door without multiple fractures. Here is a driveway pushed into the hill at a dislocated angle, with cement lathered on like icing and with moss pushing up from underneath and making systems of cracks, little rivulets of green. There are one-lane streets where parked cars take up one lane and moving cars do what they can with the rest. There are houses from all perspectives: from above you can see barbequeues and swimmingpools, and potted cacti at the front doors; from below you see a lot less, a garage and a few steps and the red or green border of a corrugated roof. It is all quaint and pleasant and suburbian, filled with casual prosperity, ramshackle without being rundown.

I quite like Wellington.