Wellington sucks. All capitals suck.
They suck money, power, initiative and ambitious people. Paris sucks from all of France. Vienna’s glories were sucked from throughout the Austro Hungarian Empire, Rome’s from her old empire and its Catholic replacement. Powerful capitals suck without apology.
From our taxpaying compatriots Wellington has sucked Te Papa, our excellent suburban trains, the motorways which were superb when built 50 years ago and countless other institutions including the national orchestra and ballet. Head offices had to set up here when business survival depended on government concessions. They sucked for us. Head offices matter. Where bosses and owners live they endow theatres, patronise artists, and sponsor monuments to themselves and their businesses.
Good capitals repay their countries with concentrated vitality and innovative force. But the world is littered with faded former capitals puttering along on history. Sentimental subsidies may merely postpone and prolong decay. Sucking can’t last without offering something valued in return.
If Wellington's response to earthquake risk is to double our sucking efforts while clinging to the past, we’ll merely prolong a decline. With our forebears’ example, the Sunday shake stimulus might instead overcome inertia. It might help us replace the timid young fogies who exercise the suffocating control powers of Council, with people who like change and do not fear the future.
Wellington grew to real power on more than formal authority. It has been a city of leadership. It still can be. We have the new planetary businesses spinning off Sir Peter Jackson, and the TradeMe/RodDrury schools of digital entrepreneurship. In the very recent past, our Reserve Bank was recognised as the best in the world. During our confident reform days under Roger Douglas, our Treasury was internationally attractive for top young economists .
Our forebears were similarly resilient, and willing to discard the past.
When the 1848 earthquakes ruined Wellington, they rebuilt shrewdly. They were not insured. Many started again with nothing. Yet when Auckland collected over six hundred pounds as a relief fund, they voted to decline it, respectfully, to reinforce their determination and self reliance.
Those pioneer Wellingtonians were quick learners. Not a single wooden house suffered much damage other than to chimneys, though all the masonry buildings were demolished. So they established our preference for light buildings, completely alien to their inherited traditions. The few who did not learn from 1848 got another lesson in 1855 when our leading hotelier, Baron von Alzdorf was killed in the brick mansion he’d defiantly rebuilt. He was determined that he could build a ‘proper’ building out of brick that would not fall down.
What’s the point of this history?
Many modern foolish Barons are in local government. Instead of accepting warning shakes as an invitation to welcome change, they cling desperately to the known, the familiar, the “historic”. They’ve been at it for years. We’ve wasted tens of millions on their sentimental attachment to trolley buses.
As this is written, Cr Pannett is vowing that the Public Trust Building will not be replaced, and calling on central government to pay for her aesthetic preferences. The obscurantist council has just voted to waste over $40m on preserving the Town Hall, instead of giving our internationally renowned earthquake engineers the chance to shine at home. I’d love to see what our world leading architects could do in a new build.
Consider the February decision to stop Mark Dunaitschik from replacing the vacant Harcourts Building.
HSBC Tower next door is new, sound and built on base isolators. Yet it was 'closed' the day after our recent Sunday warning shake. The 24 story HSBC building was largely idle until engineers could say the old Harcourts building was not going to collapse against it .
This dedication to preservation is not about the look and feel of Wellington. The reactionaries in the Historic Places Trust (the main culprits in this Harcourts building saga) rejected an offer of lightweight facades with an appearance identical to the current Edwardian/Aussie melange. Clearly winning means more to the heritage zealots than appearance. So they and the anxious building owners are spending up to one million dollars on lawyers and expert witnesses. The Historic Places half of that waste is taxpayers'. So the National government must share the blame. They've known for years that the zealots despise property rights. The government has had ample time to strip away their excessive power.
Power attracts people who want to show their superior ‘values’. Demonstrated submission to those values is the real objective, not preserving a particular treasure. Hence the lack of interest in a look and feel preservation. Religions call for othewise pointless sacrifices just to show piety and power.
Other rulers too invent noble excuses for imposing risk and losses on others. In the 19th century worker lives were sacrificed to "progress". This generation's callous bosses are in the green movement, and wherever they can control land uses. They get their kicks by showing their willingness to sacrifice others to their superior aesthetic and cultural values.
They think cost does not matter because it is landlords who must find the money. Few have more than a shaky grasp of economics. They do not accept that ultimately tenants pay for scarcity of attractive space. Money spent without an increase in Town Hall usability is resource lost to Wellington. It sucks up savings that should have gone on new and better capacity.
To pious preservationists the deadweight cost just confirms how sacred are their objectives. They measure piety by the sacrificial suffering it involves.
Since writing this comment first for Wellington's Capital magazine the Historic Places Trust has been forced to acknowledge limits to its power. They should be grateful to be saved from themselves. If the Harcourts façade some day kills people on Lambton Quay, we'll revile all who've put their heritage preferences ahead of the lost lives, as well as property rights and our tradition of embracing change. They'll deserve it more than the Pike River directors and owners. We know that "heritage" worship in Christchurch has killed. The Pike River miners and management did not know the odds they faced with the same certainty.