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Newtown, between 1908-10. Photograph taken by Sydney Charles Smith. 1888-1972: Photographs of New Zealand. Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library. 1/1-019663-G
February 26, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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On the periphery of the imagined world

For the local, Wellington is a city of few surprises. At 500 feet, a larger, more formidable metropolis, like the sprawling small print of terms and conditions, enfeebles any sense of total comprehension. In contrast, the familiar Wellington harbour lined by a city and cradled by hills is as immediately explicable and loaded with the significance of a single figure. From the eye of a gliding gull, the outline of Wellington spanning from Wadestown to Miramar is roughly the shape of a jagged 3. In sign language, the sign for Wellington is to hold up three fingers, your index, middle, and ring finger to form a W and to motion it twice. Three is the number of dimensions perceivable to human perception, though this constraint does not exist as rigidly in the imagination.

Imagination’s place in Wellington is foundational. Built at the bottom of an island between Australia and Antarctica, it is the southernmost capital of the world; a drifting trace built from utopian yearning and forged in the quiet anxiety of isolation. Unlike bigger, more audacious capitals, it is by virtue of its remoteness that Wellington cannot act as an island unto itself. London too is a seaport on a small, detached island. Yet London has the improbable fortune of having been the principal urban hub of Europe; a booming site of commerce and culture, it became one of the epicentres of the Industrial Revolution and modernism at a time when neither of these things yet seemed so malevolent. Because of this, London can sometimes pretend as though it were the centre towards which the world turns to know itself by comparison. Wellington, sitting on land that floated forgotten for thousands of years at the bottom of the globe, is compelled to look outward, to imagine what is beyond, lest it forget the world in return.

Before the harbour became Wellington, it was called Te Upoko-o-te-ika-a-Māui, and then Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Later it became Port Nicholson or Pōneke. To the philistinism of the settler, the first names were but wild fancies — oral tradition untethered to the certainty of historical record. Speech may have the authority of presence, but history is conjured from absence. Te Upoko-o-te-ika-a-Māui floats out in the realm of myth where they say that the eye of Te Ika fossilized into a windswept harbour while a faraway bird wept and wept. Te Whanganui-a-Tara inhabits the domain of legend where in circa 950 AD Chief Tara was sent forth like Noah’s dove to scan the slender green body of the Taniwha. He arrived and declared the harbour fertile with possibility. There is no way to know precisely. Port Nicholson, conversely, is etched into the plain papers of history upon which one can verify that the New Zealand Company purchased, with some irksome difficulty, the harbour from Te Āti Awa chief Te Wharepouri in 1839. In 1840 Port Nicholson was named Wellington after the noble Duke, Arthur Wellesley, an avid supporter of colonisation. This is a tale of Chinese whispers in which ink creates truth and paper holds memory. After these erasures, the landscape was altered — streams were redirected or built over, the function of the soil, the water, and the trees changed, and Māori were out-populated in this place that was no longer Te Whanganui-a-Tara but Brittania, Port Nicholson, Wellington. Nomenclature is a tool so insidious that it can reshape the world without bloodshed.

The lonely city now stands undecided between ocean and forest, a design where escape out to sea or into the forest is an ever imminent possibility. The first British plans for the city’s layout were a fantasy, designed to capture the attention of would-be settlers whose longings were roused by the neatly pictured divisions of public and private land oriented by a focus on community and nestled alongside a man-made river (unsoiled not like the Thames) with space still for farms. This initial concept assumed that the land upon which the city would be built would be amenable to what was fantasised (it would not be). The second plan was more anarchic, adapting to the unyielding terrain and responding to demands for more private land — a reaction counter to the initially envisioned society-centric utopia. In this second map, utopian imagining is fractured by a need to survive. Settlers wished to focus on their pressing individual or private needs first, and as a consequence the communal dream was consigned to the sidelines. Looking through the changing plans of Wellington from 1840 to 1912, settler utopia appears as a faraway shore which the tide is always approaching towards and then receding away from, adapting to the changing dreams of the population.

Wellington imagines the world and reconstructs it everywhere. The influence of Indian communities that began migrating to New Zealand in greater numbers in the 1900s has flavoured the evenings. The pungent creaminess of Southern India and the arid, sharpness of the North warm the throat when wind and rain have left a chill on the lips. An afternoon stroll down the main streets quickly reveals a taste for Japanese cuisine, a penchant which easily transposes itself onto a sea-based capital. Wellington connects to an imagined Japan through seafood. The attachment to fish is sensuously associated by the rolling tongue to a crisp, almost austere, rawness; a tactile experience which joins up in the mind to an inherited love of the natural and the clean. The city was always supposed to contrast with the pollution of Industrialised Europe and this dream of the fresh and the organic informs the aesthetic of Wellington businesses. Burger joints using the “freshest home-grown” ingredients are found in all vaguely hip corners, evoking the trendiness of New York or New Jersey and pacifying it with an ironical, furtive self-awareness. At lunch break, there is a café door flung open at every ten steps, a legacy of the 1950s after a boom in immigration and interest in American culture flooded the city’s coffeehouses with artists and political dissenters. To this day, Wellington cafés are teeming with creatives and champagne-revolutionaries who sit in places that whisper of France, of Colombia, of lands of Milk and Honey. Wellington desires to be everywhere in the world, to seek newness and to create it from material found at home.

Downtown Wellington. Commercial Negatives. Photograph taken by K E Niven and Co. Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library. 1/2-223768-F.

Downtown Wellington. Photograph taken by K E Niven and Co. Commercial Negatives. Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library. 1/2-223768-F.

Walter Benjamin says that every epoch dreams its successor; Wellington’s successor is a facsimile. The capital struggles aesthetically with the combined forces of its natural environment and the stifling confines of European and American influence. Its earliest structures are mostly wooden, as is the case with the Nairn Street Cottage. The cottage is in the Georgian Style, an import from the Wallis family’s homeland in Britain. William Wallis selected the location of his family home with the intention of having easy access to a nearby stream of clean water as a safety measure against the possibility of earthquakes. To this day, Wellington’s buildings labour under the premonition of their own destruction, and it is partially for this reason that skyscrapers are rare — a scarcity which imposes a humble stature unbefitting a capital. It was with the introduction of concrete in the 1890s that the urban centre began to take on a slightly statelier appearance as Wellington was at last able to mimic the fashionable Victorian styles of Europe. Old St. Paul’s Gothic-Revival style was adapted to Wellington’s environment and resources, using timber for the interior and concrete for the façade in order to emulate stone. Painted white and starkly artificial, Old St. Paul’s exterior has the effect of a modest impersonation of something rather more impressive. The pre-war period saw the rise of the trending French Art Deco, while the post-war period produced glassy structures courtesy of the American Modernist movement. In 1988, the search for a distinctive architectural style found some home grown talent to produce it in the form of Te Papa. The museum’s design draws inspiration from the histories of Māori and early settlers, using liberal amounts of a material not native to either — reinforced steel — a necessity brought about by earthquake danger. In 2007 it was voted by Dominion Post readers to be New Zealand’s ugliest building, proving that tall poppy syndrome extends its spite to architecture. Indeed, as a country and as a city there is an anxiety surrounding bold acts of aesthetic innovation with regards to national identity. Attempts to capture the unique character of New Zealand are, as a rule, accompanied by contempt and scepticism towards the authenticity of the representation. Wellington yearns to establish itself as part of the world’s narrative without being reduced to mimicry but is regularly hindered by a rejection of that which does not replicate or adapt the creativity of others.

A picture of the city would be incomplete without some mention of its people; unable to wholly capture an entire population in nuance, let us settle for caricature. Central Wellington is, geographically and in character, the core point of New Zealand, acting as a compromise between the rough countryside found in the South and the more modern North. Despite a middling cosmopolitanism and a general liberal-mindedness, many of Wellington’s inhabitants dress somewhat conservatively during the day. Unlike Aucklanders, Wellingtonians do not exemplify the glitz of the tanned jocks and pseudo-baisable girls of your nightmarish high school years, rather they are typified by a kind of outsider-hood. There is something stygian about their fashion sense which is urban as well as rustic, compulsively nostalgic, and always lacking in colour. Wellington’s wind and rain enforce a code of modesty. Bare legs and arms are a rare sight, and when they do surface, anytime except those brief summer days in January to March, they are treated with the blushing ridicule and titillation of a winking taboo. Most Wellingtonians are cushy city-folk with soft hands and watered down accents, however they combine this with a certain roughness which is loosely suggestive of rural New Zealand. Among the trendy, the masculine of the species is typically ectomorphic, cerebral, dressed a little survivalist Mac Demarco crossed with circa 2000 Julian Casablancas if he were a fisherman or a lumberjack. The feminine is often fresh-faced or only casually made-up, they maintain some of that free ‘n’ easy attitude of the country gal. Bright and whimsical with a Taurean earthiness, the feminine currently models a curated slovenliness à la Grimes, or a bohemian eclecticism. The people of Wellington are caught between conflicting ideas of what New Zealand is, weaving for themselves an identity particular to the capital which is modest but not dowdy, nostalgic but not old fashioned. They house in their minds both the future, which is the city of trendiness and clean convenience, and the past, which is relegated to the natural, the countryside of dirt and hard labour. Holding these concepts, they look upon the unstable picture of the present, drink their craft beer, and sigh.

Beyond the games of dress-up and make-believe, does Wellington see itself? The city unites an abundance of histories and cultures under the simplicity of its own concept. The word ‘Wellington’ summons images of food, art, people, and places which are inextricable from their relationship to each other, their pasts and futures now fused. To forget that the city is at the end of the earth is the only error. To forget this would mean to cease needing to imagine, and it is in the act of envisioning elsewhere, spatial or temporal, that Wellington is at its clearest; a familiar harbour at the periphery of an imagined world.

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