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Wellington's rocky new addition surpasses rocky criticism

No, it’s not a pair of giant pumpkins or even a piece of anatomy belonging to the nether regions—as some earlier murmurings might have suggested. This is Wellington Airport's new $60 million international terminal, officially opened by Prime Minister John Key today. Dubbed ‘The Rock’, it looks set to turn critics on their heads.

“The tide has definitely turned in terms of public opinion. Even the Prime Minister thought it was okay,” jokes Architect Nick Barratt-Boyes, of Studio Pacific Architecture, who worked in collaboration with Warren and Mahoney on the project. 

Traditionally very territorial, Barratt-Boyes says it’s now more common for architectural practices to collaborate. He says the rigour of having two practices work on the project brought intensity to the process. 

“You’ve got two pretty determined design practices and that provides good tension because you have to debate things and you don’t always see eye to eye. But I think we’ve worked together really well on this project. It’s a good outcome, and that’s the most important thing.” 

Wellington Airport’s brief for the terminal, as stated on the Studio Pacific Architecture website, was for: “...functionality, planning efficiency, economy in building materials and construction, optimisation of the available pocket building site (heavily constrained by aircraft maneuverability and choreography), and a double ambition of creating a memorable visitor experience through an "edgy" aesthetic”. 

And it is that very notion on “memorable” that instigated the unusual outcome. 

“When the brief is to create a memorable experience, it’s a pre-requisite that you’re going to produce something that challenges people. It goes with the territory,” says Barratt-Boyes. 

In what is not generally a common theme, Barratt-Boyes says the client kept pushing them to go further and push the boundaries. 

“To be honest, you only get interesting architecture when there’s a client who’s got courage and conviction. Without that, you’re struggling,” he says. 

The result is a rocky appearance on the runway that has been described as “provocative and daring” and a “radical departure from what has gone before”. It has also been described as a pyramid of steel beams that meet at nodal points in mid-air, forming angles and planes that say ‘sculpture’ rather than ‘building’. 

The largest of the three Rock structures is 16m high and 33m wide at the widest point. The complete structure is intended to verge away from the regular flight imagery of airports both in New Zealand and around the world. It also pays homage to Wellington’s natural and rugged South coast landscape. 

Research sought from a range of industry specialists helped to determine the optimal method of constructing the building in such a harsh marine environment. 

A full-sized prototype of a section of the copper-clad roof construction was built in a warehouse before work on-site had even commenced.  This allowed the project team to review the proposed method of construction from a position of experience—not easy when setting out to build a one of a kind building. 

This prototype was also used by the team to demonstrate to building inspectors how the construction was compliant with the relevant sections of the Building Code. 

Barratt-Boyes credits Mainzeal construction for being astute in their work, which helped overcome potential difficulties arising from the unusual structure of the building.  

“They put a lot of craftsmanship and finesse into the design in terms of the finishing work. It was beautifully put together, which made all the difference,” he says, adding that “you can have a good and powerful idea, but it needs to be executed really beautifully”. 

One of the buildings’ most notable features when it comes to beauty is the use of copper on the exterior which, over time, is expected to turn blue-green in colour due to oxidization from the salty air. 

The inside features macrocarpa timber panelling, which Barratt-Boyes says creates a warm and earthy interior that creates cavernous spaces. Coloured fragments of glass in the roof fissure let in a warm, natural light by day and backlighting at night creates a glow, which will be seen from the air. 

For Patrick Reynolds, the man charged with photographing The Rock, the building evokes images of New York. 

As I was photographing The Rock I was reminded of the great images by Ezra Stoller of Eero Saarinen's 1962 TWA Terminal at JFK. Of course the buildings are different in form and scale… but the ambition of the two buildings is clear. They both set out to provide a theatrical space to give glamour and comfort to what can be a tiresome or even stressful process…  In both cases the buildings suggest they have a life of their own: they often appear animal-like…  The New York building and its photographs express the optimism of their era, how wonderful then, to be reminded of this while in a new building in Wellington,” says Reynolds. 

Even cynics have given the building the design thumbs up. Wellington-based design commentator Tommy Honey says: “It’s very rare that this old cynic sees a building and is converted to an enthusiast. When people go inside they will realise the true value of this spectacular and supremely elegant building. People are going to leave for the airport early just so they can hang there.” 

Positive accolades like that of Honey show that persistence and a belief in your project vision pays off.  “We knew all along that it would be something quite extraordinary. It just needed time to get there. We had to go through all that criticism to get to the point where people can make up their own mind,” concludes Barratt-Boyes. 

More about The Rock 

The new structure also incorporates efficiency and economy in building materials by using plywood and fibre-cement in the carcass of the building and windows, which are aluminum and plywood reveals. 

Recycling and refurbishing has also played a role in the following ways:

  • the reuse of mechanical plant
  • the refurbishment of lifts and toilets
  • the reuse and salvaging of ceiling tiles, security cameras, PA, lights, phones and gate signs
  • reupholstering of lounge seats
  • refurbishing of aerobridges
  • retaining existing shear walls which would otherwise be expensive to remove 

On the environmental side, design features include:

  • ramps instead of escalators or lifts where possible
  • energy saving features such as double and laminated glazing, sun protection louvres, natural daylight via skylights, low flow bathroom fittings
  • environmental range paint specifications
  • low velocity mechanical thermal plant 

Take a tour through the concept video below. Or if you’ve been lucky enough to see it in person, let us know what you think.