Relocating library merits a considered analysis

Artbeat column no 454 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 10.8. 2009

The idea of relocating the central branch of the public library to the old central post office has significant implications for the arts. The library is a major portal for access to literature. It has important holdings of medieval and other art. The shift would have implications for architecture and urban design in two different parts of town. Has it any merit?

The idea starts from a lack of space at the present building off the Octagon and that structure’s need for a technological upgrade to provide for electronic services. It was purpose designed by the city’s architectural division, including Bill Hesson (1929-2007) and Tim Heath and completed in 1981. It was given extra load-bearing capacity, to carry the weight of books. It didn’t provide for modern electronics because they didn’t exist at the time. It was given extended uncovered floors to provide additional space when that was needed. Why not cover those now and retrofit for electronics?

Since the central library was built the city’s library service has expanded into a multi-site operation. There is a long-standing proposal and a budget provision to build a new branch in south Dunedin. Why not use that to solve the space problem?

I spoke with Bernie Hawke, the city’s library manager. He told me the plan to build the south Dunedin branch is a separate project, still being contemplated, and that the existing provision of more than $20million for upgrading the central library is the allocation being considered for alternative use on the post office.

The cost of extending the Octagon building is relatively high. The post office’s basement floor, with direct access from Bond Street, and its ground floor, opening off Princes Street, would together provide more space than the expanded Octagon building. With the weighty stuff mostly on the ground floor the post office would need no reinforcement. A two-floor library is easier to operate than a ten storey one. There would be easier vehicle access off Bond Street.

Mr Hawke emphasised no decision has been made. These were just the reasons the idea seemed worth investigating. I agree it should be but there are some other considerations too.

It has been suggested the post office might be extended across Bond Street to the old Edinburgh House site, now an open-air car park.  This would disturb the original street plan and eclipse important vistas. There are several good buildings in the immediate vicinity. The local setting is architecturally distinguished. People of a certain age (elderly) tend to dislike the post office, but it is a good building of its sort, designed by John Mair (1876-1959) and completed in 1936. It could be tastefully refitted. If a structure is contemplated on the Edinburgh House site a replica should be considered. Bond Street should remain open.

Many people would like to see the Exchange area revitalised and locating the Otago Regional Council also in the post office is being considered conjointly. The library would bring many more people into the area because it attracts a larger number of visitors than perhaps any other public building in town. However, it would be less convenient for some, including those who pay rates and do banking while visiting the library.

Weighing this there is another suggestion. Why not move some of the departments in the upper parts of the Civic Centre into the post office and give more space in that building to the city’s archives, which need to expand, and the library, perhaps at the plaza level? I know of at least two very senior librarians in Dunedin who consider the post office idea highly doubtful. It is a waste of public money to let a designedly extra-strong building be used for offices and shops.

These factors all need weighing. But spending over $20million some lines can be drawn in the sand. Good buildings and built environments shouldn’t be compromised. The library’s special collections can be functionally improved by getting rid of their present split-level deployment. They also need an adequate exhibition space. And the library houses Colin McCahon’s Otago Peninsula painting.

Peter Simpson drew attention to its significance in his Hocken lecture on the 27th of July. He quoted Charles Brasch’s view of it as the most important painting New Zealand has ever produced. Maybe it or it isn’t but it is undoubtedly a landmark. In the post office, or the Octagon, it should be given a proper home.
© 2009, Otago Daily Times