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The Architecture Electric Substations of central Wellington Jared Kennard Tyson Schmidt Nathan Horne

With contributions by: Guy Marriage Gerald Melling Pip Cheshire

The Architecture Electric

Electricity is the most wonderful invention that enhances our lives in ways that we now take totally for granted. Unseen, unheard, unthanked: without a second thought we throw a switch and boil a kettle, or turn on a light to illuminate our reading. We seldom think how that current comes to be there, waiting patiently inside a socket, ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting appliance. Electricity comes to us, not direct from the giant wind turbines at Makara, but through fat humming wires across mountain valleys and a series of voltage drops, ultimately converted in small substations scattered amongst our communities. The book you hold in your hands is a repository of rare memories, a depiction of the everyday architecture that surrounds you – one that you’ve possibly never really noticed. Architecture Electric is a product for a niche market for sure, yet it is also a celebration of curious geekdom, the search for the beauty of the mundane and the everyday. The authors of this book are on a quest. In this photographic foray into the gritty industrial architecture of 320 electrical substations found in central Wellington, they are seeking to uncover some of the visual truth in the raw industrial architecture that houses this quiet source of power. Ever since Nikola Tesla succeeded in vanquishing Thomas Edison, with the triumph of safe AC power over the more deadly DC power, there has been a need for these small buildings: stepping down the electrical voltages that power our modern lives. The photographs you see before you depict the passing attitudes towards the wonder of electricity, with the old substations designed as mini temples, complete with quietly proud columned facades. The Wellington City Council Electricity Department’s initials proudly displayed across the shallow pediment, a large number of these small temples still exist, such as the almost classical form of 264 Thorndon Quay, or the late-Edwardian simplicity of the low-Fi temples in Tory St, Parkvale Rd, and Ira St. Their craft in design, once proudly displayed, is now downplayed in the extreme. Many of these are now painted to try and hide quietly in the busy urban streetscape: their architecture almost unnoticed. By contrast, many of the modern substations are purposefully undistinguished, hiding below staircases, or in left over crevices in building facades, even adopting camouflage to pass themselves off as more background. The gritty urban industrial nature of the city substation makes in the suburbs, where it attempts to be passed off as domestic: ness of small substations in Ohiro Bay Parade, and the forelorn Bay. Only a small lightning bolt plaque gives away their silent

way for a more reticent demeanor witness the apologetic obsequiousand unloved efforts in Breaker warning: Caution! Danger of Death!

Occasionally, the suburban substation is proudly defiant, such as that in Mornington, positioned at the edge of the cliff overlooking the city. Captured in a cunning plan to look more residential, the Havelock St substation wears a jaunty peaked roof to disguise the industrial purpose within, its blank walls oblivious to the stunning view laid out in front. Other substations subtly betray the era of the architecture they were born into. At 125 Taranaki St, the streamlined green sleekness of the enclosure hints at a late Deco design time, whereas the Modern green crispness of 40 Mansfield St quite clearly and proudly displays a 50s Modern design rationale. There is still nothing else however to rival the pink and checkered postmodernist frontage in Lorne St – at once both vibrant and firmly dated to the 80s.

To design a building for a substation is a remarkably standard exercise – on the inside. Minimum dimensions are given, a lease is procured, thick fireproof walls enclose the heavy weight of the oil-cooled apparatus that resides within. A substation would make a well-behaved neighbour: no noise is ever emitted, except for a quiet hum. There are no photos of interiors in this book – no one is allowed inside. The box remains sealed and unexplored: like Schrodinger’s Cat, the contents remain unknown. While requirements inside are strict, the outside requirements are much less rigid. It is here that the architect can exercise their imagination: and yet so few of them do so. Ruggedly strong doors are needed, opening out onto a space that can be approached 24 hours a day. The design of these modern mini temples tries to remain faithful to their context. Sizes and proportions are sometimes coordinated seamlessly with the surrounding building, at other times tragically failing in an accident of unintended disjunction, such as the ungainly doorway at 138 Wakefield St. Their facades lie mostly blank, with just a grilled surface to let the air cool the humming transformers inside, while paint is periodically splashed on the facades to rejuvenate and refresh. The outlook in the future is for even more anonymous blandness. The authors, Nathan Horne, Jared Kennard, and Tyson Schmidt, have carefully scrutinized the building facades, picking out the quirky and the unexpected. Graffiti is scrawled on some surfaces, but surprisingly little when you consider that the doors are rarely if ever opened. If you look carefully at the mindless graffiti of the station in Salamanca Rd in Kelburn, you will note that amongst all that tagging, a carefully coloured chimney has been painted on the façade – a quiet joke amongst our city’s growing paste-up community. My favourite amongst all these images gives me strong hope for the future of our city’s design. The twin peaked splendidness of the Kaiwharawhara substation is a superb piece of background urban infrastructure, which combines not just an Electrical substation and a Waterworks, but has carefully separated these with an opportunely sited bus shelter. It is that sort of joined-up thinking that we need in our modern cities: utility buildings providing useful support to those that live amongst them. This collection of crisply taken pictures will act as a marker in history, celebrating this key role of the quiet power within our communities. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Guy Marriage, Architect Wellington 2010.

Subsist Press 31 Fairview Ave Feilding First published 2011 Š 2011 Subsist Press Contributions are copyright of the individual authors ISBN 978-0-473-18941-9 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of Subsist Press and/or the individual authors. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library Printed by The Copy Press Nelson, New Zealand

The Architecture Electric | Jared Kennard | Tyson Schmidt | Nathan Horne

Contents Introduction Supremos Doors GraďŹ tti Details Zones Index Afterword

8 11 59 71 85 99 111 133

Eeee-eee-lec-tri-ci-teeeeeee! High-voltage man / kisses night / to bring to light / those who need / to hide their shadow-deed. Eeee-eee-lec-tri-ci-teeeeeee! From Safe as Milk, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band

Along with the internal combustion engine, public sewage, and Stephenson’s Rocket, electricity is a fundamental strand in the infrastructural root of modernism. From the considerable distance of the early 21st century, however, it is difficult to imagine the profound impact of power distribution into the life of the hitherto gas-lit and coal-fired community. And the Lord said, let there be light! On his 1968 album Safe as Milk, Don Van Vliet’s voice is a surge of power - dark and guttural, yet pulsatingly incandescent. The wild instrumentalism in the music may well be an historical homage to the electrification of the guitar, but the suggestion - in the lyrics of the song Electricity - that the secrets of darkness are exposed by the ‘night kisses’ of ‘high-voltage man’ illuminates a curious architectural paradox. For the most part, those buildings charged with hosting such electric idealism suffer serious architectural voltage drop, their lights hidden under batteries of bushels. The deed of brightness seeks its own shadow, it seems, and the night is kissed by a tentative peck on the cheek. As a nomenclature, The Architecture Electric is an appropriate buzz. It invokes the humming of overhead wires in a soft rainfall, the primal screech of feedback from giant amplifiers, and the incandescent, white-hot flicker of urban neon. It excites. The electricity sub-station, however, is steadfastly shockproof. A storage facility and switch room (a sub-ordination of power, for local supply), it is located at the consumer end of that snaky conduit from the mighty powerhouse, its source. And in stark contrast to the latter’s more bombastic intrusion into landscape, the sub-station is either coyly concealed or morphologically disguised within the relevant built fabric - suburban, mostly - of its location. Ranging from the cute to the quietly well-mannered, the beacon for this cultural transformer - rather than flutter its innate oscillations - blinks modestly in the dim twilight of civic obedience. Like any other servant of a local-authority, it is stoically and unapologetically there, approachable only at election time, when it becomes plastered in the promise of political candidature. Light, at the end of a tunnel... Sub-sidiary it may be, but the sub-station is not sub-terranean. Nor is it - except, perhaps, when wearing the alternative colours of an intelligent graffiti - in any way sub-versive.


The Architecture Electric

Those people most interested in the sub-station are likely to be architects. The prospect of functional sub-stitution of its capricious site by a more personal occupation is palpable, and even the most cynical purveyor of environmental chaos indulges this curious delinquency, as if attracted by unthreatening behaviour. The substation is an uninhabited building, and - in that critical sense - has no attributable client. Like a frustrated portrait artist harrassed by the sitter, the architect dreams of a client-free life as a cultural sub-limation. And yet the designs of these potentially sub-jective lighthouses are rarely attributed to any particular architect. A peremptory overseeing by a registered eminence is no doubt present, but the shoulder peered over is more usually that of a draughtsman - a harmless sub-junction to a sub-ordinated self-expression. Sub-station camouflage is a comedy of cuckoo’s nests. The early 20th century opted for a sepulchral Antique Classicism as an appropriate cloak for its modern technology, as if to enshrine it in the mystery of the charnel house, or Ramses’ smelly tomb. In the 1930’s, Art Deco’s machine-age hieroglyphics offered pallid contextual relativity to notions of the new and futuristic, but thereafter architecture - with a capital A, that is - meekly surrendered to a prosaic vernacular. By mid-century, the sub-station had colonised the suburban house, quietly coddling its luminous egg behind the brick-veneer walls and sash windows of Builders Executive, the drawn lace curtains of Neo-Georgian, and the stucco-and-tile of Spanish Mission. Unenergised by such deceit, it ultimately re-emerged as a mock Colonial shopfront or a hip-roofed Arts-and-Crafts pavilion, until - more latterly - consolidating into an unadorned, flatroofed, concrete ‘Modernist’ box. This gradual capitulation to minimal efficiency is echoed by the ‘contemporary’ urban sub-station, an emphatically sub-standard accommodation usually found lurking behind a metal-grilled door in the bowels of a large commercial building, alongside overflowing Wheely Bins, fire hydrants, and the gloomy orifice of a basement car-park. Lighthouse beacon straight ahead / straight ahead across black seas / to bring eeee-lec-tri-ci-teeeee! So much for Captain Beefheart’s seductive dance - music trips the light fantastic far more deftly than the leaden feet of architecture, and whilst there is much to enjoy in the quaint idiosyncrasy of the stumpy little sub-station, as a celebrant of its function it’s but a candle in the wind.

Gerald Melling



Supremos Doors GraďŹ tti Details Zones Index

21 Edward Street, Te Aro


The Architecture Electric

14 Pringle Avenue, Te Aro



Moa Point Road, Rongotai


The Architecture Electric

52 Ira Street, Miramar



Humber Street, Island Bay


The Architecture Electric

Everton Terrace, Kelburn



132 The Terrace, Central City


The Architecture Electric

299 Evans Bay Parade, Evans Bay



21 Tory Street, Te Aro


The Architecture Electric

Hankey Street, Mount Cook



13 Gilmer Terrace, Central City


The Architecture Electric

138 WakeďŹ eld Street, Te Aro



Houghton Bay Road, Houghton Bay


The Architecture Electric

33 Kelburn Terrace, Kelburn



9 Pringle Avenue, Te Aro


The Architecture Electric

66 Salamanca Road, Kelburn



Roseneath Terrace, Roseneath


The Architecture Electric

123 Wexford Road, Miramar



Havelock Street, Mornington


The Architecture Electric

9 Parkvale Road, Karori West



Norna Crescent, Kelburn


The Architecture Electric

68 Ellice Street, Mount Victoria



100 Breaker Bay Road, Breaker Bay


The Architecture Electric

264 Thorndon Quay, Thorndon



Warwick Street, Wilton


The Architecture Electric

Lorne Street, Te Aro



Nairn Street, Mount Cook


The Architecture Electric

6 Kaiwharawhara Road, Kaiwharawhara



Ohiro Bay Parade, Ohiro Bay


The Architecture Electric

Agra Street, Khandallah



125 Taranaki Street, Te Aro


The Architecture Electric

Stone Street, Miramar



Herald Street, Berhampore


The Architecture Electric

MansďŹ eld Street, Newtown



Weka Street, Miramar


The Architecture Electric

Taurima Street, Hataitai



Cornwell Street, Pipitea


The Architecture Electric

Container B, Pipitea



Shelly Bay, Maupuia


The Architecture Electric

68 Dixon Street, Te Aro



70 Dixon Street, Te Aro


The Architecture Electric

Flagsta Hill, Te Aro



Roseneath, Roseneath


The Architecture Electric

Rosina Fell Lane, Central City



1 Mt Pleasant Road, Aro Valley


The Architecture Electric




Doors GraďŹ tti Details Zones Index

King Street, Mount Cook


The Architecture Electric

4 Torrens Terrace, Mount Cook



5 Tory Street, Te Aro


The Architecture Electric

6 Taranaki Street, Te Aro



31 Bowen Street, Central City


The Architecture Electric

34 Torrens Terrace, Mount Cook



138 The Terrace, Central City


The Architecture Electric

141 The Terrace, Central City



178 WakeďŹ eld Street, Te Aro


The Architecture Electric



Supremos Doors

Grafitti Details Zones Index

12 Lukes Lane, Te Aro


The Architecture Electric

69 Miramar Avenue, Miramar



9 Duncan Terrace, Kilbirnie


The Architecture Electric

Epuni Street, Aro Valley



46 Hania Street, Mount Victoria


The Architecture Electric

Military Road, Northland



Norna Crescent, Kelburn


The Architecture Electric

Waru Street, Khandallah



40 Tory Street, Te Aro 2 View Road, Houghton Bay


The Architecture Electric

Mairangi Road, Wadestown 62 Hataitai Road, Hataitai

88 Hutt Road, Kaiwharawhara Camperdown Road, Miramar

Constable Street, Newtown St John Street, Aro Valley



70 Adelaide Road, Newtown Hatton Street, Karori


The Architecture Electric

Hataitai Zone substation Wha Street, Lyall Bay

Henry Street, Kilbirnie Manchester Terrace, Melrose

Herald Street, Berhampore Mein Street, Newtown



Supremos Doors GraďŹ tti

Details Zones Index

Kaiwharawhara Zone, Kaiwharawhara Nottingham Street, Karori


The Architecture Electric

Lawrence Street, Newtown Warwick Street, Wilton

Athens Street, Miramar Moa Point, Rongotai

Frederick Street Zone, Te Aro Riddiford Street, Newtown



Evans Bay Zone, Rongotai 47 Hamilton Road, Hataitai


The Architecture Electric

Duncan Terrace, Kilbirnie University Zone, Kelburn

8 Ira Street Zone, Miramar Moeller Street, Mount Victoria

Roseneath, Roseneath 46 Hania Street, Mount Victoria



59 Upland Road, Kelburn Taurima Street, Hataitai


The Architecture Electric

9 Parkvale Road, Karori Macdonald Crescent, Te Aro

Elizabeth Street, Mount Victoria 56 Rongotai Road, Kilbirnie

Waikowhai Zone, Ngaio 98 Monorgan Road, Strathmore



100 Breaker Bay Road, Breaker Bay 117 Hamilton Road, Hataitai


The Architecture Electric

Hector Street, Seatoun Roseneath Terrace, Roseneath

8 Ira Street Zone, Miramar 131 Molesworth Street, Thorndon

Kaiwharawhara Zone, Kaiwharawhara Moore Street Zone, Pipitea



66 Salamanca Road 52 Ira Street


The Architecture Electric

66 Ellice Street 59 Upland Road

9 Duncan Terrace Flagsta Hill

Harrison Street 2 Volga Street

210 Houghton Bay Road SpringďŹ eld Terrace

Norna Crescent 13 Allington Terrace



33 Ludlam Street Herald Street


The Architecture Electric

52 Ira Street Helen Street

Station Road Versailles Street



Supremos Doors GraďŹ tti Details

Zones Index

Waikowhai Zone, Ngaio


The Architecture Electric

Kaiwharawhara Zone, Kaiwharawhara



8 Ira Street Zone, Miramar


The Architecture Electric

Frederick Street Zone, Te Aro



Central Park Zone, Brooklyn


The Architecture Electric

Hataitai Zone, Hataitai



Moore Street Zone, Pipitea


The Architecture Electric

Palm Grove Zone, Berhampore



Evans Bay Zone, Rongotai


The Architecture Electric

University Zone, Kelburn



Supremos Doors GraďŹ tti Details Zones


Substations Abel Smith Street - Awa Road

3 Abel Smith St 70 Adelaide Rd Allington Rd 7 Athol Cres


The Architecture Electric

72 Abel Smith St 312 Adelaide Rd Aotea Quay 9 Athol Cres

Adams Tce 29 Agra Cres Arthur St Avon St

58 Adelaideblah Rd 3 Aitken St Athens St 2 Awa Rd

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Substations Awa Road - Brougham Street

blah hlab halb 48 Awa Rd 2 Bolton St 88 Boulcott St Broadway

55 Ballance St Bombay St 93 Boulcott St 33 Brooklyn Rd

Ballantrae Pl 22 Boulcott St 31 Bowen St 39 Brooklyn Rd

4 Barker St 79 Boulcott St 100 Breaker Bay Rd Brougham St



Substations Burnham Wharf - Colway Street

Burnham Wharf Central Park Zone Civic Centre 2 College St


The Architecture Electric

Camperdown Rd Chaytor St Clark St Collier Ave

Cardall St 8 Church St Cobar Cres 1 Collingwood St

Cashmere Ave 11 Church St 187 Cockayne Rd Colway St

Substations Connaught Terrace - Dixon Street

54 Connaught Tce Container D Cornwell St 10 Customhouse Quay

116 Constable St Container F 94 Coutts St 38 Customhouse Quay

Container B Container H Crawford Green Danube St

Container C Cornford St Creswick Tce 36 Dixon St



Substations Dixon Street - Evans Bay Parade

68 Dixon St 9 Duncan Tce 11 Egmont St Elphinstone St


The Architecture Electric

70 Dixon St 7 Edward St Elizabeth St Epuni St

71 Dixon St 9 Edward St 3 Ellers Ave Eva St

23 Drummond St 21 Edward St 68 Ellice St 299 Evans Bay Pde

Substations Evans Bay - Gilmer Terrace

Evans Bay Zone Flagstaff Hill Frandi St Furness Lane

Everton Tce Fortification Rd Frederick St Zone 15 George Bolt St

1 Featherston St 31 Fox St Freyburg Building Ghuznee St

Feltex Lane Francis Pl Friend St 3 Gilmer Tce



Substations Gilmer Terrace - Harrison Street

8 Gilmer Tce 16 Gloucester St Halifax St Hankey St


The Architecture Electric

13 Gilmer Tce Grant Rd 47 Hamilton Rd 80 Hanson St

14 Gilmer Tce Grass St 117 Hamilton Rd Harriet St

Gipps St 48 Haining St 46 Hania St Harrison St

Substations Hataitai Road - Houghton Bay Road

62 Hataitai Rd Hector St 22 Herd St 1 Homewood Cres

Hataitai Zone Helen St Herd St 23 Hopper St

Hatton St Henry St 28 Hill St 60 Hopper St

Havelock St Herald St Hinemoa St 210 Houghton Bay Rd



Substations Humber Street - Kaiwharawhara Road

Humber St Hutt Rd 8 Ira St Zone Jeypore St


The Architecture Electric

Hungerford Rd 100 Hutt Rd Jean Batten St 32 Johnston St

24 Hunter St 209 Hutt Rd 3 Jervois Quay Jubilee Rd Ripple Plant

27 Hunter St 52 Ira St 28 Jervois Quay 6 Kaiwharawhara Rd

Substations Kaiwharawhara Road - Little Pipitea Street

46 Kaiwharawhara Rd Kedah St King St Lawrence St

Kaiwharawhara Zone 33 Kelburn Pde 52 Kingsford Smith St 1 Lennel Rd

Kano St 2 Kelvin Grove Kio Rd 20 Lennel Rd

Kate Sheppard (unused) 89 Kilbirnie Cres 2 Lambton Quay 12 Little Pipitea St



Substations Lombard Street - Manuka Street

Lombard St 12 Lukes Lane Mahora St Manchester Tce


The Architecture Electric

Lorne St 15 Lukes Lane Maida Vale Rd Mandalay Tce

Lucknow Tce MacDonald Cres Mairangi Rd MansďŹ eld St

33 Ludlam St 5 Maginnity St 8 Majoribanks St 9 Manuka St

Substations Marewa Road - Monorgan Road

9 Marewa Rd McColl St Michael Fowler Centre Moa Pt

63 Marewa Rd 25 Mein St Military Rd Moeller St

32 Marion St Mersey St 69 Miramar Ave 131 Molesworth St

Masons Lane Messines Rd 36 Mitchell St 98 Monorgan Rd



Substations Moore Street - Park Road

Moore St Zone Naughton Tce Ohiro Bay Pde Palm Grove Zone


The Architecture Electric

1 Mt Pleasant Rd Norna Cres 354 Oriental Bay 3 Panama St

Nairn St Nottingham St 308 Oriental Pde The Parade

Napier St Oban St 13 Palm Grove 106 Park Rd

Substations Parkvale Road - Rimu Road

Parkvale Rd 9 Pringle Ave Queens Dr (Regal Gardens) Rata Rd

57 Pipitea St 14 Pringle Ave 189 Queens Dr Ribble St

Plimmer Steps Puketiro Ave Queens Wharf East Riddiford St

3 Pringle Ave 17 Quebec St Queens Wharf North Rimu Rd



Substations Rintoul Street - Stadium

361 Rintoul St Roseneath Tce Sefton St SpringďŹ eld Tce


The Architecture Electric

Robertson St SW/House Rosina Fell Lane Shelly Bay St Pauls Square

56 Rongotai Rd 66 Salamanca Rd Show Buildings St John St

Roseneath San Sebastion Rd 52 Southampton Rd Stadium East

Substations Stadium - The Terrace

Stadium North Stone St 55 Taranaki St 46 Tauhinu Rd

Stadium West 16 Tacy St 79 Taranaki St Taurima St

Standen St Tanera Cres 125 Taranaki St The Terrace

Station Rd 6 Taranaki St 50 Tasman St Terrace Zone



Substations The Terrace - Tirangi Road

44 The Terrace 141 The Terrace 139 Thorndon Quay Thorndon Quay (unused)


The Architecture Electric

113 The Terrace 215 The Terrace 161 Thorndon Quay Tinakori Rd

132 The Terrace 302 The Terrace 220 Thorndon Quay Tio Tio Rd

139 The Terrace 47Thorndon Quay 264 Thorndon Quay 124 Tirangi Rd

Substations Tirangi Road - Victoria Street

125 Tirangi Rd 5 Tory St 133 Tory St Versailles St

4 Torrens Tce 21 Tory St Trelissick Cres 2 Victoria St

34 Torrens Tce 40 Tory St University Zone 37 Victoria St

Torwood Rd 49 Tory St 59 Upland Rd 39 Victoria St



Substations Victoria Street - Washington Avenue

42 Victoria St 27 Vivian St Wadestown 281 Wakefield St


The Architecture Electric

86 Victoria St 164 Vivian St Waikowhai Zone Waru St

174 Victoria St 2 Volga St 138 Wakefield St 56 Warwick St

2 View Rd Wade St 176 Wakefield St 92 Washington Ave

Substations Waterloo Quay - York Street

28 Waterloo Quay Weka St 36 Wigan St Woodward St

66 Waterloo Quay 123 Wexford Rd 154 Willis St Wrights Hill Rd

Wayside West Wha St 254 Willis St York St

15 Webb St 24 Wigan St Wilton Zone (Chartwell)




The Age of Optimism Ahhh, the unseen hand, lurking in interstitial spaces, wires from here to there, ending with, as the metaphor goes, a spark of life. An arcing leap of electrons to raise, Frankenstein from the table, the Xbox into action, and a light to read by. It’s such a trivial end, those wires silently snaking their way through the walls, for a process that began with the thunderous rush of water-powered turbines deep within our national pride. The moving of mountains, the damming of rivers, capping of geysers, diggers, huge trucks and scrapers, concrete batch plants, hard hats and construction towns whose names are a rollcall of mid twentieth century optimism – Roxbrough, Otematata, Wairakei, Benmore and Tongariro. These are not projects circumscribed by the RMA, not measured and weighed in the courts, but wrought instead by gelignite and sweat labour, building the turbine halls to light up a newly industrialising and urbanising country. From those deep subterranean halls the grids and armatures set out city-bound, cable-carrying pylons stretched across the remotest valley, branding the land as barbed wire did a generation earlier. At the city edge aluminium frames, threaded with glass and porcelain insulators, tame cross country voltages in readiness for city streets. From there a string of cables, boxes and transformers step down voltages and make ready the electron’s final dash through wires, fuse boxes, cable trays and walls. Though more visible than the subterranean world of water and gas-carrying pipes and tubes, the very presence of this clutter suggests a knowable system, traceable from lake to switch. Yet what of those boxes with their lightning bolt injunctions against entry, their seemingly clandestine placement; a terminus for cables, a junction for voltages and the birthplace of wires? The generation of electricity once involved heroic acts of engineering that cleaved the land within the unilateral certainty of land acquisition for the public good, the state that gave us free milk had the unassailable right to flood valleys. Just as the land wore the state’s imprimatur so the end of that distribution system, the substation, invariably wore the colours of the local supply authority in a neighbourhood manifestation of the state’s paternalism. Though many still proudly wear these colours despite falling prey to market zealots, others are placed with seemly clandestine reticence in the shadows, or are so nondescript as to be invisible within a cluttered streetscape.


The Architecture Electric

Where once rivers were tamed by the bravado and confidence of a singular vision of industrialised modernity, it is now the hard hat engineers who have been tamed by the pluralities of a contemporary society in which resource use is arbitrated and the ownership of generation, distribution and dissemination have been broken up and privatised. Those once noble little structures humming away in service of our welfare state have become commodities, bits of infrastructural kit to be squeezed in where they can. I know how these things find a place, no longer in the public realm, not strung up a post like those little round American tanks that hang off city lamp posts, but on the end user’s land, bundled together with mimic panels and sprinkler pumps hitching up buildings at the end of the infrastructural line, Manapouri’s final resting place. I have struggled to accommodate their imperious requirements for access and clearance within buildings that are always too tight. I have drawn easements and battled with signage, trying to hide those little lightning strikes. The boxes are, alas, prone to explosion and fire and need containment, masonry fire walls and a bund to gather up the toxic stuff within should that escape, and so they remain cowering at the edge of vision and we are not easily able to polish their fins or spotlight the control panels in public view. It is the sad demise of a nation’s optimistic breaking of the land, that the end of the line should be locked away unheralded. In doing so, substations join other visible instruments of nation building down on their luck - the once mighty post office with coat of arms and flag flying offering connections across the globe now a post shop panhandling for small change down the back of a mall. Or how about the mighty Ministry of Works, the progenitor of all that cutting, slicing, flooding and tunnelling, where are those serried ranks of engineers and draftsmen now? Cut and diced, sold off along with railway, airline and bank, the ministry’s very name an echo of Stalinist centralism. Let us give a wistful nod to those fading remnants of an age of optimism and collective ownership, and wonder whether the new owners will be as proud of their gear as those elected citizens who manned the nation’s power boards and whose works still, in some dark corner, hum along.

Pip Cheshire



The Architecture Electric

Danube Street, Island Bay

Front Cover_Layout 1 9/08/2011 8:25 p.m. Page 1

Subsist Press ISBN 978-0-473-18941-9

The Architecture Electric  

Substations of central Wellington

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