News | 19 December 2023
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Iconic Te Matapihi Central Library Nikau Palms get a refresh

When people think of Te Matapihi ki te Ao Nui Central Library, the image of large Nīkau Palms often springs to mind. These large palms used to adorn the entryway on Victoria Street and line the side of the building on Harris Street. But what’s happening with the palms in the upgrade?

Inside the construction work at Te Matapihi library, looking out at three Nikau Palms.

The original building was built in 1991, and designed by Athfield Architects who were part of a consortium with two other architectural practices, alongside Fletcher Construction.   

Now, the team at Athfield is back on the re-design of the library upgrade  a once in a generation transformational project integral to restoring the heart Te Ngākau of our central city.  

Principal Architect Nick Strachan says that the palms are a core part of the library’s identity, and the team are restoring them to their former glory. 

“The palms are part of the public's collective memory of the building and have become a bit of an icon in Wellington. The restored palms will still look the same, but we’re making tweaks to make them more meaningful and fit for the future.” 

This has meant working alongside partners to understand what the palms culturally symbolise.  

“When the palms were originally made, the postmodern Nīkau design were made without understanding the cultural impacts. This natural tree species is sacred and quite beautiful, but they’ve been interpreted into a metal form. We have been co-designing the rebuild with Māori design company Tihei, and they found it challenging that the palms were raised on a plinth, almost like a Victorian-era museum object. 

“As part of the restoration, we want the Nīkau to become grounded as much as possible so that they are connected to the earth, so we have been looking into how we can do that structurally.” 

Nikau palms being refurbished.
Nikau palm fronds being refurbished.

The team have started working on the Nīkau and plan on removing them one by one to restore them, say Nick. 

“There are various layers that we need to peel back, like steel and concrete. The fronds are very delicate, with a combination of coppers, lead and zinc-type cladding. They haven’t aged well over the last 10 years, and most of the time you only get 20 to 25 years out of a coating system.   
“What’s happening at a technical level is that all the fixings are being removed and will be blasted back to their metal finish, and have a new coating put on top. The way they’re made will be different but they’ll look the same, but with more grounded palms.” 

Nick says another exciting element of the restoration is that the base of the refurbished Nīkau will be made from repurposed stone from the Town Hall.  

“The town hall project had a large quantity of bluestone which used to be wrapped around the base of the building. Based on the base isolator work, a lot of the stone had to be removed and there were around 75 pallets of material. 

“To offset costs, we’re working with main contractor LT McGuinness, and their expert stonemason Goldfield Stone, who can help us with the installation. We’ve been able to amend our designs to use the existing stone and it’s got a beautiful texture. We have some stone-clad elements on the Victoria Street side, which will be the new interpretation of the plinth of the Nikau.” 

Nick says that the team at Athfield are thrilled to be working on the building again. 

“There is so much connection around the building, either through the palms or the inside spaces. Wellingtonians have studied there, or even just walked through Clark’s café to escape the howling southerly rain to get to Victoria Street.  

“It’s exciting to work within Te Ngākau Civic Square and modify and reinterpret Te Matapihi again.” 

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Check out our other interesting articles as part of our City Building series. Or, find out more about Positively Pōneke on our website