News | 13 February 2024
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The history of Cuba Mall and its Bucket Fountain

The summer of 1969 in Wellington brought a pedestrianised mall, and the erection of the Cuba Mall water mobile, or as we know it, the Bucket Fountain.

Archival image of the bucket fountain
Wellington City Council Archives, 00557-337-1-18.

While many Wellingtonians would agree that the Bucket Fountain is an iconic part of the capital, this structure has been a pillar of controversy over the years.  

The story of Cuba Street began in 1842 when the road was established, named after one of the early settler ships that arrived in 1840. The area soon became a home to a marketplace and other businesses, including a shop established by Mary Taylor who was a close friend of the novelist Charlotte Brontë. Her shop was the foundation of what was eventually to become the James Smiths department store.  

Cuba Street was also part of the city’s tram network, which were originally steam powered until they were replaced by horse-drawn trams, then eventually electric. When the tram service was discontinued in 1964 due to more cars being on the road and the narrow streets of Wellington making it harder for both to co-exist, Wellington City Council closed parts of the street to remove the tram lines.  

Archive image of Cuba Mall sign.
Wellington City Council Archives, 2008;40-12008;40-1.

The public enjoyed the novelty of being able to walk around the street without vehicles to get around the shops, and visitors flocked to the city to enjoy this experience. A pitch to design a mall was put forward to Council by the local business association.  

The vision was to create a space designed for pedestrians to easily access businesses, with embellished gardens, stages for street performers and a fountain. 

This task was given to planning consultants Burren and Keen, and one of their employees, architect Graham Allardice, was given a brief to design a fountain for the opening of the mall. The design brief stated that he needed to create "a water motif which could be illuminated at night for visual enjoyment”. 

The result was a fountain made out of yellow buckets, where a large bucket would drop water down into smaller buckets, eventually ending up in a concrete pool. The splashing of passers-by was something Graham factored in.  

He never intended the work to be seen as artwork, or a thing of beauty, but something to attract the eye when you were in the area. The construction took less than two months to complete.

Cuba Mall was officially opened by Mayor Frank Kitts on 14 October 1969. He didn’t do this through the usual method of cutting a ribbon or unveiling a plaque, but by turning on the water supply to the fountain. 

A shot of Wellington's iconic bucket fountain, on Cuba St, on a sunny day.

Not long after the opening, complaints came flooding into the Council. One Wellingtonian wrote to the Evening Post and said, “Imagine the reaction of visitors to our fair city on seeing this erection of yellow plastic buckets tipping water into a concrete pool! I guess I am not ‘mod’ but could someone please explain this erection. Of what is it symbolic?” 

Another Wellingtonian wrote a letter to the editor of the Evening Post stating that it frightened her child, “I was looking forward to doing quiet shopping in Cuba Street, but I can’t do it because my little girl of two-and-a-half years is frightened of that water display.” 

When the fountain underwent maintenance, the Council decided to paint over the yellow buckets with brighter colours, which was done by painter Peter Anderson. These brighter colours are what we know and love today. 

Since then, the structure has had its fair share of mischief, with star Elijah Wood infamously peeing in the fountain when he was filming Lord of the Rings.  

Another time, Auckland-based installation artist John Radford and his team stealthily plastered, shaped, and sculpted tonnes of clay, covering the entire Cuba Mall Bucket Fountain. You can watch the documentary here

The water in the fountain has been dyed pink many times, and it has been used for installations over the years. 

Lost bucket fountain poster.

More recently, one of the yellow buckets was stolen in October 2021, which caused an outrage in the community. Thanks to information from the public, the Police were able to recover the bucket just before Christmas that year, which had been painted gold!

It’s fair to say that Wellingtonians have changed their tune about the Bucket Fountain, and that this structure is one of the many things making our city a unique and vibrant place to live.

While the initial pedestrianisation of Cuba Mall took some getting used to, it led the way to making this precinct what we know and love today. Wellingtonians have asked for a vibrant, safe and resilient capital city, and we are in the middle of a once-in-a-generation transformation of Wellington. 
Our key investments – fixing the pipes, Te Matapihi Central Library, The Town Hall, Tākina, the Golden Mile revitalisation, and sustainable streets – will make our city a better place to live, work, and play.

Black writing on a yellow background that reads 'Positively Pōneke'.

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