New Zealand Parliament Grounds, 40 Bowen Street, 1 Molesworth Street And 1 Museum Street, Pipitea, Wellington
Historical Significance or Value
The Beehive is of outstanding historical significance for its central role in the governing of New Zealand. Housing the parliamentary executive, it is a place where many significant policy and financial decisions affecting the nation are generated. The building’s national importance also has international reaches because of its function, and it has hosted numerous state receptions for international dignitaries. Its construction was the one of the most prominent and nationally significant building projects in post-war New Zealand, involving years of input from the Ministry of Works architects, engineers and industrial designers as well as numerous suppliers, contractors and artists.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
The Executive Wing (Beehive) is of special aesthetic significance. The building’s unique and distinctive conical form makes it instantly recognisable to all New Zealanders, and it is an icon that is constantly employed as a symbol of the New Zealand Government. The lengthy public record of commentators on its design demonstrates the strong feelings that the building’s appearance continues to evoke. There is no denying the Beehive is a bold, striking element within the government centre, regardless of how successful Sir Basil Spence’s attempt at bringing architectural unity to the parliamentary precinct through his design’s ‘rhythmic consistency’ with Parliament House is judged to have been. Visually arresting from many viewpoints around the northern end of the Wellington CBD, it is also a dominant structure in the capital’s urban environment.
Architectural Significance or Value
The Executive Wing (the Beehive) is highly significant for its distinctive design, mark-ing it in its urban setting and uprightly proclaiming the government centre. It cleverly expresses both a stately grandeur and an invigorating openness in its modernist style. Magnificently sited alongside Parliament House, the cylindrical and conical form of the Beehive rises above its plinth and gently references its classically-styled neighbour. It is an outstanding architectural statement of consequence and importance, affirming a delight in its geometry.
Open and approachable at ground level, its design is unique and novel, yet under-standable and familiar. Its tall colonnade has dignity and splendour. The design of its distinguishing rhythmical patterns around the building presents a unified equality of aspect and view. Floors of radial structure symbolically layer the gradation of use in-side: from the large and open public lower spaces of the Banquet Hall up to the se-questered importance of the Cabinet room; from the smaller office suites around the wider girth, to the senior suites above. The interiors are distinguished by sharp structural forms, softened in the application to curves, and materials of high quality are superbly fashioned to the circular floors.
Technological Significance or Value
The Executive Wing embodies special engineering achievements in the inventive solutions to the many design problems posed by the unique round, conical ‘beehive’ form of the building. Ministry of Works architects and engineers advanced techniques in seismic testing at the time, using large scale models to assess seismic performance of the proposed designs. Without any precedents to work from, the designers resolved unique issues with the structural loading with great ingenuity.
Cultural Significance or Value
The Beehive has cultural significance for its integral role in the functioning of Parliament Buildings as a marae of the nation and as part of a wider area of cultural importance. It is the site of many events of great importance to Māori, including protests, Treaty settlement initialling ceremonies, hui and pōwhiri, as well as the general business of Ministers of Māori Affairs.
The building also has cultural resonance as a dominant landmark in Wellington, both physically and symbolically in the public consciousness. The utilisation of its distinctive form as a reference to the workings of government contributes strongly to the identity of the city.
Social Significance or Value
The Beehive’s social significance is derived from its place as part of Parliament Buildings, directly important to the lives of all New Zealanders for the governance and legislative decisions that are implemented there. It is also the venue for many events and functions, and is visited by many people each year.
This place was assessed against and found to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, d, f, g, h, j, k. It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category 1 historic place.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The Executive Wing (Beehive) directly reflects a fundamentally important part of New Zealand’s history: the governance of the nation. It was specifically constructed to house the parliamentary executive of the prime minister and Cabinet ministers, and is the place where many important political, financial and legislative decisions about the running of the country are made. As the locus of political power in New Zealand it is of outstanding historical significance, and the hierarchical division of its internal spaces embodies the country’s political structure.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The Beehive has been associated with all of the governing prime ministers, Cabinet ministers and political decision-makers of New Zealand since it was opened in 1977, and has ongoing outstanding significance for this. The building also represents the architectural achievements of eminent British architect Sir Basil Spence, and is important in his impressive body of work. His design concept was successfully developed in great detail by the office of the New Zealand Government Architect in the Ministry of Works, who with its role as the voice of good design in government continued a tradition dating from the first Colonial Architect in 1869 of creating many of New Zealand’s most important public buildings. In addition, the mural in the Banquet Hall remains as an enduring testament to the artistic importance of John Drawbridge, one of New Zealand’s most internationally respected modernist artists.
(d) The importance of the place to tangata whenua
The Beehive is important to Māori (iwi who hold or have held mana whenua, and wider iwi) for a number of reasons. It is located within a landscape of cultural importance for the sites associated with Pipitea Pā, Kumutoto Kainga and Kaiota. It represents the history of Māori involvement with New Zealand’s political system, and has housed the ministerial office suite of numerous Ministers of Māori Affairs. The building itself is the venue for pōwhiri, hui, ceremonies (including those related to Treaty settlements) and celebrations and as such is a fundamental element in the functioning of Parliament Buildings as a marae of the nation.
(f) The potential of the place for public education
Over 70,000 people take tours of Parliament Buildings each year, including over 13,000 school and university students and around 30,000 international visitors. The Executive Wing is the starting point for these tours, which are an exceptional place to learn about how New Zealand is governed. In conjunction with Parliament House, the Beehive demonstrates how the New Zealand political system is implemented. Its public spaces, particularly reception areas such as the impressive Banquet Hall, show how New Zealand presents itself at state functions and to international visitors.
(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place
The Executive Wing (the Beehive) is outstanding for its distinctive design which combines a spirited humour with noble dignity in its architecture. Specifically purpose-designed, the Beehive achieves a stately exterior presence, gracious and striking interiors and a manifestation in the design of the business of government. Familiar, fun and approachable, yet entirely majestic and grand, the Beehive is special to New Zealand and New Zealanders in the way it exhibits its modernist design, boldly and fearlessly, moving beyond traditional conformity towards an expression of heroic inventiveness. The unique structural problems of realising Sir Basil Spence’s circular, tapering tower concept design were overcome with technical ingenuity by Ministry of Works architects and engineers, resulting in advances in a number of areas of construction technology, particularly seismic testing.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place
The Executive Wing’s common colloquial name, the Beehive, and images of its unique and distinctive conical form, are widely used by New Zealanders as a universally understood symbol for the government. Its iconic form is frequently employed in cartoons and media graphics to represent in shorthand the complex collection of buildings, people, policies and legislation that comprises our central government. Sir Basil Spence stated the circular and conical form of the design itself represented Parliament’s status as ‘the hub or universal joint’ of New Zealand; it being a ‘hive of political activity’ is also inferred. The Beehive has outstanding symbolic value.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places
The Beehive building is unique in New Zealand for its design and function. As part of Parliament Buildings it is a key component in a small and profoundly important collection of buildings. While other buildings share the role of providing venues for state receptions, government decision-making and the administration of the country, the Beehive is the only one that combines all of these purposes, and does so at the highest level.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area
Along with Parliament House, to which it is physically connected, the Beehive is a dominant feature in the Government Centre. This historic area encompasses the nationally significant group of buildings located at the northern end of the Wellington CBD that were constructed to accommodate the legislature, executive and judiciary of the New Zealand Government since the capital was moved there in 1865. The Beehive sits on land used for government functions since the establishment of the colony of Wellington in 1840, and within a historic precinct that includes the oldest remaining parliamentary structure (the Parliamentary Library), as well as other significant historic buildings in the near vicinity. The Beehive represents the modern development of the parliamentary precinct. The precinct is within a cultural landscape of sites that are significant to iwi who hold or have held mana whenua, including those associated with Pipitea Pā and Kumutoto Kainga.
Summary of Significance or Values
The Executive Wing (the Beehive) is of outstanding heritage significance for its central role in the governance of New Zealand. As the base for the prime minister and Cabinet, decisions made and legislation and policies proposed in the building directly shape the social history and development of the nation. Its association with important people in New Zealand history includes all of the ruling governments since its opening in 1977, dignitaries received at state receptions in its social areas, and those involved in its design and construction, particularly the New Zealand Government Architect and Sir Basil Spence. The aesthetic, architectural and technical importance of its design is both special and outstanding; its unique and distinctive modernist structure has made it one of the most recognisable buildings in New Zealand and an extraordinary physical landmark. Its unparalleled currency as an iconic symbol sees its form frequently employed to represent in shorthand the complex collection of buildings, people, policies and legislation that comprises our central government. Its construction is of outstanding historical significance as one of the premier public construction projects of recent times, continuing the development of the nationally significant parliamentary precinct. It has an integral role in the functioning of Parliament Buildings as a marae of the people of New Zealand, and is of great cultural importance to Māori.
Early history of the site
The site of the Government Centre in Wellington has a long history of human occupation. Early tribes that settled around Te Whanganui-a-Tara (‘the great harbour of Tara’) and the south coast included Ngāi Tara, Ngāti Ira, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Mamoe. By 1819 the district was mainly occupied by Ngāti Ira and related ‘Whatonga-descent people’, who were subsequently driven out to the eastern side of the harbour and to the Wairarapa when a war party invaded the Wellington area. By 1840 those Māori having rights in Wellington Harbour and its foreshore were Te Atiawa, Ngāti Tama, Taranaki, Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Ruanui, who had migrated there from Taranaki and Waikato during the 1820s.
In the immediate vicinity of today’s Government Centre there are a number of sites significant to tangata whenua. Pipitea Pā, a large settlement established by Ngāti Mutunga in 1824 and gifted by them to Te Atiawa in 1835, was located between today’s Pipitea, Davis and Mulgrave Streets. It was surrounded by extensive cultivations and was home to around 80 people in the 1840s. Also nearby was Kumutoto Kainga, an important flax-gathering and waka-landing site which was also the dwelling place of Te Atiawa chief Wi Tako Ngatata and his people from 1835 to 1853. A small triangle of land on the corner of the parliamentary precinct at Molesworth Street and Lambton Quay, called Waititi Landing Park, commemorates another significant waka-landing site. The future parliamentary precinct itself has been described as a slope of clay hillsides, knolls and swampy ground, bordered by the Waipiro and Tutaenui streams. Where the Parliamentary Library is now was known as Kaiota, and urupā were in the vicinity.
Dedicated British colonisation of Wellington began in 1839 through the New Zealand Company’s scheme. Led by Colonel William Wakefield (1803-1848), the Company negotiated the purchase of tracts of land around the harbour. When the first settlement, Britannia, failed due to its location by the flood-prone Hutt River at Petone, the Company moved the town across to the inner bay of the harbour, despite the fact that the land had not been legally purchased and was occupied by Māori. The scale of the colonisation scheme eventually displaced many of the Māori inhabitants, and the town of Wellington grew through trade and commerce assisted by reclamation of land along the waterfront and the spread of settlement in the surrounding districts.
A local government centre
The prominent rise of land in Pipitea/Thorndon where Parliament sits today was the focus of government activities from the early days of the colonial settlement. It was allocated as a ‘government reserve’ in the New Zealand Company’s plan, and Colonel Wakefield built his house where the Executive Wing is today; it was taken over as the official governor’s residence in 1848. New Zealand was initially administered as British territory by a governor appointed by the British Crown, and although Wakefield hoped that Wellington would be the site of the capital, Governor William Hobson chose Auckland as the national government seat in 1840.
The New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 was a milestone in New Zealand’s political history. While retaining the sovereign as the head of state, it granted responsible self-government to the colony, and Parliament (then officially called the General Assembly) was set up as a central government with an elected House of Representatives (lower House) and a Legislative Council (upper House). Six provincial governments were also created, and Wellington’s provincial government initially met in Barrett’s Hotel. In 1857-1858, purpose-built Provincial Chambers were constructed where the Parliamentary Library (List no. 217) sits today. This building was designed to have two large chambers suitable for accommodating the House of Representatives and the Legislative Council, should Parliament be persuaded to move to Wellington.
Wellington: the new capital
In 1865 Wellington’s wish was granted, and the capital was moved there because of its location in the centre of the country.
New Zealand’s democratic system of government consists of three branches: the legislature (Parliament), the executive (ministers of the Crown and their government departments), and the judiciary (the court system). The legislature is responsible for making laws, checking and approving governmental spending, and representing the voice of New Zealanders through the elected Member of Parliament system. The executive, which includes Cabinet, initiates and administers laws and governmental policy, and makes day-to-day financial decisions about how New Zealand’s money should be spent. The judiciary’s job is to independently apply and interpret the laws passed by Parliament.
While the judicial arm of the government has always been housed in various buildings around the parliamentary precinct (see Government Centre Historic Area, List no. 7035), since 1865 the legislature and the executive have mostly shared premises within the precinct. Initially, the two houses of Parliament (upper and lower) moved into the former provincial council building, which underwent various alterations and additions until Parliament Buildings became an extended ‘rabbit warren’ of offices, chambers, meeting rooms and also Bellamy’s, the members’ refreshment rooms (which continue a British Commonwealth tradition dating from 1773). The Government Buildings (List no.37), built nearby on reclaimed land, provided much needed departmental office space from 1876. These facilities were supplemented by Thomas Turnbull’s ornate Parliamentary Library building in 1899 (which subsumed the original 1850s building, and included offices for the premier).
Adjacent to the parliamentary buildings, Colonel Wakefield’s old residence was replaced with a new Government House in 1871. Designed by William Clayton (1823-1877) in the Italianate style, this grand and substantial timber residence later became the temporary home of Parliament after a fire in 1907 destroyed Parliament Buildings except for the new library. Until the new Parliament House (List no. 223) was ready for use in 1918, the Legislative Council met in the conservatory and the House of Representatives debated in the ballroom. The building’s poor condition was noted in 1908, and by 1960 it was severely deteriorated and had undergone many ad hoc alterations.
Government Architect John Campbell (1857-1942) and Claude Paton’s winning design for the new Parliament House in 1911 was intended to rectify the parliamentary precinct’s inadequate facilities. However, only one wing of the planned Edwardian neo-classical design was ever built; it was completed in 1922. A decision on resuming the master plan for the precinct remained in limbo for the succeeding decades.
The Depression, Second World War and increased spending on welfare meant there was reluctance to invest in the parliamentary facilities, and all three buildings became increasingly dilapidated and earthquake-prone. As each was unsuitable for parliamentary business, by 1960 it was decided that a major construction project revising the parliamentary precinct was required.
The great dilemma: traditionalist or modernist?
Various master plans for the parliamentary precinct had been considered over the intervening years, including Government Town Planner John Mawson’s 1937 design for a major overhaul of the entire government centre to a classical plan, which allowed for the completion of Parliament House to Campbell’s design. In contrast, in 1949-1950 Prime Minister Peter Fraser (1884-1950) and Government Architect Gordon Wilson (1900-1959) favoured a wholly modern design for the entire precinct – the first public suggestion that the second wing of Parliament House not be built.
Government Architect Fergus Sheppard (1908-1997) gave the issue serious consideration in 1961. Using modernist principles for his analysis of the precinct, he argued that Parliament House and the Library deserved respect even though they had their functional failings, because they portrayed the historically true architecture of their eras. However, to complete Parliament House to its original Edwardian design would be contrary to the modern movement of architecture, which holds that ‘the only true architecture is architecture belonging to its time.’ His recommendation was for a new building of modern design that also respected the historic values of the two existing parliamentary buildings – excepting the old Government House, which was deemed to be beyond repair. He also suggested that the ‘positive vertical emphasis’ of a tower building would counter the increasing number of office blocks rising in the area, and create the desired architectural interest for a precinct of Parliament’s status. A preliminary design by the Ministry of Works was released for public feedback in October 1961, but the rectangular tower block proposal was criticised as being too functional and not architecturally distinctive. The idea of seeking international architectural input was first suggested around this time.
A new Executive Wing – conception of ‘the Beehive’
The story that Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976) conceived the basic design for the building soon to become known as ‘the Beehive’ at a state dinner in 1964, and introduced it to Prime Minister Keith Holyoake via a sketch drawn on his dinner napkin – prompting Holyoake to approve the design on the spot – is a popular myth. In fact, six months earlier Spence had been invited by the New Zealand Government to be a consultant architect for the project, and following the reception to welcome him he presented several sketches of his design to the Special Committee on the Completion of Parliament Buildings. The Committee adopted the provisional design a week later, and agreed the government architect would prepare sketch plans in consultation with Spence.
Reaching that point had not been an easy process. The Special Committee of ministers and officials tasked with the development of the building project had had extensive, heated debates over the previous two years, reaching an impasse between those who believed the functional requirements of the building should be pre-eminent, and those who felt vehemently that the form or style of the building – appropriate to the importance of its government purpose – was the most significant design imperative.
Sir Basil Spence was, at the time, one of Britain’s most celebrated architects, having recently received a knighthood for his striking modernist design of the new Coventry Cathedral. He was also professor of architecture at the Royal Academy (1961-68), and in his career designed a number of important civic buildings including the British Embassy in Rome, Glasgow Airport and the British Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo, as well as numerous churches, education facilities, housing complexes, office blocks, factories, theatres and houses. His public profile in the 1950s and 1960s saw him become ‘the unofficial ambassador for modern architecture in post-war Britain.’
The announcement that he would be in Wellington in March 1964 to lecture at Victoria University prompted the Special Committee and Cabinet to approach him in September 1963, inviting him to advise on the two broad design concepts, hopefully to resolve the impasse. Spence agreed. His response also indicated that he was in favour of retaining the incomplete Parliament House but supplementing it with a new modern building – which he already had design ideas for, despite that being beyond his initial brief.
While the government architect’s office had so far proposed ‘benign’ and unthreatening modernist designs, the concept sketch Spence presented to Cabinet on 24 March 1964 was relatively radical: a bold, circular building that would complement the diverse collection of Parliament Buildings. While the details were yet to be worked out, Spence claimed that the ‘rhythmic consistency’ his design would share with the columns, proportions and window openings of Parliament House would bring architectural unity to the precinct. It would also act as a ‘central hinge between the old and new buildings flanking the site’, and its round shape would reflect Parliament’s status as the ‘hub or universal joint’ of New Zealand. The circular form had become popular with architects overseas in the late 1950s, but the Beehive and his chapel for the University of Sussex were the only round buildings of Spence’s that were built.
With its series of diminishing concentric discs atop a circular drum the building was soon dubbed ‘the Beehive’, apparently at a press conference where Spence employed a box of Bryant & May ‘Beehive’ matches’ to answer a question about the design, although this may not have been the first instance he had used the matches as an illustrative device. Bryant & May later capitalised on this publicity by offering special ‘Beehive’ matchboxes for sale to MPs.
Public response was positive enough for the project to move forward, although there were those who had reservations – including the architectural community who resented that New Zealand architects had not had the opportunity to compete for this most prestigious national project. Nonetheless, the concept was developed in detail by the Ministry of Works over the next 15 months, and Spence continued to contribute to the design for nearly a year after his visit, paying particular attention to the elevations and the crowning cap of the two top floors. In June 1965 the basic design plans were formally approved and the government architect was given the go-ahead to prepare working drawings for the Beehive.
Fergus Sheppard and his team, particularly project architect Sidney Bates, refined and completed the design over the next four years. This involved extensive consultation and input from parliamentary officials to ensure the building’s functional efficiency.
The interior spaces were laid out hierarchically, with the Cabinet room and prime minister’s office and their departments on the top two floors, ministerial office suites in the conical tower of discs below, and the social and reception areas in the three storeys of the circular drum below them. The entrance and public reception areas are contained in the rectangular podium at ground level, and a central core of lifts controls access. The decision on the location of the prime ministerial suite was made by Holyoake, who chose the ninth floor rather than the larger space available in the first tower disc. This required the installation of an express lift so he could reach the legislative chamber for voting within the three minutes rung by the division bells.
Successive government architects during the course of the construction were Fergus Sheppard (who held the position from 1959-71), John Blake-Kelly (1971-73), Frank Anderson (1973-76), and Graydon Miskimmin (1976-1986). In addition, the project required input from a multitude of engineers, draughtsmen, industrial designers, and over 50 sub-contracting companies.
The conical nature of the circular design posed many unique structural issues for the architects and engineers, who had to develop solutions without any known precedents to work from – Designscape magazine contended that ‘structurally the Beehive is a unique building, certainly unique in New Zealand, and possibly in the world.’ The Executive Wing is thought to have been the first cylindrical and conical structure to undergo thorough structural testing in its model stages: a 1.8 metre high scale model was extensively tested for seismic loading as a means of predicting how a building of this shape and complexity might behave in earthquakes. Inventive solutions to spread the structural loading of the tapering form were also devised.
The major period of construction stretched from 1969 to 1981, as it was scheduled during parliamentary recesses to minimise disruption. It was carried out in two stages. Stage One began in late 1969 with the demolition of half of the old Government House building and conversion of the remainder to provide temporary dining and bar facilities, and comprised the foundations, podium and car park of the Beehive building. This was completed in July 1972, by contractors W M Angus Ltd, and the National Crisis Management Centre (known colloquially as ‘the Bunker’), which occupies the lower basement level, has been operational from that time onwards. Stage Two covered the rest of the building, subdivided into two parts: the three floors of the main drum were completed ready for use in 1977, along with the structural frame and roof for the eight floors above; then the interiors of the ministerial and Cabinet floors were finished by September 1979, and the two-storey annexe at the rear of the podium constructed. Stage Two was constructed by Gibson and O’Connor Ltd. Dominant interior finishes were Takaka marble, specially quarried to match that in Parliament House and used to face the exposed structural columns and core wall, lift lobbies, main staircase and the ground floor, and native tawa flooring, and tawa, rimu, mangeao and kohekohe panelling.
Ministry of Works industrial designers Geoffrey Hargreaves and Michael Lamb were responsible for coordinating the furnishing and décor of the entire building, working to Sidney Bates’ loose direction that anything would be considered, ‘as long as it’s brown.’ Taking their inspiration from the architectural detailing, furniture was designed by them and built specially, by New Zealand firms and often using tawa. The ministers’ dining table was curved, to match the shape of the room, and the unusually shaped spaces required the custom-design of office furniture. Detail extended to specially commissioned Crown Lynn dinnerware, planters, pottery lampstands and ashtrays. The furnishings continued the aim that wherever possible, products used in the construction of the Beehive were to be New Zealand-sourced and/or made.
An important and much venerated aspect of the décor is the 42-metre mural in the Banquet Hall, created by significant New Zealand artist John Drawbridge, MBE (1930-2005), who won the commission in 1973. Drawbridge was one of New Zealand’s most internationally successful artists, and he completed a number of major public commissions including murals for New Zealand House in London, and Expo 70. The Beehive mural is considered one of his most important works. The 180 vertical strips of aluminium, affixed to the inner curved wall and mimicking the exterior fins, are coloured with enamel paint to portray the atmosphere and sky of New Zealand. It was installed in May 1976.
Opening and reception
The completion of the reception and function areas in levels 1-3 in 1977 was celebrated with an official opening ceremony on 27 February, where Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a commemorative bronze plaque, followed by a banquet for 300. The building was formally named the Executive Wing by the prime minister at the time, Robert Muldoon.
Public interest in the Beehive’s design had been high from its first release, and a model of the building had toured the country in 1965. On the occasion of the building’s formal opening, Designscape, the magazine of the New Zealand Industrial Design Council, took the unusual step of devoting its entire March 1977 issue to the construction, services, furnishings and fittings of the Beehive, ‘since this is the most important public building to have been constructed in this country in recent times.’ The magazine also contained four pages of opinions from professional experts. Their feelings were polarised at both ends of the spectrum and represented a wider discussion: the building certainly had everyone talking.
When ministers moved into their offices in 1979, comments became focused on the functional difficulties of working within the circular building. Wayfinding was confusing in the disorientating lift lobbies, ministers had to rush from their offices to get to the Legislative Chamber in time, and the separation of Cabinet from the rest of the MPs and ministers removed the ease of casual social and political interaction and suggested the formation of an ‘us and them’ culture. Halliday reports that ‘its inhabitants generally despise the building because of its failures; one long-serving politician [Don McKinnon] remarked that he has yet to find a Minister who likes working in the Beehive.’ Criticisms were also directed at the reported total cost of $17 million.
Later recognition of the design by professional bodies includes the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA), who gave the building an architectural award for technical excellence and superior achievement in 1982, and DOCOMOMO NZ, who have entered it on their register of the nation’s important modern movement buildings. Its striking appearance continues to elicit public comment, and attract tourists. In 2009 it was voted the third ugliest building in the world by an international tourism website, who described it as ‘a slide projector that fell on a wedding cake that fell on a waterwheel’.
An iconic symbol and a landmark
Of those who feel negatively towards the building’s design, many opinions can be attributed to political cynicism, and in this respect the form of the Beehive elicits such strong responses because symbolic interpretations of power and government are easy to apply to its evocative form. For example, apart from the allusions to ‘hives of activity’ and ‘buzzing round and stinging people’, it has been described as having ‘the outward appearance of some giant dynamo. A symbol of power or mindless machinery perhaps.’ Occasionally this symbolism has been literally applied, such as in a 1975 protest action when ‘The World Is Rotten - Do Something,’ and the antinuclear logo were inscribed in red paint on the granite facing of the podium. A more recent figurative protest was the posting of a package of cluster flies to the building.
Extraordinary and memorable, the distinctive shape of the Beehive dominates the parliamentary precinct and is instantly recognisable to New Zealanders. Its pervasiveness in the public consciousness is supported by the fact that its image has appeared on the New Zealand $20 banknote since 1991. As the best-known example of modernist architecture in New Zealand, the Beehive is well acknowledged as an iconic structure. Architectural historian Dr Jessica Halliday theorises that what makes the Beehive’s architecture ‘iconic’ is the distinctive circular shape, ‘and the fact that this shape is realised on a huge scale … amplified, not reduced, by its construction in that most commonplace of materials, concrete given the raw Brutalist treatment fashionable during the post-war era.’ Because of this it is employed in countless satirical cartoons as a shorthand reference for the people, political structure and policies of the government, as well as in media graphics such as the Politics page banner in the Dominion Post newspaper. This ‘unparalleled currency’ has also seen the building become a symbol of Wellington, and it contributes strongly to the identity of the city.
In the mid-1990s a proposal to shift the Beehive back 150 metres so that it would sit behind Parliament House, allowing the completion of Parliament House to its original design, was suggested. Halliday contends that even this illustration of the Beehive’s ‘failed status’ is also an acknowledgement of its cultural importance, because to simply demolish it would have been much more cost-effective than the relocation proposal. Public interest remains high: over 70,000 people take tours of Parliament Buildings each year, including over 13,000 school and university students and around 30,000 international visitors, and the Beehive is the starting point for the tours.
Marae of the Nation
Another element of the Beehive’s significance is its cultural importance to Māori. The Beehive has an integral role in the functioning of Parliament Buildings as a marae of the people of New Zealand. Honoured guests are welcomed by the Parliamentary Kaumātua in the building’s West Foyer, and the Banquet Hall hosts hui and celebrations for the signing of Treaty settlement documents, and other related events.
The building also represents Māori involvement in the New Zealand political system. The Beehive was built on the former site of the geranium planted by prophet T.W. Rātana on 5 July 1934, said to symbolise the Treaty of Waitangi and also his intention to return to Parliament, ‘pluck a flower and its pollen would be blown to the four winds, representing the four Māori seats that would be captured by Rātana candidates.’ The flower bush was carefully moved elsewhere in the grounds to make way for the new Executive Wing. Since its construction, the majority of Ministers of Māori Affairs have also had their offices within the Beehive. Numerous petitions and protests have been made by Māori at the Parliamentary Precinct; notable in recent years were the May 2004 and March 2011 hikoi to protest the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, where thousands of people arrived in the capital after marching from Northland, and the tino rangatiratanga flag was raised throughout the crowds that gathered outside the Beehive.
The interior of the building underwent a major refurbishment by Warren and Mahoney between 1998-2006 in three stages. First, the building’s plant (originally on the floor above the Cabinet room) was replaced and reconfigured in the basement, and lift cores in the lower levels were upgraded (including the addition of orientation aids). The second stage involved a floor-by-floor refurbishment of office areas on the fourth to tenth floors; finally the catering and function areas in the podium and drum up to the third floor were upgraded. Two small additions to the building elevations comprised a new combined public entry facing Molesworth Street and a secure delivery area onto Museum Street, and link bridges were added to connect the first and second levels to Parliament House. The refurbishment project was awarded a New Zealand Architecture Award by the NZIA in 2007. Further work was carried out during 2013-2014 to address leaks in the roof and around the windows. While the Beehive rated well in a 2014 seismic assessment, the Press Gallery annexe at the rear of the building was found to be earthquake-prone and remedial works are planned.
The Executive Wing sits at the focal point of New Zealand Government, attached to the pre-eminent Parliament House, and at the centre of an area strongly devoted to use by government departments and ministries. It is sited on a rise, north of the central business district of Wellington. Strikingly visible along view shafts from nearby CBD streets, its circular form is also easily identified from vantage points around the city. It is easily seen from Molesworth Street to the east beyond the parliament green. It rises impressively above Bowen Street, the street of closest proximity. At 48.8 metres high, it is majestic above the Cenotaph at Lambton Quay. To the west and south, its nearest neighbours are government administration buildings. From all directions that it can be seen, and moving around the local area, the Executive Wing/Beehive tower is distinguishable by its repeating forms. It has a continuous facade of identical form, and recurring structure, windows and other elements.
Together with Parliament House and the Parliamentary Library, the Executive Wing looks over the Parliamentary forecourt and green, presenting the buildings of government to the plaza of ceremony and public gathering. It is located on the south side of Parliament House in the position of the planned wing in John Campbell’s original design. It is a 14-level building (including two basement levels); a tapering cylindrical tower over an extended podium and basement, with an annexe connection to Parliament House. Its singular form rises well above Parliament House with circular and concentrically diminishing floors and provides an observable revolution in style from its neighbours. The use of stone and concrete provide continuity between Parliament House and its Executive Wing; and yet its form demonstrably shows its difference.
The Executive Wing is a tower of three stages. The form that gives rise to its colloquial name, ‘the Beehive’, rises out of a much larger rectangular podium (83 metres x 55 metres) which is offset to the west. The colonnaded ground floor of the tower, with its glazed walls and radiating exterior columns, is at the broadest circular dimension at 46.3 metre diameter. It houses the public spaces and function rooms. The circular graduation of the colonnade, with windows behind, is a visually pleasing and stately march of columns around the building. It sits about level with the columns of Parliament House and creates a perceptible stylistic connection with the older building.
Above is the middle section of six office floors of diminishing diameter – each is 2.4 metres wider in diameter than the one above it. The window segments and regularly spaced radiating fins create a finely textured appearance of vertically shaped seg-ments. The depth of the fins allows the windows to be glimpsed directly in front but lost from view as the curves recede either side. Each floor level is a strong visual band around the building.
At its capital, the deep copper roof extends from the central flagpole, down over the sequestered spaces of the Cabinet room. A few windows behind grouped fins allow light through. The roof is separated from the middle section by the glazed recessed wall of the ninth floor, housing offices of outstanding aspect.
Though the exterior features the exposed concrete surfaces of the Brutalist movement (the term derives from the French beton brut, meaning ‘concrete in the raw’), it is softened through its divided appearance and its curving, receding expression. It is made of glass and reinforced concrete, with generous use of marble and native timbers. The exterior has remained true to its original design and, while interior alterations have been made, as a whole it retains its integrity.
A heavily reinforced cylindrical core wall is the trunk of the building, tapering in thickness towards the top, and thirty massive structural columns support the outer portion of the building. It sits on a 2.7 metre thick circular raft foundation with complex reinforcing steel running in both directions and vertically. The large exterior concrete fins of the drum section are specially engineered for seismic capability and to prevent their vibration in Wellington wind conditions.
Visitors to the Executive Wing enter the Coromandel granite-veneered podium at ground level, through a discreet annexe between the wing and Parliament House. In here is the spacious East Foyer and West Foyer where visitors gather. The expanses of Takaka marble flooring and wall tiles, along with the impressive bronze balustrading, create a visually arresting theme of strong vertical and horizontal lines, contrasting with the large open space created by the mezzanine design of the Banquet Hall Lobby above, and the views beyond this to the sky outside. To the west of the entrance, and further out of sight, are the Theatrette (site of press conferences and other public announcements), education rooms, and service rooms. The main kitchen is housed in the area to the rear of the main staircase. In the centre, at the central core, lifts, and services run directly up the building from below, at the lower ground floor, through to the ninth floor. At each of these floors, the central core lift lobby provides access to each floor in up to six directions. Core foyers are similarly furnished on each level and seating arrangements and reception furniture are specific to needs. Marble floors and walls clad in timber with stainless-steel mesh are a continuing theme.
The wide marble stairway rises to the brighter Banquet Hall on the first floor, curving around the marbled central core. The Banquet Hall, used for a variety of events, is a continuous room which extends around the curve of the wing at its widest dimension. The hall is an uninterrupted space around the curve which can be subdivided. The entire hall is viewed by walking around the curve. The full height windows of the outer wall are rhythmically matched between the marbled faces of the wall columns. Beyond the tall windows is the impressive concrete colonnade. At the high ceiling, the ribbed beams, with original timber panels between, splay out from the central core and pass the windows, through to the outside edge of the building giving a strongly radial understanding of a circular building. On the inner wall, over the mosaic of original marble tiles, are the progressively changing colours and the vertical louvres of the John Drawbridge mural. On the floor, the original timbers are laid in a radiating pattern of chords. A subdivision of space currently allows for a staff café.
Two floors above accommodate meeting rooms, lounges and dining rooms. Bellamy’s on Level 3 has a dining room where guests can accompany members. There also is a members-only dining room and bar. The balcony on this level allows a discreet overview of the Banquet Hall.
Above, in the middle section, are the concentric floors which house the ministerial suites. Each floor has a lobby at the geometric centre of the floor with concentric rings of large marble tiles. The lobbies lead in six directions: to lifts, to suite entrances and other facilities. On several floors the layout includes a second circular hall or lobby which leads into office suites. The eighteen suites include ministerial offices and the offices and support rooms for their staff. Progressively up the tower and as each floor diminishes in circumference, the shape of the suites and the rooms increase with size, reflecting the increasingly important role of the ministers who occupy them. The distinction of the floors is enhanced by materials that reinforce the curving and radial lines: the timbered wall finishes, marble flooring, and smooth and textured stainless steel. Service rooms for office administration, storage and bathrooms are located closer to the core. Around the perimeter, the offices of staff lead onto ministerial offices with expansive views of Wellington depending on which sector of the circular plan each is located. Level 4 has six of the ministerial suites while four floors higher, Level 7 has three suites.
Towards the top of the building, the prime ministerial and Cabinet suites occupy two floors. The aspect and qualities of the offices, meeting rooms and associated rooms of the prime minister are appropriate to the gravitas of the role. The sloping copper roof cap covers the level where the round Cabinet room is located, over the core. A room of great dignity and purpose, it is marked by the Coat of Arms, an oval leather and marble Cabinet table, and central marble floor mosaic. It is surrounded by macrocarpa panelling, shelves and alcoves, and an outer rim of offices for the Cabinet and the Department of the Prime Minister.
Access to the Executive Wing can be gained from Parliament House at several levels. An alternative main entrance to the wing is from Bowen House via a walkway beneath Bowen Street.
On the west side of the main tower, the two storey podium extends out and houses the Press Gallery annexe for affiliated media representatives; the swimming pool, the recreation centre and car parking are beneath. Secure deliveries access has been added to the west entrance. Below ground, the floor prepared for the National Crisis Management Centre surrounds the central core and remains little altered since it became operational in 1972. A series of rooms for accommodating Civil Defence, Police and New Zealand Defence Force staff, as well as the prime minister and Cabinet ministers, open from a circular corridor. Facilities include meeting rooms, offices, bunkrooms, kitchen and bathroom services, a media briefing area, and an operations room. Not included in the recent refurbishment of the building, furnishings are austere and walls are decorated with photos of disasters from New Zealand’s history.
1969 - 1982
1998 - 2006
Refurbishment of the interiors
2013 - 2014
Repairs to roof and windows
Concrete, steel, timber, copper, glass, marble, granite.
Public NZAA Number
15th June 2015
Report Written By
Blyss Wagstaff and Alison Dangerfield
Halliday, Jessica, Function follows form: Sir Basil Spence and the design and construction of ‘The Beehive’, the Executive Wing of New Zealand Parliament, PhD thesis, University of Canterbury, 2005
Martin, John E. ‘History of Parliament’s Buildings and Grounds’, Parliamentary Service, Wellington, March 2012
Designscape, no.89, March 1977, p.17
Dictionary of Scottish Architects
Dictionary of Scottish Architects, ‘DSA Architect Biography Report: (Sir) Basil Urwin Spence’ http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=203352
Martin, 2012 (2)
Martin, John E. 'Parliament’, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Skinner, Robin, ‘The Beehive: A Difficult Collaboration’, in The Politics of Making, eds Mark Swenarton, Igea Troiani and Helena Webster, Routledge, London, 2007, pp 137-147
A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Central Regional Office of Heritage New Zealand.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.