Written by Cameron Ralston
I’ve always been sceptical of Christchurch’s Innovation Precinct. Innovation is one of those words that you hear all the time nowadays: Beauden Barrett is a great innovator with a rugby ball; young IT companies are very innovative; the new petrol pumps are innovative et cetera. The Vodafone building on Tuam Street—dubbed the Innov8 building—was developed and built by Studio D4 and Calder Stewart and completed in mid 2016. Two large Vodafone logos adorn the western face of the building looking towards the central city; a third, on the eastern elevation, is less visible as the Kathmandu building obscures it. This piece is written about those logos and the area they hang over.
The Vodafone logo, as an image, is fine. I have no strong emotions about it. And in fact of all the major communication providers in the country, I’d even say it was my favourite logo. Designed by Saatchi & Saatchi in 1997, it’s fairly simple, easily adaptable, recognisable, and contains within it a speech mark—a symbol for communication. All good.
I remember watching from the Physics Room in 2014 as the initial groundwork was done on the InnoV8 building. Regan Gentry was erecting his Wood for the Trees (a very innovative project), we could occasionally spot rabbits around the community garden, RAD bikes was fixing up bicycles and my car was parked in a gravel traffic jam. The area had been growing organically. RAD bikes have since moved to The Commons, the parking lot is a Kathmandu, and the new InnoV8 building is occupied and running. It rises above the rest of the precinct; the logos placed high on the walls overlooking the other buildings. I believe that has a negative effect on the area.
It’s worst at night. The currently vacant spaces to the west and northwest of the building leave no respite from the red/white glow. What was a year ago an interesting, people focussed, corridor has now started to be infected by what we were advertised in the 2012 Blueprint: fast built business. Which was supposed to be packaged in a way that would add to a vibrant city. Instead we are getting, in my opinion, cookie cutter office buildings. Which serve an immediate purpose, but leave a worrying future.
There seems like there might be good things going on inside the InnoV8 building and interesting discussion to be had—I can’t really comment on the business of the place—but it takes that look of a large corporate office. Urban Designer James Lunday puts it well when he calls the InnoV8 building a ‘creeping cancer… coming in and killing the fine grain.’ The fine grain he’s referring to is the smaller people oriented spaces. The Innovation Precinct webpage asks who’s the precinct for? It recognises the need for social space and culture, these should be the driving force behind a city centre, but they’re seen here as extras.
Soon the plastic wrap will be taken off the 19 lights on the Tuam and High Streets intersection. These lights further represent the lack of progressive design thinking leeching into the area. Where larger players are creating stale environments built for cars and big business. The ecology of the city as it develops is fascinating to watch, and how it balances cultural, social, commercial and private space. Public graffiti murals in Christchurch have been a great response to the vacant areas and empty walls. They create space and culture and speak a visual language of people. And events like FESTA show us that people want to engage with the central city. There have been so many conversations around what an opportunity there is here. That it’s kind of disappointing when some of the latest area landmarks are two big red orbs and a forest of traffic poles.
The idea of commonality has been floating around since the earthquake. Questions like: how do we as a city create and share the spaces we live and work in? And what kind of city do we want to live in? I realise this is getting away from the image of the building, and I’ll reiterate that this article isn’t about what happens inside the building (business, commerce, technology, innovation, jobs etc.), but what’s going on outside it. With that said, I think this is worth talking about. Graphic design does have a part to play in creating the landscape we want in our city. Old artist renderings of the InnoV8 building show an area where people intermingle—there’s a public sculpture in the courtyard and some walls of the building even appear to be living green facades.
‘Brick Fall, Glass Wall’ was a recent exhibition by Amy Howden-Chapman at The Physics Room (funny how things keep coming back to that space). This show looked at the effect of glass architecture on the physical and psychological landscape and environment. The InnoV8 building was one of those in her gathered images of such buildings in Christchurch. What Howden-Chapman is bringing us to see is the way we create our landscapes; how they can isolate us, empower us, and alter our sense of scale.
In the mid to late 2000s a handful of bright orange Mitre 10 Mega stores in the South Island found themselves under some small public heat. Notably in Dunedin and Ferrymead in Christchurch where the back of the building was eventually repainted silver. In these cases members of the public felt they were losing their voice in the way their environment looked. It was easy to create us versus them dialogue exactly because they looked like a brand, mysterious and looming, and the concerned public was a community. Then there’s the Spark Park on Hereford street—a concrete pit where the Telecom exchange building was situated. Time and again we find large businesses failing to understand what creates a harmonious environment that encourages a balance between the artificial, the natural, and the human.
Good graphic design has some form of harmony in design elements or, in some cases, a conscious playing with the aesthetic principles of such harmony (Elliot Earls and Ed Fella for example). The Vodafone logos on the InnoV8 building however fall somewhere into the corporate crack of hole punches, company phone plans and wireless Skype friendly televisions. Less innovative and ambitious. More isolating. It might be exciting inside the building, but from the outside it’s business as usual. It’s somewhat a matter of packaging and how we use visual forms to create unity and cohesion.
There was perhaps an opportunity to have the logo set into the concrete, or in a form that reflects the area. There’s even photos of Vodafone CEO Russell Stanners standing beside a nice wooden logo inside the building. What of creating a building that displayed the identity of Vodafone in a way that is graphically or architecturally expressed, evolving, or incorporates the pedestrian?
I find it hard to get revved up when I look at the InnoV8 building. In an area that’s intended to be the place where ideas are generated and shared, the Vodafone logos show a lack of understanding of what creates a harmonious public space. Most people won’t think about them except for a passing joke. ‘Don’t they look like two eyes with a giant mouth between.’ But there they are, watching us unpassionately, looking for a pedestrian to chew and spit back to the suburbs.