Modernist Politics – The Beehive, Wellington

What do you get when you mix a box of matches with a napkin? Answer: The executive wing of the New Zealand government. Not the answer you’re expecting, but it the true story of why New Zealand has arguably the ugliest government building in the world.

The Beehive
The Beehive

The Fire

Since Wellington became the nation’s capital in 1865, most government buildings were, although beautiful, made of timber. The harsh natural conditions of Wellington took its toll on the wooden structures, and in 1907, a fire tore through the government buildings taking out with it several national treasures. Parliament temporarily moved across the road to the Governor’s Residence, the Italian renaissance style building, also made of timber, is the second largest timber structure in the world, and was likely to be amongst the world’s first smoke-free workplaces due to the risk of further fire.

Construction of the fire and earthquake proof Edwardian Classical Parliament House began a few years later, and was functional a decade later. However, the original plans were never completed, and the building project was halted until the 1960s.

The Spark

Inspiration for the beehive is commonly given to the metaphor of bees. Bees are hardworking, work well in teams, and serve a purpose to better their hive. That’s how we want our politicians, but realistically though… need I explain?

The idea to scrap the original Edwardian style plans and opt for a tiered cylinder came from British architect, Sir Basil Spence. Spence was inspired by the logo on a box of a Bryant & May Beehive Safety Matches, which he carried (despite the smoke free workplace) around to sell the idea of a cylindrical modernist beehive. Plans were approved by then Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake. Legend has it the original plan shown to Holyoake was scribbled on a napkin at a state dinner.

Beehive Protest
Protesters clash at the Beehive (Left) and House of Parliament (Right)

The Beehive

The Beehive has become one of New Zealand’s most recognisable buildings. Its design is starkly different to the more classical styles of the buildings around it. Some would say it looks like an old-fashioned beehive, others would say it looks like a grey wedding cake with way too many tiers. Just like the Taj Mahal, the Beehive looks the same from every other angle, so you can run, but there is no escaping its unrelenting ugliness.

The Beehive is located on the corner of Molesworth St and Lambton Quay. You can access the interior of the building on public tours.

Where many countries have grandiose palaces and palace-like structures to symbolise their government, New Zealand has this ugly stack of pancakes. Along with a national bird that can’t fly, the Beehive today serves as a major symbol of New Zealand pride and Kiwiana.

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