Museum and Heritage Studies, 2018
The Racing Conference Building (1961), also known today as the Mibar Enterprises Building, dominates the busy intersection of Victoria (formerly Farish) and Wakefield streets. A symbol of Wellington’s creativity and innovation, its architecture and significance within today’s Wellington café culture combine to make it an important landmark in the capital.
On the ground floor, next to the haberdashery and Vessel, is the Lido, one of the city’s most successful cafes since its opening in 1990. Its popularity is due to its location (midway between Courtenay Place, Cuba Street and the CBD), the quality of the food and coffee, and the unique modernist architecture of the building. Its imposing façade and the beautifully curved windows create a charming, light-filled, and intimate space appreciated by customers.
The building’s construction in 1960 is linked to the story of The New Zealand Racing Conference. Horse racing has always been a popular sport in New Zealand but at the end of the 19th century the industry lacked cohesion which led to the establishment of the national Racing Conference. In 1930, the Conference decided to establish a central base in Wellington and following the Depression years and when racing boomed once more planned its head office building in the capital in 1959.
In 1988, the Racing Conference left the building which then became a multi-purpose building with shops on the ground level and residential and office space on the upper levels.
The Racing Conference Building distinguishes itself from its neighbours thanks to its distinctive 1950s modernist design. The impressive curved facade is constructed from stainless steel, concrete, bronze sheathing, and ceramic tiles. This flowing form, which echoes other buildings in Wellington from this period (such as the Stout Street Departmental Building), is a common feature of modernist architecture.
The man behind this exceptional project was architect Keith Cooper. He was known for injecting his sense of humour and warm personality into his projects. He designed this eccentric building to reflect the nearby ocean with a wave-like frame and curved glass windows. The result is described as a “comfortable, transparent space that is somewhat akin to both a cave and fishbowl”.
The building offers a peaceful sea-like atmosphere through the use of pastel colour tones while remaining within the city and close to the shops. The “Horse House” (Cooper’s personal nickname for the Racing Conference Building) received a 25-year New Zealand Institute of Architects’ branch award.
Because of the share market crash the Racing Conference Building was saved from demolition in 1987. Its architectural significance with its wonderful 180-degree view of the city, the quality of the materials used and its unusual shape, and the well-known café and shops who make their home there, mean it remains an essential part of the character of central Wellington.