With wild curls, thick glasses, and a good bottle of pinot nearby, Allistar Cox seems like someone who knows how to turn any occasion into a long night. When I first meet him, upon arrival I am offered a full platter with three cheeses, fruit, and crackers. I can tell we’ll get on.
Friendly, smart, and outspoken, this Wellingtonian has lived in the city all his life running his interior design and architecture firm from Victoria Street. Well known locally, and with international opportunities knocking, Allistar Cox has evolved to become more than a Wellington name. He recently completed projects in Melbourne and Dubai, and has Queenstown and Chicago in the works, yet this Resident won’t turn up his nose at the Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club.
Allistar’s buoyant ease in making friends imbues his work with a sharp understanding of space and how people use it socially. This charisma may explain his talent for designing bars, restaurants, and cafes (such as Mighty Mighty, Mojo, Dragonfly, and The Matterhorn). But recently his view is extending beyond bars into the streets of his hometown. Allistar has been thinking about ways Wellington can improve its use of space in the city and how we can make the most of our assets (‘Walking!’ he repeats at least five times during our chat).
Entering his studio is like wandering into a cool flat full of books, interesting wine, and decorations in unexpected places—and filled with some very big drawing tables, of course. I felt right at home. We sat down together to talk about how Wellington can improve its urban planning, and what needs to change to keep the city moving forwards in the future.
Lucy Revill: The first question I ask everybody I interview is where were you born?
Allistar Cox: I was born in Lower Hutt, in Lower Hutt hospital. I did my schooling there and went to Hutt Valley High, then went to Victoria University. I left and went to do what you describe these days as a gap year. Then I went back to university. At that stage it was a new course for a degree in interior design with Massey and Polytechnic.
LR: What was it that your parents did when you were a kid?
AC: Mum was a stay-at-home mum because that’s what you did in the ‘60s. Dad was a painter and wallpaperer; had his own business and always worked really long and hard. Without a doubt they instilled a work ethic in me, and I probably would have always ended up working for myself. Apart from those two years that I worked in a paint and wallpaper shop in Lower Hutt, I have always been self employed.
AC: When I finished university with a degree in interiors, I went and set up my own company, and here we are twenty-odd years later. That was quite tough, though, and there were definitely quite a few breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that were based around bowls of rice. It was the back end of the ‘80s crash. It was dead and I had a degree that no one knew what it meant because it was new in this country.
LR: And you studied an interiors degree?
AC: Yeah, I never got a degree in architecture, even though I started one. Today, it doesn’t make any difference for our firm that I am not an architect. Some of the best buildings in the world aren’t designed by architects.
LR: When did your career start to accelerate?
AC: Probably about ten years, after we originally did The Matterhorn. It was the first proper lounge and cocktail bar in Wellington—a significant addition to the city. Then we did it the second time around, at the same time as Good Luck and Mojo. From there I met my core client team who I still work with to this day. Many of those guys have now left this city, but we still call it home. We’re currently exporting our Wellington talent to Dubai, Melbourne, Queenstown, Chicago and Auckland thanks to those clients. Without a doubt, they have helped bring on other clients too.
LR: The Matterhorn opening represents a turning point in the city, don’t you think? What are you doing in 2018?
AC: Today we’ve just finished the third restaurant for Christian (who was the ex-Matterhorn owner in Melbourne), which opened a few months ago, called Lesa. We’re working on a 40-room hotel—what you call a boutique hotel these days—in Queenstown. We’ve just finished, after four years, a significant new restaurant in Rotorua for Te Puia: a building that overlooks the Pohutu geyser. That was a large project, the biggest one to date. We’re working on cafés in Chicago and in Wellington. We’re working on stuff for the airport for the refit of the existing terminal. We’re doing a three-storey addition to a bar in Ponsonby and we’re also working on the Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club.
LR: Do you ever look back at old buildings with any nostalgia, particularly if somewhere closes down?
AC: You can’t wind the clock back. These places have to be supported for them to survive, they really do. Mighty Mighty was a classic example of that. That would still be open today if it was well supported, and as much as it was well loved, it has to be well supported. Well supported means spending money—yes.
LR: That was one of the problems: people used to go get preloaded and then come down to Mighty Mighty and have a dance, but then complain about paying the $10 door cover charge.
AC: Yeah, they did. Wellington has always been very edgy. Again, that’s a good thing, but people need to support local business. We also can’t grow complacent. It’s not as pretentious as some other cities, and it used to be the hospo city of the country. It definitely isn’t anymore, but it used to be. It has the bones and the roots of all that, but there’s a lot of work to do to get that back, and it has to be well supported.
LR: How could it improve?
AC: There needs to be a notion of sociability. You don’t go out for dinner and want to sit in a room by yourself or with your partner. At the end of the day, it’s about being sociable; it’s about being in a public area. Those public spaces have to be better than being at home.
LR: So, you’re saying to put space in the streets; you know, shutting down the area for cars in the inner city and having more al fresco areas for people to be able to go, sit, and socialise?
AC: Yes. Al fresco dining; we’ve got a bit of that. The best places for dining outside in Wellington are courtyards; areas that protect you from the wind that can be covered. So there’s some—it doesn’t always have to be on the street. Strangely, I don’t think the cars are as much of a problem as the oversized buses. I think there’s a place for those in public transport—clearly there is—but the main form of public transport in the inner city of Wellington is your feet: walking is actually a mode of transport.
There are some great cities in the world, and it’s valid to compare Wellington to great cities because if you want it to be a great city then you clearly compare it to other ones. Some of the great cities in the world encourage people to inhabit the streets: places like Barcelona, Rome, Copenhagen, or Tokyo or wherever it may be. There are many cities in the world that do this.
LR: Do you think that changing some of these things would make Wellington a better place for tourists, or would make it a more hospitable place?
AC: It would. It would make it better for tourists; it would make it better for the people who work here; it would make it better for business—whether you’re an IT company, an accountant, or whatever you are. All these people do this simple ritual of eating, having a coffee—and everyone does that; there’s no wealth or class there. People have the right to sit down. One of the weird realisations that we had, when you’re talking about Willis Street and Lambton Quay, is that there’s not a single public table in those areas. A table being that kind of notion of the kitchen table, that public kitchen. There’s nowhere to gather, and people gather around tables.
LR: So, to sum up: what would be the three or four things that you think need to change, to push that forward for the city and reimagine Wellington?
AC: I strongly believe that the Golden Mile (Courtenay Place to Lambton Quay) is the key, the absolute key, for all business. Not just hospitality, but for all business, for everyone. The Golden Mile needs to be reimagined, and I think it needs to be reimagined into a highly pedestrianised mile that does not eliminate cars, taxis, and couriers, but which does eliminate very large buses. Taking that away in the case of Lambton Quay, you’re taking away about seven and a half metres of road, so it’s quite significant, and you re-use that space for pedestrians.
Cars? They’re not really a problem. Let’s face it: as they progress (and they will progress quite fast in the coming years) they’ll be quieter, smaller. They don’t have to go fast, they can stop and start—they’re not really the problem, I don’t think. You don’t have to incentivise people (give them money). It will all just naturally happen from that point. People are attracted to beautiful, great things. I don’t think Wellington should lose its grittiness; in fact, I think we should get more gritty, and a bit more grunty. I think staying quite urban is really important, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have more trees. The city doesn’t have a lot of trees; we are fooled into thinking it does because of the town belt.
LR: There’s no, like, inner city park.
AC: No, and look, parks can be quite urban spaces. I don’t think they all have to be covered in grass because grass is pretty inefficient sometimes, but a place where people can gather would be great, it really would.
LR: As you said, many peers of yours have gone overseas now. Do you still feel connected to Wellington as a city? Do you think that you’ll stay here?
AC: I travel an enormous amount, and if I didn’t have the ability to travel I might feel differently; and look, there are so many opportunities in the world, but this is a great place. We are very central to some great cities, like Melbourne or Sydney, and we’re very close to Queenstown and other parts of the world. So yeah, it’s good. As much as I would love to see an international airport here, I don’t actually think that would make a massive difference to the world of Wellington. We’ve got bigger priorities. It’s a bit like the motorway that goes to the airport; we’ve got to back ourselves, we’ve got to get it done.
LR: How can people in Wellington, who maybe want to see change and want to see better use of public space, how can they raise awareness of these sorts of things?
AC: I think highly skilled professionals are actually the way to do it, and I think the city council needs to be pushed. I think the public in general ask for these things, but they can also inadvertently inhibit it as well. There are times when they’ve asked for more parks and more parks, especially along the waterfront, and there were good reasons for doing that; but sometimes that’s not the answer to making it better and it’s not necessarily what’s going to give you the result.
It keeps coming back to making the place more inhabitable, and there are some really highly skilled planners and professionals out there who have an understanding about how to do that, but you need to get the best. That’s not necessarily within the group of people that is making those decisions now. So you need to get the best advice—and that’s the best in the world, not the best that you can grab from the local pool you’ve got right now. We need great minds—just great professionals to do that. It’s really simple. We don’t want only to think inside the box and just get the person who’s closest. The urban development of Wellington and the urban planning of Wellington hasn’t had great vision in my lifetime, full stop. But I know we can get there. I really believe we need to invest in sociable architecture to positively enrich this city.
This blog post was gifted by Allistar’s partner Linda. If you would like to submit to gift a Resident interview, please contact me here.
Please note acceptance for Resident placement is not guaranteed.