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Guest Post: Tale of two cities

This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Patrick Reynolds. It was published as an Opinion Piece in a recent Sunday Star Times (though not online).

William Bambridge, flautist ‘of some competence’, future photographer Royal to Queen Victoria, and sire of no fewer than three all-England international footballers, made this observation in 1844: ‘I suppose as a whole Auckland is a gradually thriving place, tho’ as a town it is miserably laid out and built.’ Fair enough.

Auckland then was brand new, an encampment by a stream, Waihorotiu, the one that still flows under Queen St complete with its taniwha. The problem is that this description of Auckland is still pretty accurate. There are encouraging signs that things are at last improving, but in general, and particularly since the middle of last century, Auckland has done little but get further and further from gracing its natural setting. As if we have been determined to fulfil Bambridge’s description.

What does it matter, you might ask, so long as it is ‘a gradually thriving place’. Well this is the very point. I have a view on how this country can best compete with Australia, on how to ensure it thrives a little more than gradually. And it isn’t about which place can pay its people the least or has the lower taxes.

It’s about where is the better place to live, and this means having a high quality built environment as well as the more unmolested natural one. And spreading this growing city thinly over the surrounding countryside is about the surest way to achieve neither of things. As well as to bankrupt us through the sheer inefficiency of this 1960s model.

The attractions of city life are especially real for the more mobile younger population who can always opt for Sydney, Melbourne, or Shanghai, and certainly will keep doing so if we allow our urban centres to stay so substandard. And go they should, but it is essential that we do all we can to attract them back again before their pension age. Currently our cities bore young people to the airport.

It might seem obvious but it is worth pointing out that we live in cities in order to be closer to one another, not all of us of course, but ever increasing numbers of us desire the intensity of city life.

For New Zealand is undergoing the same demographic movements as China and most of the rest of the world, the quantities are somewhat different but the dynamic is the same. The urban centres of the upper North Island, and Auckland in particular, are growing at a far greater rate than the rest of the country. Auckland is projected to be home to three out of every four new New Zealanders, by birth or immigration, over the next couple of decades.

Even if various politicians and the makers of beer commercials know that at some level we don’t believe this and play to our fantasies of still being rugged country types, it is important to understand that we are not a rural population. Well over 75% of us live in the main centres, we have long been a nation of townies, and are urbanising fast.

A city is a not simply a big provincial town, it requires a different order of organisation, it offers a different set of pleasures and problems. For example the freedom the highway promises in the countryside becomes isolating and defiling in the city. So it is a relief that with the creation of the Super City at last this seems to be understood by local government. As can be seen by the determination to provide Auckland with a real urban transit system and attempts to constrain the cancer-like spread of low value suburbia over the beautiful and productive rural fringes.

Like the ungainly teenager it resembles, it is unclear if Auckland will be able to fulfil this potential, especially as at least for now, every step of the way it has to fight for the right to its own ideas with an uncomprehending and provincial-minded government. One that seems to be unwilling to let the city become the sophisticated adult it surely can.

Even so in some areas Auckland is beginning grow out of the dreary legacy of the postwar era. We are discovering, for example, that the city is actually by the sea and are building towards it in promising ways. But we have a very big struggle ahead to accommodate both population growth and deal with the very real twin taniwhas of our time, the end of cheap oil and the pressures of climate change. And in this most auto-dependent of cities.

A few years after the interesting and perceptive Mr Bambridge visited Auckland another Englishman stepped off a ship here, off one of the fabled First Four Ships in fact. And into a place that was to become very well ‘laid out and built’ indeed, Christchurch. He was also to try his hand at that great Victorian innovation, photography, but that is not what we remember him for.

Benjamin Mountfort was destined to become the great architect of the Gothic Revival in New Zealand, designing landmark buildings like the Canterbury Museum, the Provincial Chambers, and a whole collection of churches in this style of the Victorian medieval. A retiring and devout Anglican his works perfectly express the conscious aim of the Canterbury Association and others to create an imagined England in the South Pacific. The ruling ideology of that British century made visible. And at once giving Christchurch a defining character.

Much of this is now tragically in ruins. As a child of the more ramshackle north I always loved the texture and the richness of the Victorian and Edwardian streetscape in the central city, as I do still that of its Presbyterian neighbour to the south. But of course it is now clear that this stacking of brick and stone is a hopeless technology for our young and shaky land.

But still, the centre of Christchurch remains well ‘laid out’, street pattern being durable, and from the great loss there are some quick wins to be made. There is the chance to be rid some of the more miserable 20th century additions as well as the daft one way system. And to build a new modern Light Rail network to reconnect the heart to rest of the city. And of course what can be saved must be, but it will need more than this.

Mountfort first lost a church to an earthquake in Napier in 1931 and perhaps the contemporary rebuilding of that city is the model. It seems to this Aucklander that there is a fantastic opportunity for the building of a new central Christchurch by the best architects of the 21st century. To launch an ambitious programme of seismically secure, ecologically advanced and just plain beautiful contemporary building. Structures that offer answers to the challenges of this new century.

To seize this moment to add a stunning and ambitious contemporary layer to the centre seems to me to be the best way to get Christchurch back onto the world map, and to prevent the city from further fracturing into little more than a dissipated collection of bland and characterless shopping malls.

But also, in an authentic way, to honour the city’s great architectural past as well as the industry and determination of its founders.

22 comments to Guest Post: Tale of two cities

  • George D

    Thanks Patrick. I hope someone hears this, but it certainly can’t hurt!

  • “Plain beautiful contemporary architecture”.

    BELIEVE THAT WHEN I SEE IT!

  • The problem Auckland faces in transport planning, is that for as long as central govenment controls the motorways and railways within Auckland, the city’s transport network will continue to be developed according to small town NZ thinking, as that’s where most of the politicians are from.

    It’s vitally important that all Auckland transport planning be handed over to Auckland Council.

    • Ross Clark

      One missed opportunity was when Transit NZ was set up in 1989 – the better idea might have been to hand control of the State Highways network over to the nascent regional councils, with some central planning for SH8s 1-8 and funding – the key word – handled by a central unit in the MoT.

      Trouble is, Governments in this country are loath to hand over the money, and control of the money, to allow local governments a freer hand. The UK’s situation provides an interesting contrast – the Government in Scotland gets given a huge block grant every year and reasonable freedom as to how it is spent.

      • Agree that handing over planning and funding control of the State Highways is key. Central government needs to acknowledge that in a context like Auckland the motorway network is primarily about local intra-urban traffic, rather than national-scale connectivity. Of course it’s both – but a matter of degree.

        But don’t think the UK is a good model for decentralised transport funding. Aside from the Scottish devolution, urban transport projects (like in London) remain dependent on central government decision-makers and revenue. Not sure where offers a better model. Cities need the funding tools to decide their own futures.

  • I see a really massive challenge in encouraging people and businesses back into the Christchurch CBD. If you think about it they are currently all setting up shop in the suburbs – how are you going to get them back in two years, or even five years?

    Apparently Napier took decades to truly recover from its earthquake.

    • obi

      There is an issue surrounding rents for Christchurch CBD. Pre-earthquake commercial rents there were only half what they are in Wellington. They got away with that because so much of the commercial real estate was old and dodgy. There are going to be significant rent increases in the CBD and that’ll discourage marginally profitable businesses from returning.

      Some of the schemes that are being floated for Christchurch CBD to be some sort of eco-city, full of solar panels and green buildings, would likely see rents having to triple over their pre-earthquake levels. In that case, you might as well just shut down the city and move them all to Auckland. Or Surfers.

    • Obi I would have thought that rents will fall dramatically as there will be an excess supply of space and little demand for returning to the CBD.

      • obi

        You’re positing a future where no one moves back in to the CBD for reasons of confidence, leaving the place abandoned? That’d be a new one for NZ… sort of a more distributed version of Los Angeles. I’m guessing that some of the working conditions out in the suburbs will be less than ideal. There are companies working out of maraes, church halls, and one of my government customers based at the airport has had another agency move in and share their space. It’ll be interesting to see if they do move back in to the center, if they set up in permanent premises in the suburbs, or if population decrease means there is plenty of room for everyone even if the CBD is abandoned.

        I still think there are implications for the rest of the country. Auckland is supposed to be earthquake free, but so was Christchurch pre-2010. I think any organisation that relies on a single CBD location is just asking to be cordoned for months or years and suffer failure. I wonder if the country can stand losing another major CBD in a single incident? Maybe our future is to be low rise and reasonably distributed, with lots of redundancy? I certainly think government should be spread around the country so that we don’t wake up one day to find all our government agencies destroyed or inside a cordon. I wonder if insurance rates and the risk of a single catastrophic incident are going to mean we’re unable to insure CBDs?

        Low rise doesn’t have to mean dull. Paris and Rome are evidence of that. Instead of having a single high rise CBD surrounded by low density suburbs, they have a sort of constant medium density low rise city with commercial, retail, and residential real estate mixed together throughout the city.

      • There was a lot of evidence that Christchurch had earthquake risks. Much more so than Auckland.

        I’m not saying that nobody will return to the CBD, I just think it will be really challenging to find the “spark” that gets the ball rolling. Retailers won’t move back unless they have customers, customers won’t go there unless there’s a reason, office tenants may have established elsewhere quite permanently by the time the CBD is ready for reopening… and so on.

        Perhaps the University should be shifted back downtown to give it that spark of rebirth?

        • obi

          The trouble with the University idea (and similar ideas I’ve come up with, like “build a national museum there” or “shift the Defence Force there”) is that construction expertise is limited and any you use moving a perfectly good university is unavailable to fixing homes and rebuilding commercial buildings.

          I’m convinced they need to start at the edges of the cordon and move inwards. Bulldoze all the cordon edge blocks as required, then start rebuilding while the demolition guys move on to the next inward ring. People might be more prepared to move in to a new 2 or 3 story building out by the avenues, even if they’re not happy moving to a building near to Cathedral Square yet.

          • Admin I doubt it is feasible on any level to move the Uni back into town, Ilam has a huge [and badly planned] built resource that would cost a fortune to replace. The key is to re-build the heart and connect it with Ilam, Sumner etc with light rail. But the centre must be exceptional, not merely safe.

            And Obi, yes Paris is an ideal height, 6/7 stories not 2/3. That would be perfect, especially if it is fairly uniform.

            Thank Allah that Grand Chancellor is going- one of many vile acts of sub-modernism in NZ

          • obi

            “Thank Allah that Grand Chancellor is going- one of many vile acts of sub-modernism in NZ”

            You see a lot (!!!) of buildings Patrick. Any chance of sharing a list of your favourites?

  • recent?: Ironbank, Waitomo Visitors’ Centre, WGTN Airport Int Terminal, Peregrine Winery, Michael Hill Golf thingy, Patterson’s Bungy Centre, I’m liking the look of the Cloud down on the wharf… Fearon Hay’s new Hotel at the tank Farm is going to be gorgeous too, and the addition to the lovely AK Art Gallery….

    Fond of the Sky Tower, but expressly not the vile thing under it. St Peters by Architectus, Site 3, Clooney the best restaurant Interior. Britomart is very good in general if not, often, in particular.

    Otherwise: AK Museum, Art Gallery, Clock Tower at the Uni, etc. too. All of Mt Vic in WGTN [together as a wonderful jumble of painted wooden boxes, of course impossible to repeat under stupid planning regs]. Central WGTN, while it’s still there, and please stop building crazy motorways Dunedin and Oamaru. Old bits of Gisborne and Nelson [largely lost among the cars] Arthur’s Pass and most of the West Coast…. Dargaville, Rawene, and all the Ratana Chuches. John Scott’s churches. The earlier Hydro projects: Maretai and Mntapouri!, Bridges pre about 1970. AK Harbour Bridge is as ugly as it is sub-optimal. Many Edwardian and pre-modern commercial buildings, and as much of our Modern Heritage as can be found too [See Dr Gatley's books] like the Dunedin School of Dentistry, designed by one I. B. Reynolds…. At AK Uni the Thomas Building and Schools of Engineering and Architecture [bias altert: same practice]. But Expressly not the Business School [the AUT one is way better]… could go on.

    Not particularly wild about either the Gothic Revival or cutesy Deco Napier… both seem a little faux to me…. but I understand that this isn’t a popular view. The Villa seems to be more a true Kiwi vernacular than the Bungalow, and once insulated a better response to the environment too….

    Of course domestic architecture is the one area that is of International Standard….. Many projects by Mitchell Stout, Fearon Hay, Stevens Lawson, Herbst, Melling Morse, Parsonson, Kerr Richie, ISJ, Patterson, and others….. must stop,

    thanks for asking….

    • obi

      I was expecting a short list that I could tick off over the winter. But now I have to quit work and buy a campervan. Thanks a lot!

      I’m with the majority on Napier. I think it is a great looking place, if you ignore the grim 1960s office block on the main shopping street.

      Towers can date very quickly. Seattle’s Space Needle is almost embarrassing in its Jetsonesque theme, and I’m not a fan of either the CN Tower or the one in Sydney. But I’m okay with the Sky Tower. It has generally clean lines and I like the flared section under the deck levels for reasons I can’t explain. I love the glass floors, mostly because you can freak out nervous friends jumping on them.

      I don’t think NZ does public architecture well. There are very few really good public buildings, and a lot that are average or worse. Te Papa and the Beehive being in the later category. There seems to have been a lot of public library building going on recently and some of those look good. Much of our commercial architecture is decidedly average. But there are some great homes being built, as any inspection of an architecture magazine will show. Maybe people are more willing to spend money on their homes than on their businesses?

      Thanks for the list!

      • Completely with you on Te Papa, less Waka than 1970s Soviet Missile Cruiser. Poor location, poor programme, poor process = a dog.

        Beehive is a funny one, can’t really like it but am sort of fond of it. Bowen hse worse, and the old parliament building a gaudy lump. But the ‘Kremlin’ The state services Building is a ripper. Like the cliff face of Lampton Quay, and of course Roy Parsons…. Pliscke, High Modernism.

        shirking the day job today…..

        • obi

          I asked an architect friend what he thought of Te Papa, which was a bit cheeky since his father was heavily involved in the project at a high level. His reply didn’t address the building specifically, but was that “you should be able to draw any great building from memory”. Which you can’t with Te Papa, because the building is all over the place and each side looks like it was designed by a different person. But I’ve kept his advice in mind and find it useful for evaluating buildings.

          SSC I think is the low rise building on the RHS of Molesworth St heading up the hill? I have a customer opposite 133 Molesworth St, which is the old low rise MOW building overlooking the motorway now occupied by Health. It has a few faults (like a giant underground car park) but I like the long horizontal lines and the way the staff can walk out on to various parts of the roof. I also like a mix of low rise and high rise buildings so that the sun has a chance to shine on the street level.

          I’m working on a government tender response today. It isn’t a lot of fun. I’m tempted to answer the pandemic planning question with a zombie apocalypse related answer.

          • The problems with Te Papa are numerous.

            One is is the siting. My first issue is a symbolic one: Frankly I think that we should all go up hill to the big Treasure House. This is one of the satisfying things about the AK museum, The Parthenon, The Getty. Next is practical,: A museum has to be a closed in box, what’s the point of sea views from a blank room- no wonder it’s a just a big lump. Really this siting is based on a domestic property value hierarchy; the flashest housing sites are by the water so that must be true of public buildings… this shows how often this nation of home owners builds public buildings, almost never…. then the programme, a messy jumble of art gallery and museum and all of it should as defining our national identity. hmmmm? bit of a heavy burden that…..Really it should be two separate organisations and buildings, National Art Gallery, and National Museum. Oh that’s right, those were the parents of this unruly child…. then process; lots of committees with politicians all over them… Bolger I think….

            Its amazing it’s not worse, really…

          • Interesting analysis Patrick. I had always thought Te Papa was a great site that the design buggered up, but I see your point now. It is a great site – just not for a museum.

          • obi

            “a messy jumble of art gallery and museum and all of it should as defining our national identity”

            I’ve said the same thing. My view is that museums should be there to educate, whereas art galleries are there for less tangible reasons. Such as improving a person’s soul, if that didn’t sound so pretentious. I don’t see there is any overlap, except that the collections of each need to be stored and displayed in an environmentally controlled secure building.

            At some stage I think the two functions need to be split. I vaguely recall that Te Papa was looking to expand in to the adjacent car park. If they move the art out, then there is no need to construct an extension which I am sure will make the current mess look even less coherent. I’d ignore the agglomeration benefits ;-) and build a national art gallery somewhere in the country other than Wellington. Building it in Christchurch in a few years time when everyone is housed and business is back to usual would be a vote of confidence in the city. It might draw some tourism back, since I think that will suffer now that many visually appealing buildings have gone.

  • KLK

    “you should be able to draw any great building from memory” ….brilliant.

    National library building on Molesworth is one of my favourites – ridiculously simple but brutal and harsh all at the same time. Has real “presence”.

    Sky City has dated very well compared to other towers, surprisingly. Can’t say I am a fan of the shaft not having a coating/exterior though. The exposed concrete looks cheap…..

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