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.