This is a quick post on the Downtown site. Precinct Properties, the owner of the Mall and the two existing towers [Zurich Hse + HSBC Building] between Lower Queen St and Lower Albert St, are expected to lodge a resource consent in a couple of months for a total rebuild of this site. We expect this proposal to include:
- a 36 story tower on the south west corner, opposite the Customs Hse
- 3 story retail precinct in between the three towers
- an unknown quantity or location of carparking
- the reinstatement of streets, or ‘street-like’ ground level public realm through the site instead of QE II Square.
Other significant and related issues:
- Construction is expected to begin next year  and will include the tunnels for the City Rail Link through the site, regardless of the government’s position on this project. Council funding is secured for this.
- Buses will be removed from Lower Queen St and moved at least in part to Lower Albert St. Lower Queen will become a vehicle free pedestrian space at least for the length in front of Britomart Station.
We are told to expect both a new east/west street connecting the Piazza in front of Britomart to the buses on Lower Albert and a north/south street between Quay and Customs. The later is a reinstatement of a previously existing street called Little Queen, and is what I am focussing on in this post.
In 1966 10 highly detail topographical maps were produced from arial photographs of Auckland City, now in the Auckland Libraries Collection [where the black and white images in this post are also from]. These maps are a fantastic source of detailed information on 1960s Auckland; here is a close-up of the Downtown site before the current 1970s mall was built there, the CPO turned Britomart Station is bottom centre between Calway [sic; should be Galway] and Tyler:
So running between the Ferry Building and the Customs House was Little Queen St. The Harbour Board owned all the reclaimed land in the vicinity of the port and, like POAL today, it was focused on making more of it, either out of the sea, or in this case, it contrived to invent real estate out of a public road in order to ‘rationalise’ that resource. Presumably the trade off then with the city and the citizens was how we came to get the most dreary public space in the city: QE II square, proving for ever that not all open space is equal, especially urban open space.
The east side looking towards the sea and Ferry Building [and one person].
The same side from a higher angle with a couple of humans and more than 10 buses. The street is pretty wide, wider it seems than its Melbourne namesakes; Little Collins and Little Bourke. Or perhaps just emptier?
Quay St from the Ferry Building looking towards Lower Queen [The still extant Endeans building on the left and the Cupola of Britomart poking above], Little Queen on the right. 1965. Plenty of tarmac.
The history of this site is fascinating* as it is a clear example of the failures of mid twentieth century modernist urban master planning. But the outcome we are familiar with now isn’t simply a matter of design fashion but also the demographic, social, and commercial landscape of the period; the spirit of the times.
The 1960s and 70s were at the height of the ‘flight from the centre’ period, a time of anti-urban idealisation of the new decentralised suburban life. A then sexy new Californian dream of a car centred complete life away from the tired old city centre: Living, shopping, and working without bothering with the old fashioned, degraded city. Clean, convenient, new. Supported and subsidised by Central and Local government policy in a myriad of ways, especially in transport spending in Auckland once Robbie’s Rail was killed. This lack of confidence in the city and disregard for the existing urban built environment was the dominant theme of the time so I guess it is of no surprise that the outcome of that Downtown redevelopment is suboptimal.
There was vocal opposition to the design we now have when it was proposed, in particular the shading of the new Square by the now HSBC building was, correctly, predicted to be severely limiting, and for years it struggled commercially [although more recently I believe it was one of previous owner Westfield’s better performers, and their only property without onsite and free parking], the site now clearly offers its new owners a huge opportunity but only if completely redesigned and rebuilt. And that opportunity is simply people. The return of people in concentrations to a now more exciting and busy city environment that only good public transport and dense land habitation can provide.
In this regard then, it is essential that the quality of the new work; both the architectural form of the new buildings and the relations between these buildings; the negative space between, these new streets, are of the highest standard, and provide real public spaces, unlike the faux public space of the suburban mall, or the formlessness and inauthenticity of the current QE II square. And in this the challenge is greater than at Britomart as there are no pre-sprawl era buildings to revive to give structure, scale, and continuity, and still the blocking mass of the HSBC building [which covers the northern end of the old Little Queen St] as well as a new tower to accommodate. Precinct and their architects have a great deal to balance but they know if they get it right all else will follow: The people.
A critical difference now is that these new projects are not for and by people that see little value in the city, a place only fit for escape. In that sense they are building for a new age, and one that offers the chance at least of the return of those powerful but difficult to summon qualities of great cities and great city places: Enchantment, mystery, possibility.
No pressure then.
* There is a totally absorbing history of the lead up to the downtown development in the Architecture New Zealand 2. 21013 by architect Dennis Smith. Highly recommended. Shows various schemes, perfectly of their time, and all completely dominated by car parking.
UPDATE: The kind folks at Architecture Now have put Dennis’ great article online now: http://architecturenow.co.nz/articles/a-short-history-of-the-sixties-downtown/