Outer space


To misquote Wordsworth, I recently “wandered past a lonely cloud” to the end of Queen’s Wharf in Auckland. Queen’s Wharf was the centre of the infamous fan zone during the recent Rugby World Cup.

Totally inadequate as the space proved to be in coping with the crowds, it now looks a bit forlorn, with its empty blow up building dubbed “The Cloud” on the western edge of the wharf area and a very much locked up Shed 10 opposite.
And please don’t mention that so-called stadium at the other end of the Rugby World Cup fan trail. In a way, the ambience of Eden Park is well suited to the dire state of Auckland rugby. But what a wasted opportunity to create a really great public sporting venue, preferably for all football codes to use and enjoy.

Now we have something that doesn’t work for either rugby or cricket, surrounded by a series of strangely unmatched grandstands and terraces.
We don’t always do good public space in Auckland, aside from the Viaduct area and new North Wharf development on the waterfront, and some growing signs of life in Britomart.
They have even spruced up Aotea Square after sorting out Auckland’s largest “leaky building”. The car park area underneath was, for a time, in serious danger from water ingress and overloading.

Auckland architects can, when they have the right client, produce some really good public architecture — alongside some really bad apartment developments that now dominate parts of the city fringe.
The new Auckland Art Galley extensions were designed by Aussies, but even local critics recognise this as a fine bit of work, with some really nifty, if small, public spaces surrounding the building and well considered inside-to-outside views from the interior to Albert Park.

So it can be done. We can expect and get thoughtful development of the spaces around our public buildings.
But walk across the road to what is effectively the main approach to the Art Gallery from the city — Khartoum Place — to experience arguably the very worst example of urban oversight and neglect.

It’s frankly no better and looks more like a public toilet than a public space. All for want of a relatively small investment by our grandly entitled and seemingly moribund Auckland Council.
Sure there are some important heritage issues to address, but surely Women’s Suffrage deserves more than an untidy mural adorning an untidy and unattractive staircase.
The nearby area in front of the Auckland Central Library is also an unsatisfactory mixture of public square and access route, illustrating a council that seems to lose confidence when it gets half way through what could have been a really attractive and useful public area.

Development of the space is not helped by the continuing procrastination about the future of the adjoining St James Theatre, arguably the best mid-size performance venue in the city, that is being left to slowly rot.
Consider also what should be one of Auckland’s main public areas — Queen Elizabeth Square, opposite the former Chief Post Office (now the entrance to the illogically located underground Britomart train station).

The square is a mixture of glazed and grubby bus station canopies, a few odd kiosk-type structures and some really weird landscaping between the recently renovated office buildings on the western side of the square. Gravel and kauri trees? — I just don’t get it.
But please, not another competition to solve our urban challenges. All too often this leads to a period of procrastination followed by a cheap-as answer, such as happened with Queens Wharf.

The Te Wero Bridge between the Viaduct and North Wharf is another design disappointment. It’s a great asset that Aucklanders now use and enjoy, but after the council blithely ignored the winners of a public competition, the current utilitarian answer looks more like mayor Len Brown dug his old meccano set out of the family toy cupboard.
However, all other urban disappointments fade into insignificance against the enclosed space facing the Newmarket Railway Station.

The station building is a very good piece of architectural sculpture — in contrast to the lego-like effort by the designers of the apartments forming the other three sides of the square.
However, this square has to be one of the most unpleasant spaces in urban Auckland. Unsurprisingly, most of the shops are empty, not helped by the mean and meagre proportions of the approaches off Broadway and Remuera Road.

It reminds me of some of the less successful inner-city renewal projects put up in the UK in the 60s and 70s. Even on a sunny summer’s day there is no incentive to stop, shop or rest on the way to catching your train.
More’s the pity.

 For a city blessed with a fabulous harbour setting, numerous parks bequeathed by our early city fathers and mothers, and great volcanic landforms, we seem to struggle to stump up that little bit extra needed to create some truly attractive public spaces.

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