Have a heart

by Pamela Stirling / 18 March, 2006

The trouble with Auckland is that it doesn't really exist. It's our biggest city, home to a whopping third of the nation's population. And yet there is a great glaring gap: there is no truly defining heart to the place. It is built in an almost unimaginably beautiful spot. Auckland has not just one but two magnificent harbours. There are volcanoes, wild surf beaches, glittering bays surrounded by crimson pohutukawa, luxuriant palms, beckoning islands in the Gulf and serene native bush in the Waitakeres.

But there's still something missing. Essentially, this expensive, congested, dysfunctional city is little more than a series of provincial towns. A British writer last year in the Spectator dismissed the city as "a relentless sprawl of clapboard houses" entombing "a bleak moodiness". At an international conference of architects last year, Auckland's downtown cityscape was described as "terribly second-rate", with some of its new apartment blocks "beyond awful".

Perhaps the real test of the place is that Aucklanders only half-heartedly stand up for their city when it's slagged off. Auckland is pretty much disliked by the rest of the country - something you'd think might engender at least a sense of indignant arrogance in its inhabitants. Actually, no. Many Aucklanders don't feel part of any greater entity than their own neighbourhood. Some rarely bother to have an out-of-suburb experience. Do they care that the abysmal transport system creates gaps between them? They like gaps. They treat them as they do their houses. They want bigger ones.

All of which makes it quite extraordinary that Aucklanders - well, some of them - appear to be seizing the once-only opportunity to give feedback on the redevelopment plans for part of the waterfront. The 35ha prime waterfront area known as Tank Farm - Wynyard Wharf - has the potential to become an international drawcard. Around the world, as the Mayor points out, cities are looking to their waterfronts: in London, Sydney, Cape Town, Barcelona and Vancouver, harbour developments have breathed new life into their cities.

This is a golden chance, if we get it right, to preserve as much of the Auckland waterfront as possible for the enjoyment of all New Zealanders. For Aucklanders, it's the opportunity to create a superb urban stage. Great cities without exception have a great democratic space; a square or piazza where everyone mixes; a place where the different cultural groups escape the segregation of their suburbs; a place where the action is. The civic psyche is always uplifted by a galvanising urban centrepiece. And particularly so when it incorporates the "oasis phenomenon". People are drawn to water, either a harbour or a pool. The Tank Farm proposal has it all - even a bridge to Te Wero Island. There is wild talk of a canal.

But unless Aucklanders speak out, the vision may be limited by the desire to make a profit out of the development in order to pay for regional transport and infrastructure projects. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the number of apartments planned.

Apartments can actually enhance a development if kept in proportion: cafes, shops and galleries need a bustling atmosphere. But the open space at the end of the wharf - a mound echoing the city's volcanoes has been suggested - simply cannot be allowed to be the exclusive playground of wealthy residents.

What's needed is an iconic building. Where would Sydney be without the Opera House or Bilbao without the Guggenheim Museum? In Barcelona, the work of the beloved architect Antoni Gaudi - his magnificent Sagrada Familia is still being finished from public donations - pulls tourists from all over the world. New Zealand missed an opportunity with the municipal monstrosity that is the exterior of Te Papa. But even a remote place like the Gibbston Valley, with the new Peregrine Winery, now features stunning New Zealand architecture.

Wellington has turned its waterfront into a sparkling jewel. The lessons of Te Papa and the loathed Queens Wharf retail centre (the "Soviet Ablution Block") have been taken to heart. The new Waitangi Park beside Te Papa is superb. It includes promenades - even wetlands. And the competition for a "human scale" building alongside Te Papa has produced some extraordinary designs.

Meanwhile, in Auckland there are unconfirmed reports of people actually looking up the Tank Farm proposal (www.tankfarm.co.nz) and getting involved and excited. The glittering prize in all this may be more than a great waterfront. It could be the beginning of a great city.

(see also: www.aucklandcity.govt.nz)

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