Saturday, March 11, 2006

John Roughan: Timely re-jig for harbour

Before Auckland's urban designers adopt any "visions" for the western waterfront I'd like to take them to lunch.

I have in mind a sandwich on a sunny day, sitting on the benches between the ferry building and Princes Wharf. We'd need to get there early because all the seats are quickly taken on a fine day and we'd probably have to sit on the barnacle-encrusted steps that go down to the water, as people do.

I'd like us to say nothing for a while, just sit and chew and ruminate on what attracts people to this stretch of the waterfront. It is not just the water, which is oily there, and certainly not because of the public amenities which are minimal.

It's not the peace and quiet because the place is quite busy. The gulf ferries come and go, there is sometimes a cruise ship at Princes Wharf, always craft of some kind puttering about.

Sitting there, munching in the sun, surely the penny would drop. The secret of a successful city waterfront is not so much the public space provided, as the commercial activity nearby.

All week we've been reading of ideas for the redevelopment of the waterfront from the Viaduct to Westhaven, including the removal of the tank farm and using that commanding site for a building of Sydney Opera House significance.

I haven't heard a more exciting subject for a long time. Auckland could erect something there that would define the place, dominate the harbour and swell the hearts of its citizens forever. Sydney has done that so well that anything we do might look imitative, but give us time.

The iconic building is literally the last thing we should do. That is to say, we should do it, but not until somebody comes up with the idea that is so good, so right and natural for that location that we'll all wonder why we didn't think of it.

We'll know it when it happens. In the meantime the City Council urgently needs to do some land use planning for that section of the waterfront, and this time it needs to get it right.

The Auckland central business district is ripe for re-alignment out of the Queen St valley. The Viaduct has already pulled a great deal of commercial development to the area between Victoria Park and the sea. To the east, the release of railway land has seen an explosion of cheapjack apartment blocks overlooking the port. The east stands as a warning of what not to do in the west.

If the planners can do the western side right it could draw a critical mass of commercial development in that direction and turn central Auckland into the harbourside city it should always have been.

But doing it right does not mean swards of public open space along the sea front. If anything was to kill the prospect of a popular waterfront it would be to designate most of the area as a public reserve and allow civic draughtsmen to lay it out with concrete and grass in cold, architecturally-satisfying, spatial concepts.

The inner city has had this sort of treatment in the civic centre and downtown. Aotea Square is a success for skateboarding and not much else, Queen Elizabeth Square has been a triumph of planners over people.

For a short time people were winning. A few years after the downtown square was laid out beneath the shade and downdrafts of the Air New Zealand building, people turned the places where the sun reached into quite a lively plaza.

Fruit barrows and exotic fast food stands set themselves up in the different sectors of the design plan. The place attracted street performers, soap box orators and was an assembly point for protesters. It was a place to meet, eat, or just pause and watch human life for a while and people did.

But it turned out to be not what the designers planned. Eventually City Council designers with too little to do decided Queen Elizabeth Square was "not working". It was a bit "chaotic".

Officials came down and ordered the food stalls into a neat line down the middle. That was the beginning of the end. Fewer people stopped there. The place became just another thoroughfare. Today it is a bus terminal.

The designers did much better with the Viaduct. Its success is the only reason we are talking about a wider waterfront now.

But the success of the Viaduct is not due simply to the human scale of the place. It owes at least as much to the way commercial activity is combined with public areas there. That is the formula to follow.

It does not necessarily mean more apartments, restaurants and bars but if there is a demand for them, let it happen. More likely the commercial activity would change as you proceed west from the Viaduct. The high life would give way to marine industries much as it does now.

Possibly the best thing the designers could do would be to find ways that the fish markets, boatyards and every sort of marine servicing depot could continue to operate there with more generous public access to the same waterfront.

I'm sure this would present more of a problem to planners than it would to people working or walking on the waterfront.

Planners abhor chaos, but left alone people would quickly resolve so-called issues of conflicting use.

So long as it was clear that both the public and marine industry had an equal right to be there, they would demarcate the territory fairly clearly. Paving and public seating, strategically positioned, could probably do it without need of barriers everywhere.

People should be able to walk right around the perimeter to that splendid site at the end of Wynyard Wharf, which must be preserved in public ownership but, even there, commercial development should not be discounted.

On recent Auckland evidence, commerce produces a better iconic building than the City Council. Compare the Sky Tower to the Aotea Centre. One is bold, the other cowering.

The Sky Tower had many critics when it was proposed, and even when it was built. But it has become such a familiar and striking feature of the Auckland skyline that if the casino ever wanted to demolish it I have no doubt there would be a vociferous public preservation campaign.

Maybe no other construction could match the tower for grandeur but that tank farm site will inspire something exceptional. But no matter how grand the design let's not consign it to a cultural purpose as Sydney did. Let's come up with something that will have commercial life. That's where people go.


Post a Comment

<< Home