Monday, April 03, 2006

Brian Rudman: Art Gallery expansion plans about to blow up

Finding the $90 million to pay for the proposed Auckland Art gallery expansions could be the least of director Chris Saines' problems. First he has to get past the guardians of Auckland's volcanic cones.

John Street, chairman of the Auckland Volcanic Cones Society, is anxious that Rangipuke, the volcanic cone upon which Albert Park and the adjacent art gallery sit, is not further damaged. He's dug out the obscure 1915 Act of Parliament that proved a last-minute saviour for Mt Roskill against Transit New Zealand's road-building bulldozers a couple of years back and says it's time to give it another outing.

He objects to the proposed outdoor amphitheatre and series of terraces cut into the surrounding parkland - part of the gallery expansion plans - plus any other cuts and excavations into the mountain. "The society will insist that the 1915 act be recognised and allowed for. We've got to be consistent." He finds it annoying that the council is well aware of its obligations "but they conveniently ignore them with a strategy of, 'Oh well, we'll get around this in some way'." Either that, or "perhaps they've forgotten Albert Park was a volcano".

It's not so much the council's forgotten it's a volcano, it's more that they've decided to deny it is one - well the small corner of Albert Park that the art gallery wants to redesign anyway.

The art gallery commissioned Bruce Hayward of Geomarine Research to report on the implications of the 1915 act. The full report is still to be released, but a triumphant two-sentence summary by gallery consultants to be made public today declares "the report effectively concludes that that part of Albert Park in which the work will take place is not a volcanic cone or slope and is thus not subject to that legislation. Instead, the area subject of the development was covered by volcanic ash. Accordingly, it is considered that there will be no adverse effects on volcanic cones or slopes in the Auckland Volcanic Field."

I look forward to reading the respected geologist's full report, but examining the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences map of the geology of urban Auckland, this could end up as a case similar to Shylock being permitted to take a pound of flesh, but not shed a drop of blood.

The map shows the existing Art Gallery building apparently straddling the southern edge of the "Albert Park Volcano". I can see geologists, and lawyers now, debating the finer points of where a volcano begins and ends.

There's also the Albert Park Management Plan to consider. Not only does it note that Rangipuke is a volcanic cone landform which forms part of a north-south ridge which runs down to the former Point Britomart headland, it also notes that to further the "stated vision" of Auckland as "the outstanding city of the South Pacific," council will, amongst other things, "protect, develop and promote Auckland's special and distinctive features such as the volcanic cones and larger parks".

Further, "original features of the park are instrinsically valuable and conservation of these should aim to intervene as little as possible, and then only as required for their physical preservation or protection."

The 1915 act didn't define "volcano". Prime Minister Sir William Massey introduced it into Parliament with the warning that "the volcanic hills in and around the city of Auckland are being destroyed ... and the legislation has been framed with a view to preventing their destruction". It was aimed at the miners of roading materials, but the Mt Roskill victory shows it's power is much wider.

Laying my cards on the table, I've already suggested leaving the grand old French-style gallery building alone and building a new art museum elsewhere - possibly as the iconic new structure being sought for the Tank Farm. And that was before the new plans emerged last week and revealed how much nibbling into the surrounding mountain was involved.

Now, wearing my friend of volcanoes' hat, I'm supposed to rest easy again on that score, because the nibbling is into volcanic ash and not the actual volcano. That's if they've got boundary line correct.

In the year when the council, for the first time, has levied a special rate to pay for protecting and maintaining our volcanic heritage, it is hardly a debate you'd expect the council to be leading.

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