Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Editorial: Tank Farm top site for art gallery

Several weeks ago, when the Herald asked Aucklanders how they envisioned the redeveloped Tank Farm, an overwhelming majority plumped for a truly iconic structure as the centrepoint. There were various ideas on what this should be: a sports stadium, a sound shell or perhaps even a power station fuelled by sun, wind and waves. Now, kismet-like, an obvious candidate has emerged. The increasing problems associated with Auckland Art Gallery's $90 million expansion on its present site suggest it should be that iconic structure.

Whatever the architectural merits of the French-style colonial building that at present houses the gallery, the Kitchener St location has inconvenient features. Free parking is always problematic, a not insignificant factor when it comes, in the words of its director, Chris Saines, to making the gallery "as inviting as possible". Added to this is the controversy that has surrounded the plans to expand and restore it. When these were unveiled last July, the initial criticism was of the attempt to marry old and new architecture. The incongruity was enough to garner the attention of the city council's urban design panel.

Many of the panel's worries, if not, perhaps, public unease, seem to have been allayed by a revised plan. But the site-related obstacles keep mounting. The expansion will mean the destruction of four trees at the rear of the gallery in Albert Park and the loss of 915 sq m of park land. Those who led the Save Auckland Trees campaign in Queen St are, naturally, keen to see the details. Even more serious, potentially, is the fact that, depending on geological interpretation, the gallery sits either on the southern edge of a volcanic cone, or on volcanic ash. Already, the Auckland Volcanic Cones Society is making noises about excavations involved in the gallery expansion, and the protection for cones enshrined in a 1915 act.

Most Aucklanders probably do not associate Albert Park with a volcanic cone. They might also look askance at the society's objection, given that Princes St has already been carved through Rangipuke. Nonetheless, a council that has introduced a special levy to protect the city's volcanic heritage can hardly dismiss the society's viewpoint out of hand. That and the other concerns suggest the schedule for starting work on the gallery expansion next March is highly optimistic.

The idea of rehousing the city's collection of paintings and sculpture, the most comprehensive in the country, on the waterfront is not new. It was first suggested by Heart of the City. The concept failed to gain traction then, but that was before the problems associated with expansion on the present site became apparent. Auckland now has the opportunity to create a world-class gallery and distinctive landmark structure in an ideal location.

A site at the Tank Farm would, quite comfortably, include room for storage, comprehensive exhibitions and future expansion, a far cry from the tiny and confined space that will forever limit the present location. The spending of $90 million there will realise only 50 per cent more space for exhibits. A new gallery would also erase any thoughts of not doing justice to the international exhibitions that now find their way to Te Papa because of what Mr Saines refers to as Auckland's Dickensian facilities. Likewise, the gallery would be able to boast the drawcards of excellent cafe and seating arrangements, inside and out.

All this has the makings of an art gallery that would attract far more than the present 200,000 annual visits to the Kitchener St site. That, alone, would go a long way towards ensuring the Tank Farm is a place where people want to be. And that is something the vast majority of Aucklanders also want for this splendid location.

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