Auckland: Safe as houses

By Peter Shaw

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

The old sheds located on Queens Wharf on Auckland's waterfront. Photo / Dean Purcell
The old sheds located on Queens Wharf on Auckland's waterfront. Photo / Dean Purcell

On July 7 it was announced that Shed 10 on Queen's Wharf was to be retained and the slightly smaller - but no less historically important - Shed 11 retained but relocated.

The Auckland Regional Council dropped its support for the sheds' demolition - which it had previously defended on aesthetic grounds
- finally acknowledging the historic importance of the two industrial buildings and their connection with the city's past. The ARC had been persuaded of the sheds' significance by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and by city architects who, despite an understandable professional
investment in change, have long recognised that progress and heritage are not diametrically opposed.

It was not always so. Some telling pages of Hamish Keith's 2008 autobiography Native Wit bear eloquent witness to the inexorable destruction of Auckland's heritage throughout the 1980s. Many of us recall the demolition of His Majesty's Theatre and the arcade that led up to it from Queen St.

What about the magnificent Salvation Army Citadel on Mayoral Drive, its site still a parking lot two decades later? Recalling this shameful period, Keith refers to Auckland's energetic obliteration of its own cultural memory.

The recent book launch of Coolangatta: A Homage, a handsome volume by Peter Macky and Paul Waite, re-opened that deep wound. It records the December 2006 demolition of one of Auckland great houses, Bamford and
Pierce's 1911 Coolangatta. There are shocking photos taken of the destruction in progress. There are also photographs of each of the
Auckland City councillors who, by voting against the scheduling of the house in the city's District Plan, effectively guaranteed its demolition.

It still goes on. Preparations for Rugby World Cup 2011 have recently seen changes in the Sandringham area, not all for the good. The Art Deco street frontage of the Telefix Services building on the corner of Sandringham Rd and Rossmay Tce has long been admired. Built as a soft drink factory in the mid 1930s it was later a photographer's studio and
then a condom factory. A modest classic of the period, had it been located in Napier rather than suburban Auckland its survival would have
been beyond question. A chatty demolition worker told me that it is going to be replaced by a block of flats so high that upper floor tenants will be able to look straight down into the game.

On the North Shore too there was an unpublicised heritage tragedy earlier this year.

The modest timber houses of architect Vernon Brown are regarded as hallmarks of New Zealand vernacular Modernism. Yet one
of the most publicised of them, his 1942 Wright House at Milford, was suddenly demolished in January this year. It had never been listed in North Shore City's District Plan despite frequent publicity, including its place in a set of postcards publicising noted North Shore Modernist buildings.

If we are to retain our built heritage it is absolutely necessary that the accurate identification of significant buildings and the compilation
of carefully researched information about their historic importance be undertaken. North Shore City has now employed a conservation architect to review its listings - too late for the Wright House.

Unlike the 1980s, today when building owners care more for profit than heritage they cannot simply go ahead and demolish their listed historic building. They have to publicly notify their intentions and then submit to resource consent assessment. The process is difficult and time-consuming.

As conservation architect Bruce Petry points out, heritage is expensive.

Sherry Reynolds, NZHPT's Northern General Manager, says however that the organisation gives every encouragement to the many local community groups that have sprung up in order to ensure that links with the past are maintained rather than ignored or forgotten.

Remuera Heritage, for instance, formed in 2007 in the wake of the loss of Coolangatta, has hundreds of members. The society is devoted to promoting the preservation of the suburb's heritage character, gathering oral histories, collecting and preserving pictorial and written records and fostering an awareness of the importance of cultural history. There are many similar organisations around the city.

In some cases invaluable research has been done, by interested locals as well as by architectural firms specialising in conservation architecture. They have identified buildings whose link with the past is highly valued by locals who see them as a repository of memories and deeply connected with their sense of place.

Although conservation architects Anthony and Jane Matthews are concerned about important buildings remaining unlisted, they are generally optimistic, acknowledging Auckland City's introduction of planning mechanisms that encourage the retention of existing buildings without freezing all new initiatives. The City Council funded Character Overlays have encouraged in-depth studies of Mt Eden, Kingsland, Dominion Rd, West Lynn, Grey Lynn, Ellerslie and St Heliers - all areas
where historic commercial and residential buildings sit closely together.

The modesty of much of the city's older suburban architecture is precisely what gives it its particular importance. Tourists come to New Zealand as much for its modesty of scale as for its mountains, forests, lakes, beaches and rivers. To those from densely overpopulated countries, many of Auckland's buildings are a reminder of what their own urban existence was like 50 or more years ago; another reason to
keep our smaller, less spectacular buildings.

The recent restoration of the former Auckland Meat Company on the corner of Dominion and Walters Roads, now beautifully refurbished after years of neglect as a dark blue and yellow painted eyesore, is a reason to rejoice.

Heritage battles strike people deeply; emotions get fired up and so it is crucial that there is good will between all negotiating parties. It is essential too that buildings with a clearly demonstrable connection to the city's history continue to be accurately identified and described and that local communities continue to be involved in preserving some continuity with earlier times as their streetscapes change.

Peter Shaw is an Auckland writer on the arts and architecture.

- NZ Herald

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