Auckland as you've never seen it

By Dionne Christian

Dionne Christian gets a fascinating insight into our city's history.

Matthew Bradbury's tour reveals secrets about our city and the fads and fashions that influenced its design.
Matthew Bradbury's tour reveals secrets about our city and the fads and fashions that influenced its design.

How grand it could have been: Regency-style crescents, with houses in stone, encircling Albert Park. That's what Felton Matthews, New Zealand's first Surveyor General, envisioned for Auckland in 1842 after Governor Hobson instructed him to draw up a town plan.

It may have looked a little like the Roman city of Bath, in southwest England, where 30 terraced houses were built between 1767 and 1774 in the Royal Crescent. As a child, I wondered how the builders got the stones to be the right shape and why it was built to look like a half moon.

Felton Matthews' grand design for Auckland didn't eventuate - not enough money and a lack of patience from founding city fathers to carry out such an extensive plan. All that remains are some letters and plans detailing his ideas, and a stone wall around the Kitchener St end of Albert Park.

I am with Unitec lecturer, landscape architect and urban designer Matthew Bradbury on his walking tour, Unfinished Utopias: A History of Auckland Urbanisms, part of this summer's Freedom Farmers: New Zealand Artists Growing Ideas exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery.

Bradbury's fascinating premise is to look at a small slice of modern Auckland as an "archaeological fragment". It reveals secrets about our city and the international fads and fashions that influenced its design. The idealism of urban planners, surveyors and architects is on show through the walking tour. Highlights include two very different plans for Auckland's Civic Centre around Aotea Square. The 1920s plan was modelled on the baroque Piazza del Popola in Rome and featured a duplicate town hall on the opposite corner, with a large public square, museum and art gallery.

Had it proceeded, Queen St might have lived up to its regal name, but Auckland ratepayers, who got to vote on the design, vetoed it. The Town Hall and the Civic Theatre, both of which weren't part of the plan, provide glimpses of what might have been.

Twenty-three years and an economic depression and World War II later, a new generation of architects were at their drawing boards. The stark 1949 design for Auckland's Civic Centre could not have been more different from the earlier neo-classical European one. It was to be an enclosed and self-contained area of high-rise office blocks. Had this plan gone ahead, it would have been the country's first modernist city centre. Back then, it was cutting-edge contemporary; today it looks - at least, to me - institutional and devoid of personality. Bledisloe House, opened in 1959, is the sole structure that was ever built.

Another stop is Albert St, where we're transported back to the giddy heights of the 1980s when finance companies' soaring mirror-glass towers were en vogue. The Chase Plaza was an attempt by Chase Corporation to rebuild an entire city block and include "structural art" and public open spaces within it. It was considered the finest example of a Tokyo influenced mega-structure.

And then the bubble burst; economic recession meant far fewer of these developments went ahead and the glorious Chase Plaza, while still open, is another unfinished utopia.

At the end of the tour, which finishes on Kitchener St right back at the start of Auckland's development, we're left to wonder why these schemes and dreams faded and died. Was it lack of money? Fear of committing to such ambitious and far-reaching plans? Were heads turned by the Next Big Thing? And, just as importantly, what will be constructed next - and billed as the way of the future - in Auckland?

Bradbury's informed commentary and open, friendly manner mean there are good opportunities to ask questions, speculate and share stories about these edifices. It's not designed for young children but those with an interest in architecture, urban design, history and Auckland itself will enjoy the guided walk and be thinking about it days later.

Bookings are absolutely essential as Auckland Art Gallery now does all its ticketing through the eventfinder website.

- NZ Herald

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