They have been called a "public urinal" but the 2000 tiles and accompanying water feature that make up the suffrage centenary memorial take centre stage in a new design for Khartoum Place in central Auckland.
Auckland City Mayor Dick Hubbard yesterday unveiled the reworked design with the admission that the council had been guilty of not placing enough value on its heritage.
Mr Hubbard stepped in last November to save the memorial after "horror, outrage and shock" by women's groups, several prominent dames and Women's Affairs Minister Lianne Dalziel at plans to demolish or move the tiles as part of the council's central business district spruce-up.
"The message has come through loud and clear," Mr Hubbard said yesterday. "People are saying, 'There are parts of our city that we are proud of and we want to protect'."
The artwork was unveiled in 1993 by Irish President Mary Robinson and the Governor-General at the time, Dame Catherine Tizard, a former Auckland City Mayor.
In a last-ditch attempt by the arts community last December to move the tiles, Councillor Richard Simpson said the face of suffragette leader Kate Sheppard was "on the largest public urinal in this city".
A week earlier, local art dealer Gary Langsford said the tiles had no aesthetic merit and belonged "in a 1970s craft shop".
The new design, which will cost $2.2 million, includes many new features on what is a shaded and difficult site that provides an important link from Lorne St to the Auckland Art Gallery and Albert Park.
The tiled artwork has been fully retained. One of the changes is a new stairway halfway up the mural where currently there is a seat and blank wall. The tiles will be extended on to a side wall of the stairway, which provides a centred and more prominent set of steps towards the art gallery.
The upper section of Khartoum Place has been raised to the Kitchener St level to create a more usable space and better connection to the forecourt of the art gallery, which is undergoing a $90 million revamp.
The lower Lorne St level receives little sunlight. It is proposed to have lighter-coloured paving and a bluestone path leading to the steps of the artwork. The two plane trees get raised planter boxes in bluestone.
There are plans for improved lighting, seating and a "walk of art" with a series of plinths at both levels to accommodate changing sculptures.
Jan Morrison, one of the artists who made the tiles, said the plans were "music to my ears". She particularly liked the new staircase halfway up the mural, which would mean her making new tiles for the side wall. Her only concern was a lack of foliage to soften some of the edges.
One of the strongest advocates for saving the tiles, former Mothers' Union president Margaret Wilson, was thrilled to them preserved.
"They could not be relocated. They were made for that location, that design and that shape and that's where they should be. Even if some people don't think they are art, I think they are kinky and appropriate."
Jill Pierce, the director of the 1993 Suffragette Trust, said Khartoum Place had been a difficult site in the first place and the designers had done a good job.
Work on the lower section may start in February or March.
The upper section will be done in conjunction with the art gallery revamp in about two years. The designs are on view in the New Gallery on the corner of Lorne and Wellesley Sts. Public feedback closes on June 4.