John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Ugly wharf sheds worth a second look

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John Roughan writes that we should live with the Queens Wharf sheds for a while before making decisions we may regret later.

The Government and council are settling for a simple plan for the World Cup. Photo / Supplied
The Government and council are settling for a simple plan for the World Cup. Photo / Supplied

The most sensible comment I've heard on the subject of Queens Wharf lately came from Joel Cayford, a member of the Auckland Regional Council. Would you do up a house, he said, before you have lived in it for a while?

The council and the Government have just taken possession of the wharf they wanted to turn into something spectacular for the Rugby World Cup. In the nine months since the purchase they have run several architectural sketches past the Auckland public and none have excited us.

Now, with no time left to build anything permanent for the event, they are said to be reconciled to something minimal under a canopy that some who've had wind of it unkindly call a tent. Whatever it is, it would get rid of the terrible green sheds.

I've been as quick as anyone to condemn those sheds. The fact that they have been on the city's central wharf for a century does not redeem their ugliness in my eye.

But Cayford has a point. It makes sense to keep them until we have lived on the wharf awhile.

He was talking about more than the sheds. He wants to do nothing drastic to the wharf until it has been open long enough for us to find out what we like doing there.

This is the normal and natural way to go about improving a private property but it is fairly radical for public policy. I wish civic planners and decision makers, including Cayford, would apply the same principle to their public transport designs and their attempts to control urban expansion.

Normally they're less interested in where and how most of us want to live and travel than in what they think will be good for us. So here's to a moment of realism.

Cayford's suggestion for the wharf was accompanied by a reminder of the "woolshed" at Valencia during Team New Zealand's last bid for the America's Cup. If he wasn't there, the comparison is stronger than he knows.

The Valencia woolshed was a genuine Kiwi creation. An old cargo store somewhat removed from the grand facilities the city had built for the Cup had been fitted out with a big screen, a bar and some moulded furniture.

It was clearly intended for the occasional overflow from the sunny outdoor screens and splendid multi-level viewing spots around the boat harbour, especially in the rare event of rain in Spain, but it was immediately the Kiwi venue of choice.

There were far too many of us most of the time for the furniture provided. So we packed ourselves in on mats on the floor and other platforms around. The place felt right. It was practical, casual, comfortable and real.

The sheds on Queens Wharf may be irredeemably ugly but inside nobody would care. The larger one, much larger than the Valencia woolshed, is as cavernous as a venue will need to be to shelter a crowd in Auckland's wet season.

Two cruise ships will be tied up alongside for the duration of the event. The wharf will be a gathering place whatever is done with it. But September-October evenings would be a bit cold under a canopy, particularly on a wharf. Shed 10, the bigger one, could be warmer.

The interior has impressive timber pillars bolted to the floor and space enough on two levels for an internal village of varied, party crowd comforts and entertainment.

It is even possible its exterior could be made presentable. One of the visions that failed to excite us as a permanent proposal made Shed 10 quite attractive with what appeared to be wall panels in different materials and colours.

That scheme also featured a line of rugby goalposts along the wharf. Tall rugby posts have an elegance we take for granted. They would be a striking symbol of the event and an endless target of good fun. That scheme is worth a second look.

We were right to reject it when the search was on for a lasting legacy of the World Cup but that search is over. Now we can look at ideas that need do no more than let us get to know the place.

Queens Wharf has languished behind an iron barricade for a lifetime. Next weekend when the gates are to be opened new visitors are in for a surprise. The wharf is bigger than most of us imagined, as big as a city block, or a park, which is possibly what it should be.

The council should let people and private enterprise use the wharf freely for a while, establishing attractions and services by trial and error.

The place may be pleasant or breezy, its main attractions may be harbour ferries, city towers or the working port. Until we have lived there, grand designs are unreliable. For now, it is thrilling enough to have possession. In time the wharf will tell us what to do.

- NZ Herald

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