Jane and Antony Matthews: Harbour sheds old, but not 'cheap and nasty'

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Jane and Antony Matthews, of Matthews & Matthews Architects, write on the historic significance of Queens Wharf and its buildings.

Queens Wharf (centre in this 1957 photo) has long been an important part of the port. Photo / NZ Herald
Queens Wharf (centre in this 1957 photo) has long been an important part of the port. Photo / NZ Herald

The future of the Queens Wharf buildings has been the focus of discussions around the redevelopment of the wharf in time for the Rugby World Cup.

It would seem a decision is being made to remove the two remaining cargo-handling warehouses, which have been publicly labelled "cheap, nasty and old".

But is this a fair assessment of their value, and has the potential reuse of these 100-year-old buildings been fully considered?

Queens Wharf redevelopment was one part of a much larger comprehensive plan prepared by the Auckland Harbour Board engineer W.H. Hamer in 1904. Construction of Queens Wharf started around 1907. Five substantial cargo-handling and storage warehouses and a building for the Wharf Police were built between 1909 and 1914.

Queens Wharf was one of the earliest reinforced concrete structures built in Auckland, designed to be strong enough to support rail carriages and cargo.

The design was to fully integrate transportation by rail, road and shipping.

After the completion of the redevelopment plan in 1924, rows of similar cargo-handling warehouses were built on Captain Cook, Marsden and Bledisloe Wharfs as well as Queens Wharf.

The two existing buildings are the only remaining structures from this substantial development and are comparatively rare examples of industrial building types found within the CBD. The wharves represent a pivotal aspect of Auckland's social, industrial and engineering heritage.

The link between Auckland's settlement history and technological development is exemplified by the 1904 Waterfront Improvement Scheme.

We would agree with others' comments that describing the buildings as "sheds" has a negative connotation and is dismissive of the buildings' scale. These are two substantial industrial structures 100m long by 22m wide, one of which is two storeys.

They are constructed using steel columns, massive hardwood beams and floor planking designed to support huge loads and to enable efficient storage and handling of cargo. These are industrial buildings the equivalent of which is found only in association with other large-scale urban infrastructure such as railways, gasworks, electrical generation or factories.

Sadly, we have a poor record of appreciating and preserving these building types. The warehouses and wharf are clearly of heritage value when assessed against recognised assessment criteria.

The proposal to remove them seems to be made on an aesthetic evaluation based on their present condition. If this was the sole criterion to determine the retention of heritage buildings many important places would have been lost.

And if they are not considered worthwhile saving for their cultural value, what of their economic value? How much would it cost to construct buildings of a similar scale with riveted steel columns, substantial Australian hardwood beams and floor joists and miles of 3-inch thick hardwood flooring and kauri roof sarking? Redevelopment of the buildings would be a sustainable approach. Can poorly considered demolition and replacement with a temporary tent structure, which will in turn be discarded, be sustainable? It is wasteful, illogical and costly.

The buildings would be readily adaptable and this approach was adopted by many of the submissions to both the first and second stage of the architectural design competition, which unfortunately was never properly completed.

Already Auckland City Council has successfully used one of the buildings, ironically for the launch of last year's Heritage Week celebrations.

The buildings can easily be used as temporary events venues and it is hoped the architects will investigate this option seriously. It should also be noted there is more than enough room on Queens Wharf to erect a temporary tent structure if it were necessary, without demolishing the warehouses.

Cities worldwide are rediscovering and restoring their industrial heritage. Just across the road, Auckland has managed to retain and rejuvenate the historic Britomart Quarter.

Other examples are Wellington's and Sydney's waterfronts, London's docklands and New York's Brooklyn area and High Line railway (and "if it's good enough for New York it should be good enough for us").

The cargo-handling warehouses were part of a master plan in the early 1900s. Until we have a new master plan they should be retained. We cannot afford to continue to be wasteful of heritage and resources, unless it is to achieve something of greater value.

It is inappropriate for an irreversible decision to be made on our behalf, about a public asset, with little public consultation - and justifying it with glib and dismissive rhetoric.

Jane and Antony Matthews of Matthews & Matthews Architects prepared a heritage assessment of Queens Wharf cargo-handling warehouses, part of the information provided to entrants of the design competition. They describe themselves as conservation architects with broad experience in the restoration and reuse of heritage buildings.

- NZ Herald

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