Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: It's a joke, even if no one's laughing

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The Jean Batten Building. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
The Jean Batten Building. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Only in the facade capital of the western world could the film-set facsimile of what was once the Jean Batten Building get a heritage award.

If last night's awards ceremony had been run by New Zealand Skeptics, you could have laughed it off as one of their tongue-in-cheek send-ups.

But these awards were presented by the Auckland branch of the Institute of Architects, and we all know how seriously architects take themselves and their works.

Which means the joke is unintended, but no less a joke for that. A custard pie joke, where the clown trips and lands with his face slap bang in the middle of his own custard pie.

In 2007, when the so-called preservation of the art deco building was in the demolition phase, the skeletal remnants looked like photos of bomb-ravaged Dresden after the 1943 air raids. It revealed to the world how very little of the original remained.

In a reluctant compromise, the developers, who had wanted to bowl the building totally, had done a deal with Auckland City Council to stitch the old building together with the new glass tower in front.

The exterior was to remain, but at ground level, the existing windows - some at head height from the outside - were cut down to pavement level to accommodate the display needs of retailers. The interior ground floor was lowered a metre or so to street level and the deco stairways between floors were removed. So were the distinctively decorated lifts.

The existing interior was retained/recreated for only the first 5m in from the outside wall to the first line of interior pillars. At that point, the floor plates were adjusted to match the floors of the tower block.

The explanation for the removal of stairs and lifts was simple. The shops would occupy only the ground floor. The six floors of the old Jean Batten Building above would be accessed from the Queen St building, meaning there was no need for the existing vertical flow from ground level.

The end result is little different from the discredited facadism of the 1970s and 1980s that left only the Queen St frontage of the historic original BNZ headquarters across the road from the Jean Batten "restoration".

The Grand Hotel up the hill in Princes St suffered a similar fate, its grand colonial-era frontages tacked on to unrelated glass towers behind.

The judges last night, like the weak-willed city council compromisers three years ago, continue to put a different spin on it. They say architects Warren and Mahoney "may not have welcomed the retention of the Jean Batten building, yet it has provided a satisfying degree of urban complexity. The materiality of the new tower carefully meets the old condition with sensitive overlaps".

In that peculiar jargon that architects hide behind, they add: "A dual tension formed the backstory of this conservation project: a commercial desire for a clean slate and recognition by the Historic Places Trust of the social importance of the building."

The fact remains, the old heritage building - unprotected by the trust or the city council - was gutted to make way for an undistinguished glass tower. As a sop to the city council and the Historic Places Trust, the developers offered to incorporate a couple of reconstituted street facades and a little of the old interior.

The judges try to make out this was a positive outcome. They write "public pressure and the influence of the HPT resulted in the architects retaining more than simply a facade of the building. The spatiality of the heritage building has some depth and the detailing of the original is repeated in the restoration of the retained bay".

Whether you regard the result as a sell-out or a good compromise, it was not a triumph for heritage. It was certainly not a result worthy of recognition by the profession which claims the first word in caring for Auckland's built environment.

The judges acknowledge that the architects didn't welcome having to retain the old building. But even if they had, it was the bad old Auckland story. Heritage was very much the problem to overcome in this assignment, not the drawcard, to embrace and show off.

If this is the best as far as heritage projects go in Auckland, our few surviving old buildings should continue to be very afraid.

- NZ Herald

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