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Mark Graham: Give Auckland some South Pacific culture

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Construction of the Waka Maori at Te Wero Island at the Viaduct Harbour, Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson
Construction of the Waka Maori at Te Wero Island at the Viaduct Harbour, Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson

In what is claimed to be the world's largest Polynesian city, where is one to find any evidence of Maori or Polynesian culture in the downtown area? Until the Waka was erected, there was nothing. One must travel up the hill to the War Memorial Museum to experience anything of substance - and that mostly behind glass.

And where do Maori and Polynesians themselves go to see their own culture on show and presented to the world? The Otara market? Apart from a couple of tourist-focused Marae tours and the Museum, we offer nothing.

As a New Zealander and Aucklander growing up in this city - my city - contact with Maori and Polynesian culture was minimal. I have lived in around the city, yet I have had next to no interaction with the cultures that make New Zealand so distinct. Encountering and experiencing Maori culture is something that is hard to do unless you seek it out through a tourist-focused enterprise.

If you are a tourist in New Zealand, then your options are limited. Again, it is mostly through the museum that you will have any exposure to Maori and Polynesian culture, and tourism companies that conduct Marae tours and stays.

I published the Conventions New Zealand conference planner, a conference venue directory, for the New Zealand Convention industry, ran their website and did international marketing for them for six years. In that time I also took part in a competitive pitch to Tourism Auckland to publish a 'Guide to Auckland'. It was while preparing our pitch ten years ago that the shortfall in Auckland's offering became apparent.

If tourists are increasingly looking for an authentic experience, according to Tourism New Zealand, then where, in Auckland, are they to find it? Not, I would suggest, with the Maori shows at the Museum, as entertaining as they are.

Alongside this is the criticism of Auckland city that it lacks a heart.

As a passionate Aucklander I have always taken exception to this statement. Auckland has many hearts, found in all the many villages and centres that make up the greater whole and most assuredly on display with the recent support for Christchurch and Samoa.

But there is validity in the criticism when it comes to a visual and cultural centre for the city. The Sky Tower presents a focal point but it is not located in what one could describe as the centre of the city. Nor, I would suggest, should the focal and cultural centre for Auckland have a casino as its base. And such a building is hardly unique to Auckland.
The various arts venues around the city, including our magnificent War Memorial Museum and our stunning new Auckland Art Gallery are also not unique in their concept, notwithstanding their local flavour.

Rather than a venue that caters to tourists with a 'Show and Tell' theme however glitzy it may be, or a new university that would have to be funded from an already too small a budget for tertiary education, we need a venue that provides a clear symbol of the New Auckland we want to see come into being - one that embodies authenticity and recognition of our country's distinctive elements in a compelling, creative and innovative way.

In terms of location, where but Queen's Wharf? This is virtually the centre of Auckland at the base of Queen St; one foot in the sea, one on the land; easily accessible by visitors and locals alike.

The design competition for the Queen's Wharf development was fundamentally flawed in that, short of a cruise ship terminal, there was no purpose proposed for the building and who designs a building without a purpose? Naturally, the results were less than satisfactory.

The Waka in the viaduct made obvious the hole in Auckland's heart. The numbers of visitors to the attraction clearly demonstrates the hunger for something permanent.

Surely an adequate representation of those cultures that make New Zealand distinct within the Auckland CBD would obviate the need to have the Waka.

Cultural touchpoints such as this are essential to attract the kind of citizen to our city who will help us build a great place to live. These are creative people who bring new ideas and quality of life demands that continue to drive a city's development. They can live anywhere they choose. We must make our city attractive enough that they choose to live here.

The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia, in celebrating the indigenous Kanak culture, is unique. This wonderful building, designed by world-renowned Italian architect, Renzo Piano, blends the linguistic and artistic heritage of the Kanak people and gives Kanaks, locals and tourists a place to interact with and learn about Kanak culture.

Surely we can do something similar for Auckland that brings together Pacifica cultures, opens them up to interaction and provides that heart that many say Auckland needs? And can we not do it better?

This Centre can become the touchpoint where Maori and Polynesians, locals and tourists meet, encounter and interact. This building can become the centre of Auckland, physically, focally and culturally. This building becomes the physical embodiment of the heart that Auckland has, but which has sadly remained hidden.

* Mark Graham is an Auckland publisher

- NZ Herald

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