Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Speak up for our historic high-rise

Death sentence passed on city admin building ignores need for council to set an example in saving heritage

Auckland Council's Civic Building is facing demolition. Photo / Neville Marriner
Auckland Council's Civic Building is facing demolition. Photo / Neville Marriner

In 1966, the shiny new 18-storey, glass-clad Auckland City administration building might not have been the world's tallest skyscraper, but it was the highest in New Zealand.

And even if it had taken 16 years from the initial "urgent" resolution to build, and staff finally moving in, Aucklanders were rather proud of their towering new $3.2 million civic headquarters.

Now, less than 50 years later, it's deemed past its use-by date. Councillors have been presented with two options. Knock the building down and landscape the site, or spend at least $70 million on a refit.

While the final decision is for the politicians to make, the bureaucrats, with many a nudge and a wink, are making it plain what they think.

"Based on preliminary analysis, the high costs of refurbishment will significantly exceed the investment value of the build. This means the economically rational decision would be to demolish the building," says their report.

The officials do concede possible grounds for a reprieve. They admit their death sentence was passed without taking into account "the heritage considerations of the building".

Also, while their preliminary work shows that refurbishing for commercial office use or residential accommodation was not practical, it might be worth testing the market for private sector investment interest.

Also, it might be suitable for office and rehearsal space for assorted arts organisations, freeing up space in the adjacent Aotea Centre.

Any of these options seem preferable to knocking down this landmark and replacing it with nothing.

Many people struggle with the concept of a 48-year-old building being of heritage status and worth protecting. No surprise there. In Auckland, it's hard to find much appetite for treating even a 100-year-old building as worthy of heritage protection.

Ironically, the trail-blazing architect Tibor Donner, who designed the building now on death row, was a fan for knocking down the Auckland Town Hall.

He and many of the dreamers who for several decades had been hatching grandiose schemes for a combined civic and government administration and cultural centre in that vicinity, preferred the clean slate approach.

At least those wanting to bowl the town hall did envisage a much grander meeting space rising in its place.

The administration building has no official heritage listing. Presumably the city heritage officials in charge of such classifications didn't see a need for urgency because of who its owners were.

Now, after two catch-up outside consultant reports recommending the top Category A council listing, we have belated lift-off.

The council heritage unit agrees it "clearly merits" Category B listing, with "potential" for Category A.

It's an opportunity Auckland Council should race to put right. As the body responsible for identifying privately-owned heritage buildings and cajoling the owners into protecting them, it should be setting an example. But the chance to set an example is one ground for "not demolishing" missing from the city officials' list.

You'd expect it to be at the top. What moral authority will the city have to persuade the private owners to do the right thing, if it destroys a heritage icon of its own. Particularly one as public as this.

Many will never have heard of Tibor Donner, but we all know his work. In 1941, he and a colleague won a nationwide design competition for the Savage Memorial at Bastion Pt. From 1947 until he retired in 1967, he was the founding head of Auckland City's architectural office.

Under his leadership came the Parnell Baths in the early 1950s, the Pioneer Women's Hall in Freyberg Place, and the Pt Erin Baths, with everything from carpark buildings to public toilets.

Born in Hungary, Donner emigrated as a 20-year-old with his family to New Zealand in 1927, becoming a student of architecture at Auckland University College. After working privately, he joined the Public Works Department from 1938 until 1947.

In a tribute, the Dean of Architecture at Victoria University, Robin Skinner, said that under Donner, the Auckland City architectural office became "arguably, the leading office in the country", and its projects "were inevitably modern and innovative".

He aimed "to create state-of-the-art buildings" and toured North America, Mexico and Europe in 1956, "to ensure that Auckland would have a civic centre worthy of the city's aspirations".

The councillors voted "to determine the level of market interest to refurbish" the building. But why leave it to the mercies of the market? Now would be a good time to let councillors know your view as well.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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