Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Honouring wars monumentally tricky

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Centenary walkway options are irkingly tied to 21st century, ego and bi-culturalism.
Commemorating past wars is a tricky business. Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Commemorating past wars is a tricky business. Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Commemorating past wars is a tricky business. Just before Christmas, a group of Otorohanga College students presented a 10,000 strong petition to Parliament seeking an official day of remembrance to mark the 19th century colonial land wars.

Then last weekend came news of a Vietnam War veteran trying to make money by leading a 50th anniversary tour party to the site of the Battle of Long Tan - four-star hotels, sight-seeing and "many meals" thrown in.

I admire the students' desire to encourage New Zealanders to confront our conveniently buried civil war, but find the Vietnam tour distinctly tacky.

Then, of course, there's the seemingly endless World War I centennial marathon which still has three long years to run. Compared to the obscene $120 million or more the Government has spent expanding the national war memorial in Wellington, Auckland's plan to spend $3 million creating a processional walkway up the northern slopes of the Domain to the cenotaph at the War Memorial Museum seemed acceptably modest.

Though personally, I don't get the need to build additional monuments of any sort, 100 years after an event.

Why not? If you check out the five concept designs now on display at the museum, or online at the museum website you will see why not. Each of the "international-standard design consortia" involved can't escape their 21st century mindset. Or the need to stamp the sacred setting with an "I was there" branding which clashes with the 1920s, immediate post-war grandeur and solemnity of the setting.

If ever the old adage of less is more cried out for observance, this is it. Also, none of the five anonymous entrants can escape the modern fad for bi-cultural symbolism. One, for example proposes a circular seating area hacked out of the volcanic slope, "as if formed by a swing of a toki aronui (carving chisel) ... "

Another proposes carving the slope into terraces. It's entitled Te Korowai and turns the park space into a ceremonial cloak. Apparently "it acknowledges all of the community through historic and cultural layering [of] meaning while maintaining an open space".

The impression you come away with is attempts to create something that instead of complementing the existing museum building, competes with it, hollering "look at me". It's as though the design brief was unread.

The toki aronui swingers, for instance, seem to have taken no notice of the advice that "the area has significant archeological, cultural and geological values enshrined in district plan protection, and any ground intervention will require relevant investigations, consultation, consents and archeological authorities ... " Indeed they extol the virtues of their artificial new land form, noting how it will form "a monumental presence in the landscape as it rises out of the volcanic tuff rim ..."

If they'd checked, they'd have discovered an obscure 1915 Act of Parliament, rediscovered by the Volcanic Cones Society in its successful battle to save Mt Roskill from the road builders, which forbids the hacking into volcanic tuff rings in public reserves such as the Domain.

The brief also calls for a contemplative feature "which must respect, harmonise with and complement the revered Auckland War Memorial Museum". It must also "respect and not visually compromise" the wide, "intentionally open green space surrounding and particularly fronting" the museum." It notes the open space is "to support and maintain the monumental solemnity and gravitas of the Museum as the War Memorial ... "

Specifically, the brief proposed " a visually recessive pedestrian linkage" up the northern slope from Domain Drive to the cenotaph.

Councillor Mike Lee, chairman of the WWI centennial memorial working party, describes this as "a processional way", something "modest and functional ... of practical use for everyday visitors" but also "an aesthetically worthy enhancement to the present War Memorial Museum ... that could be seamlessly integrated with that complex."

He said this harked back to a concept first proposed in 1932 by city engineer James Tyler, not long after the museum was completed.

Yet of the five concepts selected by Auckland Council staff for consideration, only one has this dedicated, direct pathway along the north-south axis to the museum.

The working party is not bound to select any of the proposals. My advice is that they heed their initial instinct, and commission something along the lines of Mr Tyler's 1932 design.

- 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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