Pip Cheshire: Super City presents chance to shape Auckland

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Pip Cheshire, a prominent Auckland architect, writes on the pitfalls of good urban design in Auckland planning.

The new prison wing casts a forbidding shadow. Photo / Greg Bowker
The new prison wing casts a forbidding shadow. Photo / Greg Bowker

The anguish expressed in the Herald over the height and bulk of the Mt Eden prison extension alongside the Southern Motorway again revealed the confusion felt by many over how our city takes shape.

The issue is somewhat more poignant given that one of the isthmus' great views is compromised - the eclectic collection of Auckland Grammar buildings seen against the backdrop of Maungawhau (Mt Eden).

Though the tower crane had for some months suggested the likely height of the building to come, politicians' comments on the project would suggest the building had somehow landed fully formed, and without prior warning. Some councillors declared the building was higher than they had expected, while Mayor John Banks declared it an "architectural disaster".

That local authority politicians appeared to be taken unawares by the building added a sense of public disquiet. If we can't trust the city council to protect our city, who can we trust?

The comments of the mayor and councillors are revealing in their own way, and point to a depressing confusion as to how buildings come to be where they are, as big as they are, and look like they do.

Though each building project may, as the prison does, have significant effects beyond its immediate site, it is the aggregate of such decisions that determines our city's quality.

If we are to embrace the promise of our city's benign and beautiful location, we must demand local authorities have a better vision for the outcome of the myriad decisions made by council officers on our behalf.

It is not a surprise that the councillors and mayor admitted to a paucity of detailed knowledge of the prison building. It is, after all, just one of many in the city that has survived the arduous negotiation of the consent process - a process that involves the close examination of the project by council officers.

It may have been some years since the councillors and mayor saw anything of the project and then, perhaps only a carefully made-up perspective of its most composed face. The officers, though, will have seen every view, every protrusion, every window, and every metre of height.

It is then to the officers that we must look for the protection of the city, and demand of them a better level of understanding of a building's contribution to the shaping of the city.

Mayor Bank's impassioned sound bite effectively communicated his outrage at the prison but took aim at the wrong target.

It is not the building's unfinished appearance or its use that causes offence, indeed we must wait for its completion to judge its architectural merits.

It is the urban design considerations which allowed such a bulk to be constructed in this location that need to be examined.

The distinction between architecture and urban design is lost when buildings become the subject of politicians' pronouncements, and no more so than when an election looms.

We need look no further than the ongoing Queen's Wharf debacle to see the confusion generated when architecture and urban design are conflated. Any discussion rapidly becomes hopelessly mired in an attempt to reconcile a view of the sheds' architectural or heritage values with the correct location of a cruise ship terminal. And the wisdom or otherwise of the privatisation of public space.

Where there are public interests arising from the desire for a better city, such as the desire for an uncompromised view of Maungawhau, or the desire to have the central city reach out and connect with the Waitemata Harbour, we need some clarity as to the relevant issues affecting these interests.

For example, while a discussion of the prison's architecture - its massing, decoration, use of materials and the functional organisation of its component parts is an interesting debate to come, a more relevant discussion concerns the urban design decisions behind the project, including the impact of the building's use and bulk on the wider city.

Such reviews and discussion are already held as part of a consent process, yet the conclusions are without statutory authority, constrained by the generalised rules of town planning that are applied to the subject site, and far from the public's eye.

The imminent mobilisation of the Super City, with the new council's ability to have region-wide impact, makes it imperative that an understanding of the consequence of building is brought to our thinking about the shape of the city.

Let us demand of the new city and its functionaries that the fledgling steps taken so far to recognise the importance of urban design and to protect and develop the public realm find a secure place in the new structure.

Let us hope, too, that the discussions on public open space, be it a view of Maungawhau, access to the harbour edge or developments along a public street are informed by coherent, clear and thoughtful discussion, free from political posturing.

- NZ Herald

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