Real estate firm's gift to the city is very generous - but politicians need to sort out the planning process

The Auckland isthmus was so prized and fought over in pre-European times, it became known as Tamaki Makaurau - land of many lovers. These days, this lust to make one's mark seems concentrated on a harbourside gem, Queens Wharf.

A couple of years ago, it was Rugby World Cup Minister Murray McCully insisting on erecting the undulating eyesore the Cloud with no consideration of any long-term consequences.

Now we have Mayor Len Brown and a gaggle of "art experts" pushing to place a million-dollar-plus sculpture - a "lighthouse" in the form of an old state house - at the northeastern edge of the wharf.

Apparently the concept is a witty play on the welcoming glow of home fires burning. I must say that when I wandered down to the wharf on Wednesday, what the lunch-hour promenaders most needed was just the opposite: protective shade from the harsh summer sun.


I hasten to say that a large-scale outdoor sculpture by Michael Parekowhai - the artist commissioned to create the work - somewhere along the Auckland waterfront is long overdue. What grates is the cavalier, non-consultative process involved in the selection of the Queens Wharf site.

As far as I can ascertain, it's been presented as a fait accompli to Waterfront Auckland, the body charged with developing the long-term masterplan for the waterfront and the wharf. As for the politicians, the first time they will be asked to consider the proposal will be at the inaugural meeting of the new arts and culture committee on February 12, when they will be briefed on progress.

The planned sculpture was announced in March last year, a generous $1 million gift to mark the 90th anniversary of real estate firm Barfoot & Thompson.

Managing director Peter Thompson said "the interactive sculpture" would be in front of the Cloud or at the end of the wharf. The mayor called the gift "awesome".

Little more was heard until late last year when word leaked out that the work would be in the shape of an old two-storey state house, with a large crystal chandelier dominating the interior. Last month, Waitemata Local Board chairman Shale Chambers was briefed. He was "appalled at the proposal, which is a large-footprint, reduced-scale state house with a chandelier inside", he told the Herald last week.

It seems no costings have been done, but that Auckland Council's former chief executive, Doug McKay, agreed to underwrite cost overruns up to $500,000. Hopefully more detail will be revealed on February 12.

What seems Mickey Mouse is the year-long assumption that Queens Wharf will be the site. This is apparently on the recommendation of the old Auckland City Council's advisory panel for public art, which was hurriedly consulted last year when Barfoot & Thompson approached the council with its generous proposal.

The panel was subsequently disbanded last June to make way for a new independent expert panel, charged with overseeing the Super City's public art plans and to provide advice to council staff, and through them, to elected representatives. But this replacement panel is yet to be appointed.

The proposal makes a mockery of Waterfront Auckland's planning role. It is in the midst of preparing a long-term blueprint for Queens Wharf considering the future of the public space once the Cloud is demolished. Options being tossed around include reinstating the old heritage shed that had to be removed to make way for the Cloud, and building a large salt-water swimming pool at the wharf's end. If the pool goes ahead, a giant suspended replica state house might appear rather out of place.

On Facebook, local councillor and self-confessed republican Mike Lee, hopefully tongue in cheek, says if any sculpture is to go on the wharf, it should be a statue to commemorate Queen Elizabeth's long reign. Getting to the nub of the issue, he says: "We don't need the place cluttered with phoney state houses totally irrelevant to the context of the wharf and the waterfront ... Let them spend the money on real state houses."