COMMENT:

In 1887 in France, leading artists, writers, architects and other intellectuals formed themselves into a Committee of Three Hundred. They were extremely angry and they had one goal: To stop the construction of a "giddy, ridiculous" and "barbaric" tower some idiot of an engineer had conned the Government into letting him build for a World Fair in Paris.

Poufft, as they possibly say in France. What would artists and intellectuals know? The Government ignored them and up went the Eiffel Tower.

Taxpayers forked out for some of it, but the tower's constructor, M. Eiffel, picked up most of the bill and all of the income for the first 20 years of its life. It was a public-private partnership, a PPP.

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You have to be very determined if you want to build something very bold. What you propose will likely be beyond the imaginative grasp of most people, including many who make their living from their supposedly fertile imaginations.

In 1957 in Australia, Danish architect Jorn Utzon won a competition to design a new performance venue. Sixteen years later - 10 years after it was due - at a cost of $102 million - which was 1357 per cent over budget - the Sydney Opera House was formally opened.

Those 16 years took a desperate toll on the reputations and lives of politicians and designers, including Utzon himself, who was sacked midway through. They hated him so much he didn't even get a mention in the opening celebrations and never returned to see the finished building.

And yet, from the start, the Sydney Opera House was recognised as one of the greatest buildings in the world. Like the Eiffel Tower, it quickly became the city's strongest tourist magnet. Also like the Eiffel Tower, it's impossible now to imagine the city without it.

When eventually you do build a great monument, there is still a chance no one will thank you for it.

In the United States in the 1870s, public opposition to paying for the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument delayed the construction of both by many years.

Around seven million tourist visit the Eiffel Tower every year.
Around seven million tourist visit the Eiffel Tower every year.

In Britain, though, they had a happier time with the London Eye, which went up in 1999 with few problems. The giant ferris wheel always had public support and, in a clever move reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, it was approved as a temporary structure but built as a permanent one.

Is Auckland ready for any of this?

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A proposal has arisen for a pou on the headland at Takaparawhau, better known as Bastion Point. A statue of the Earth mother Papatūānuku, no less, gazing out across the Waitemataā.

This will not happen tomorrow. Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei is considering it but has not adopted the concept. No design exists, although ideas have been put forward. Auckland Council has allocated $1m for development work, but that's not much. If she's built, Papatūānuku will cost a lot more than a million bucks.

NZ First MP Shane Jones jumped in with the cynics, calling the pou "garish". How does he know that? He doesn't have any better idea of what it might look like than the rest of us.

He also dismissed Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei as "a little hapū", a remark designed to remind the tribe it has no right to appropriate Papatūānuku as its own. That was true. She belongs to all Maoridom.

More tellingly, there have been conflicting statements from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei itself. Seems there's a bit of a battle going on inside the walls of the wharenui.

There are five complicated truths about the Papatūānuku proposal that can be expressed very simply.

1. You can put away your dreams about the Statue of Liberty: this is not going to be a European statue in the high-romantic style.

2. It's not going to be just a pole on a headland. Think major visitor attraction.

3. The more controversy it provokes, the better it will be – if its champions are brave enough.

4. Auckland Council will not have to pay for it.

5. We will be immeasurably the richer for it.

Let's step back a moment. Ask some questions. Would Auckland
benefit from a striking focal attraction on the waterfront?

My answer: You bet. Something to talk about, to visit, to learn from, to be entertained by, to feel good about.

Separate but related question: Should there be a significant Māori entity on the waterfront? Again, certainly yes. It's astonishing we have nothing.

Any chance those two desirables might be combined? Why yes.

So, as the Statue of Liberty was the right symbol for the US and the Eiffel Tower became so for Paris, what's the corollary for Auckland and for Aotearoa New Zealand?

Ngāti Whātua Orākei and other iwi will have their own answers to that question, and their answers are more important than mine.

Is Auckland ready for a giant monolith of it's own? Pictured is Bastion Point in Orakei.
Is Auckland ready for a giant monolith of it's own? Pictured is Bastion Point in Orakei.

But my answer, for what it's worth, is that Papatūānuku is pretty close to perfect.

The universal concept of the Earth mother, represented through the unique cultural expression of tangata whenua. A symbol for all of us of who we are and how we connect to the place we call home.

Papatūānuku represents so much of what we might aspire to and honour – in every sense, what we might look up to. What we're super-proud of.

Creating a pou to Papatūānuku will involve many challenges, one of them being that we find the words to match Emma Lazarus, who wrote her poem The New Colossus as a fundraiser for the plinth of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I'm pretty confident our poets, from the shrouded past as well as the fresh-minted present, will be found to be up to it.

Also, a pou to Papatūānuku has something to say to the Kiwi poet Allen Curnow, who longed for the day we learned the trick of standing upright here.

What's the model?

It's not the London Eye, which has no vital function and no necessary connection to place. The Eye is splendid, for sure, but it's a true funfair attraction - its only purpose is to give you a good time and it could just as easily be in Lisbon or Los Angeles.

View from the top of the Victoria Tower towards Big Ben, the River Thames and the London Eye in Westminster, London. Photo / Visit Britain
View from the top of the Victoria Tower towards Big Ben, the River Thames and the London Eye in Westminster, London. Photo / Visit Britain

The Statue of Liberty is different. It expresses the aspirations of a nation, and it will be there, doing exactly that, long after Donald Trump has gone. People flock to it, to see it, honour it, learn from it.

The Sydney Opera House does something of that too, marking Australia's claim as a home for the great traditions of European culture. Australia is far more than that, of course, but it's not the opera house's fault that it doesn't represent everything. It's a tourist magnet and a highly functional building.

The Eiffel Tower is also more than a tourist magnet. As a technological marvel, in its day the tallest structure in the world, it celebrated the spirit of an age. Now, it celebrates Paris itself - the Eiffel Tower is a unique symbol of one of the most wonderful cities of contemporary civilisation.

And despite the fears of those 300 artists and intellectuals, it's beautiful. Turns out inappropriate scale has its place.

There's nothing in Māori art to suggest Papatūānuku will look anything like the Statue of Liberty. It will in all likelihood be a carved pou. And that begs a pretty serious artistic question: This thing has to have a siren-like appeal from a distance.

We should be able to recognise what it is – or at least be so intrigued we want to go closer – from far across the water.

Can you do that without using a representational human form?

It's not easy, but I'd say yes. The proof is right here in Auckland, on Alan Gibbs' sculpture farm by the Kaipara Harbour, where the gigantic works of Bernar Venet, Anish Kapour and Richard Serra all have that quality. As it happens, so do the pyramids of Giza.

A depiction of the statue proposed for Bastion Point, produced by Ian Taylor's Animation Research.
A depiction of the statue proposed for Bastion Point, produced by Ian Taylor's Animation Research.

But how do we guarantee we get something great? Well, we can't.

Gibbs has great works on his farm because he has great taste, but that's a private venture. The model doesn't easily apply in the public realm.

We don't want design by committee and we don't want politicians deciding. What the people in charge have to do is find a small group of decision-makers with great cultural knowledge, the mana and skills to co-opt others to their will, and great taste. And then let them get on with it.

But here's the killer: If it truly is a great design, it may not be understood as such by many people when it is first unveiled. The lessons of the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera House.

This is not the first time someone has tried to get a project like Papatūānuku started. In 2015 a business case was produced for Auckland's tourism and economic development agency Ateed, to create Te Pou o Tāmaki, a "symbol of Unity; Kotahitanga, for the city, the nation and the world".

It was to be a 50m-tall pouwhenua, "clad with whakairo carvings representing the 19 mana whenua tribes of Auckland and the 190 cultures now living in Auckland".

The kaupapa for Te Pou o Tāmaki arose from Ngā Whaotapu o Tāmaki Makaurau, the sacred chisels - a group of carvers from most of the iwi and hapū in the region. The timeframe for construction was five years and the cost was put at $30m.

Several things to note about that. Te Pou o Tāmaki had Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei participation but it was not a Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei project. A pan-iwi group of leading carvers already exists. And it's not going to be cheap.

There's more. Dunedin entrepreneur Ian Taylor was involved, along with Ngā Whaotapu and architect Nick Dalton, in a proposal for the World Expo in Dubai in 2020, to be called A Nation Born of Sailors. Te Pou - known in that context as Te Pou o te Ao – of the Māori world - was a part of that. A celebration of our pasts and our futures, an immersive presentation of technology and cultural identity.

Rangimarie Hunia.
Rangimarie Hunia.

Designed for Dubai, Taylor says, but "its true home should be here in Auckland, alongside our Statue of Unity". There's another name for it.

Taylor is right to want Te Pou Papatūānuku to live in Auckland. She has the potential to become Auckland's largest and best visitor attraction, by far. Especially if we follow the practice of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty: Once you've gazed on them in wonder, you want to climb or ride to the top.

Not the very top. I'm not suggesting we should be able to walk all over Papatūānuku's head. But please let us go high.

And please let's not forget the rest of the vision: A Nation Born of Sailors. Perhaps, to start with, an exhibition. But in time a technology and culture museum of Aotearoa in the Pacific, a project to inform and inspire and excite.

A place both to call home and to represent our home, for mana whenua and for the rest of us who live here, and a place for our visitors. A project for us all.

The carvers are assembled, a big part of the proposal is already under way. We should just do it. Right?

Well, there's this. Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei has not embraced the idea.
It was presented to an education summit recently by Rangimarie Hunua, and she's the chief executive of Whai Maia, the development arm of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. When the story broke in the Herald on Sunday last weekend, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust chairwoman Marama Royal seemed on board too.

"While there is still a consultation process to go through and a more detailed concept to be developed," she said, "Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei supports the idea of having a culturally significant icon in Tāmaki Makaurau that will be recognised across the world."

But the next day the trust put out a new statement, which said: "Opportunities for Māori tourism across the entire Auckland region should be explored thoroughly before any discussion on a potential sculpture takes place."

Also: "The iwi is undertaking its own feasibility studies into possible tourism initiatives and any debate on initial ideas is premature."

New Zealand First MP Shane Jones. Photo / NZME.
New Zealand First MP Shane Jones. Photo / NZME.

The trust's deputy chair, Ngarimu Blair, added: "Our iwi development arm has raised with the council and local boards the idea of a culturally significant icon for Tāmaki Makaurau, as part of a wider discussion on tourism and future opportunities. Takaparawhau/Bastion Point is a significant place for our iwi, and for all who visit and live here. But any sculpture idea is just that – an idea in its infancy."

And now we discover Whai Maia has lost the iwi's remit to advance tourism, in favour of its commercial arm, Whai Rawa.

As Shane Jones likes to say, taihoa folks.

"We can assure the minister and all New Zealanders," said Blair, "that if an idea proves to be workable, then we would of course begin to have a conversation with Aucklanders and all those with an affiliation."

Meanwhile, who wants to pay for it?

I'd say that depends on who's going to own it – and therefore take the income from it. Will it be Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, as Blair's statement seems to imply? Or will there be a joint venture with the Government? Does the council get a look in?

My view: Whoever owns it should pay for it. There's a role for the council in helping to facilitate the project, but it won't be an owner, so shouldn't be stumping up the cost.

How about a public subscription? Would Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei like to retain a half share in Te Pou Papatūānuku and offer everyone else the chance to own a little bit?

Maybe we leave to one side for now the question of who funds the much larger undertaking of a museum of the technology and culture of Aotearoa in the Pacific. Let's treat that as a separate issue. The second stage.

Three things. One: It's going to be incredibly difficult to build a pou, a tower, a statue, a monument, on Takaparawhau/Bastion Point. Two: That's going to be the easy part. Building the whole museum complex will be far harder.

Three: Despite everything I've just said, there's nothing, really, to stop this happening. Is there?