COMMENT:

The fashion in city building is for small and steady. Keep rolling out the little changes and they'll turn into bigger ones. Do learn, do. Fail often and fail fast, and each time do it better. Fail forward! People probably get paid actual money to dream up these slogans.

Doing lots of little things gets you lots of little progress: more frequent public transport, shared spaces, cycle lanes, pop-ups, events, food stalls, commercial life, an incrementally better city. All good. You look around in 10 years and the city is different.

But it isn't astonishing. Small and steady invites you to think good enough, not great. It closes down the dream that one day our city might do what Paris did with the Eiffel Tower, and Sydney with the Opera House, and Bilbao with the Guggenheim Museum.

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Become a wonderful version of itself, for visitors to marvel at and, even more, for locals to love. So what about it? Time for the One Big Thing?

Why don't we build ourselves a magnificent Museum of the Sea?

Out on the headland of the Tank Farm, which we're now supposed to call Wynyard Point. Devoted to migration stories and our relationship to the sea, with collections from the Auckland Museum, the Maritime Museum and every other source. The negotiations would be tricky but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

A place that reaches from myths and deep history into the future, presented with cutting-edge technology to offer visitors some thrillingly immersive virtual experiences.

You could navigate under the starry heavens from Hawaiki. Pitch and yaw on an America's Cup yacht. Swim with whales. Be a midshipman on Cook's Endeavour, a warrior on a waka, a seaman on the refrigeration ships of the 1880s, and they'd keep adding more: an immigrant on an ocean liner, a fisherman on a trawler, a sailor on a Navy frigate, an adventurer on the Southern Ocean, a scientist at the bottom of the sea.

An artist's impression of the proposed Auckland Waterfront sunken stadium.
An artist's impression of the proposed Auckland Waterfront sunken stadium.

Also real experiences. You could sail an Optimist, gather kaimoana for a barbecue, surf an endless wave, become a marine biologist for the afternoon and explore the rocky shore.

I've got a name for it, although it's not my place to give it a name. Tangata Moana. The People of the Sea.

Tangata Moana would be a triumph of entertainment and education, a showcase for the richness of our cultures, our coastline and the ocean depths beyond. A showcase also for an open-minded people with open-hearted skills as technological and social leaders, determined to embrace the future. That would be us.

A really big place, with in-water and on-land experiences. A treasure trove of knowledge, with kaumātua of all kinds and storytellers too, ready to share.

It would change and keep changing. Its very façade would astonish us. Perhaps it would look like a cube of water, or a cornucopia of sealife. Or maybe it would be a boat. Or a hei-matau, a bone or pounamu fishhook? I don't know, it would be designed by some wizards of architecture and culture and technology, not by me.

It would be the best of us. We would love going there and going back again and so would every visitor. This would be the thing we offered the world that only we can offer the world.

Why don't we build ourselves a magnificent Museum of the Sea at Wynyard Point? Photo / File
Why don't we build ourselves a magnificent Museum of the Sea at Wynyard Point? Photo / File

It would be the thing we offer each other, too, all of us, the multisplendidness of us. And it would be an expression of the treaty partnership, a living building that honours Māori and Pākehā and explores what we mean when we say we are proud to be us.

There are lots of reasons to do this. The future of the waterfront can't be just restaurants, playgrounds and apartments. It also needs something with weight and heft.

Something that helps legitimise the sense of importance we feel about place, and draws crowds, because museums bring people. And that uses the great location on the Waitematā to help us explore our own history and own evolving culture. Which we're not all that good at doing.

Thinking even bigger yet? It could be more than one thing: a pair of wonder-venues, this one on the Tank Farm and the other, a stadium, on the land that will one day not have car imports or even containers on it. Seen from the water, twin monuments framing the city. Why think big when you can think bigger?

Or, maybe, there are good arguments for this: put it on the Manukau?

To acknowledge the central importance to our story of the people who live on that harbour. How rare it is that we offer the South the chance to play a central role in the life of Tāmaki Makaurau.

I don't have a fixed view on that, Waitematā or Manukau. But I do want it built.

This would be our Sydney Opera House, but more so. Our Eiffel Tower, but much more so. It would claim careers and ruin politicians and swallow fortunes and be much, much harder than anyone brave enough to take it on ever thought. And it would be totally worth doing.

It could take 50 years, although I really hope not. The people who start it will die before it's finished. That's not a reason not to do it. It's a reason to get started sooner. Think of it as planting the tree of our cultural life.

Tangata Moana. Because we are the people of the sea and this is our story.

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