For thirty years Tony Watkins has lived in his organic, ever evolving house at Karaka Bay in Auckland's eastern suburbs. Here he writes about what it means to belong to the bay.
Photographs by Simon Devitt.
American author Jeffrey Masson, linguist, philosopher and one-time projects director at Washington’s Sigmund Freud Archives, had never been to New Zealand before he flew in to Auckland, walked down to Karaka Bay and declared that this was the quintessential Pacific Paradise. He sold up everything in San Francisco and London and moved to the bay to live. Karaka Bay is a passionate place, where colourful people match the diversity of their architecture. The story of the bay goes back to creation myths for Maori and settlement myths for Pakeha, and anyone seeking to understand the urban design of Auckland would do well to begin their journey here.
Karaka Bay, east of St Heliers on Auckland's Gulf edge, marks the sacred meeting of the Tamaki and Waitemata Rivers. For around a thousand years, it would seem, people have lived at the bay. It appears to have been the first place on the New Zealand mainland to be occupied, with earlier arrivals preferring to live on adjacent islands. The eruption of Rangitoto was watched from the beach.
At Karaka Bay in 1827 Ngapuhi were tricked by the ruse of marukawhaki, or false retreat. After observing the fires of Waikato at the bay the northerners had paddled across from Motutapu to attack. When Waikato fled in apparent disorder, leaving their canoes drawn up on the beach, some of the Ngapuhi warriors set out in pursuit while others fell to plundering the canoes. Having drawn their enemies sufficiently far from their fellows Waikato then turned with a suddenness so well executed that they killed their pursuers almost to a man. They then returned to Karaka Bay, where they killed and ate all the remaining Ngapuhi with the exception of twenty men who escaped in one canoe. (1)
Treachery, bloodshed and revenge are part of the folk-lore of Karaka Bay. It is a strong place, which can be unforgiving. Easy to misjudge on a sunny summer’s day, the bay has broken many of those who have tried to break the wairua or spirit of the land.
It was probably not by chance that first Henry Williams and then Captain William Hobson chose Karaka Bay as the site for two signings of the Treaty of Waitangi. The bay was disputed territory, a place where one iwi could be played off against another. If Ngati Whatua, the last remnant of whom had abandoned Tamaki in 1822, signed the Treaty then Tainui could not stand back and allow themselves to be dispossessed. In 1990 it was Tainui who responded to the locals’ initiative of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty while Ngati Whatua held back. At that event an enormous black bird flew over the gathering, startling everyone into silence – another Karaka Bay mystery.
After the Treaty had been signed at Karaka Bay on 4 March 1840 by 17 chiefs, mainly Ngati Paoa and Ngati Maru, Hobson returned north with his purpose only partly fulfilled. Four months later he sailed back to the bay and on 9 July the Treaty was signed by a further six chiefs. Captain David Rough, soon to be appointed Auckland’s first Harbour Master, was present on that day and described the event: “The chiefs of the neighbouring tribes from Manukau and Waikato, having been invited to meet the Governor, a tent was pitched on the beach of the first bay on the west side of the Tamaki; the Union Jack was hoisted and the Treaty of Waitangi spread out for signatures on a table at which stood His Excellency, and behind him, mounted police in their showy uniforms … The sun shone brightly and the gathering of natives clad in their mats, the canoes drawn up on the white sandy beach, the cutter at anchor, and the small group of Europeans beside the flag, in front of the pine trees on the slope of the hills beyond, formed a very picturesque and striking scene of an event in the early history of the colony.”(2)
In the United States the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed is regarded with awe and respect. Auckland City Council seems to have a different view of the significance of such historic sites. Recently it has turned Karaka Bay into a dog exercise area: the place where the Treaty tent stood is now so fouled by canine faeces that it is risky to either sit on the grass or take a swim.
In 1953, carried along by Royal Tour enthusiasm, the Council did build a memorial fountain on the path down to Karaka Bay, but the bronze plaque is inaccurate and some years ago the “fountain” was cemented over with a few pebbles. A new sign put up by the Council above the path which goes down to thebBay deserves top marks for graphics and style, but few for accuracy. In power struggles at Karaka Bay truth has frequently been the first casualty, occasionally with benign effect. For example, the “Residents Parking Only” sign painted by Council on the cul-de-sac above the bay is a fiction, but one that has left everyone happy. Over the years it has become another part of Karaka Bay folk-lore. At the bay the attitude that laws are made to be broken, as demonstrated by the Council itself, is seen by residents as enlightened and encouraging. Support is growing for a “Residents Dogs Only” sign.
Corruption and intrigue are venerable traditions at Karaka Bay. When French navigator Dumont d’Urville passed by in the Astrolabe in 1827, Tawiti traded a maiden for a repeating rifle (Auckland was clearly destined to become New Zealand’s commercial centre). (3)
At that time the pa above the bay extended along the whole of the ridgeline out to Te Pane-a-Horoiwi (Achilles Point). The last remnant of this pa, the fortifications held between the fork of the two fault lines at the southern end of Karaka Bay, survived until 1944 when the whole pa site was bulldozed flat to make way for architecture.
Other remnants of early occupation are to be found everywhere. Middens abound as kaimoana was plentiful here as recently as 30 years ago when policy-hungry urban designers (and developers) poured their clay silt into the Tamaki and killed the river. The old middens reveal that 300 years ago the shellfish in the Tamaki River were almost three times their current size.
The karaka trees for which the bay was named were planted as a food source for the pa above. There are a number of Karaka Bays in New Zealand that share the same physical form: a food source in a bay with a headland pa above. One of the largest karaka trees in our bay, dating from the time of the signing of the Treaty, was recently felled to let more sun in to the architecture.
Sea level rise is not an entirely new phenomenon. Several thousand years before the first people arrived at what is now called Auckland the sea level was much lower. Karaka Bay lay at the confluence of the Waitemata and Tamaki Rivers. The meeting of the waters, which pre-destined the importance of the bay, would have been much clearer then.
The dynamic geology of Karaka Bay could easily fill anyone possessed of a static view of life with apprehension. An eruption 50,000 years ago formed the crater and tuff ring to the north of the bay. This is one of the oldest volcanoes in Auckland; in contrast, the much more complex form of Taurere to the south is young, at around 20,000 years. (4)
There used to be 20,000-year-old rocks on the beach, left over from volcanic eruptions. The Council barged in front-end-loaders to clean them up, along with the pipi beds.
John Logan Campbell arrived in Karaka Bay almost by chance. In 1840 he sheltered from a storm and camped for a night before going around the headland and up to Orakei. “This was the first time”, he wrote, that the solitude of the Bay “had been broken by Pakeha man”. (5)
By the time the Anna Watson sailed up the Waitemata to establish the new capital Logan Campbell and William Brown were already living on Brown’s Island (Motukorea). Europeans had arrived, and now everything had a price.
John Commons and William McKenzie bought Karaka Bay from the Crown on 8 February 1845. Seven months later it was sold to William Taylor, and four years later he sold it to his brother Richard James Taylor. For the next 60 years Karaka Bay was farmland. Richard Taylor built the homestead for his Glen Taylor farm in 1849 and the dignified building gathered legends for 140 years until it was moved to Port Waikato to be replaced by architecture. Glen Innes and Glen Orchard were the adjacent farms.
In 1912 the 582-acre Glendowie Estate was sold to George Riddell. Work began on the construction of Riddell Road in 1913, and 298 sections were put up for auction in 1921. Only eight were sold, six at Karaka Bay itself and two to the east of the bay. The subdivision included Glendowie Parade, which passed along the beach frontage of the bay, and Pah Road (later renamed Peacock Street as colonialism asserted itself), which provided legal access.
The first “permanent” building in Karaka Bay was a boatshed built in 1923 by Meta and Ernest Armstrong, who then completed a cottage alongside. In 1931 the cottage passed to the Armstrongs’ eldest daughter Eileen and her husband Frederick Jordan. In the early 1970s a relation of Frederick Jordan, architect Morton Jordan, designed a pole house – it may have been New Zealand’s first – for clients John and Jill Blundell on a vacant site adjacent to the old Armstrong bach, which by that time had passed into the hands of jazz trumpeter Bobby Griffith.
A cluster of other baches appeared quickly in the mid- to late-1920s and a small, closely knit community of Pakeha called Karaka Bay home. Only the Bert Bampton bach still remains from this time. It has been lovingly restored by architect Warren Dennison. Other baches were extended and slowly absorbed into new structures.
In 1924 dentist Edward Wilcock bought a cottage at the bay, and shortly after he built on a site with access to Riddell Road. A winding concrete path led up to the new homestead. Other paths also zig-zagged down the cliff. Pah Road was at that time nothing more than a dirt track. Wilcock built the still extant boatshed in Karaka Bay. For many years it housed the Vectis which had been sailed to New Zealand by Chilean refugees escaping the dictator Pinochet. (In the late 1970s I lived in this boatshed while writing “The Human House”, a series of fortnightly columns on the process of building a home, in the Auckland Star). When Edward Wilcock died his home passed to his younger daughter, and her elder son lived in the house until recently. A developer is currently seeking a resource consent to demolish the old homestead.
Another 1920s bach belonged to Colonel Whitney of the Colonial Ammunition Company. He also had a boat which housed a family on the beach until the Road Board ordered him to remove it. A number of boats have been built on the beach at Karaka Bay over the years, including at least one by Carl Sorenson, whose house at the northern end of the bay has since been demolished.
Then the Depression came. Former Karaka Bay resident Mavis Yarrell used to tell endless stories about how wonderful it was at the bay during the early 1930s. Fish were plentiful, and the whole frontage was planted in potato and kumara. Everyone’s garden had greens. Mavis was a cheerful, green-fingered soul. The Council condemned her house in 1990, and broke her heart. She would, intermittently, return to the house and take up furtive occupation. When Mavis died in 1999, to the beat of a drum we placed her ashes, and funeral flowers, on a bamboo raft. We set it alight, and pushed it out into the bay where it slowly sank. Mavis’ house still stands, forlorn and neglected, like a forgotten film set.
In 1931 the Council proposed piping Auckland’s sewage from the existing outfall at Orakei to Karaka Bay where it would be discharged into the harbour off Brown’s Island. Work did not get underway until after the war. A tunnel was drilled from Churchill Park to Karaka Bay (without the necessary approvals from the Marine Department) and work began on the pipeline to Brown’s Island. Meanwhile Auckland businessman Dove-Myer Robinson’s infant son had swallowed some sea water, contracted meningitis, and spent three months in hospital. The bitter and protracted campaign against the Brown’s Island sewage project would eventually lead to Robinson becoming Mayor of Auckland in 1959 (he served until 1965, and had a second term in office from 1968-80). Karaka Bay was closed to swimming when the temporary Glendowie Outfall came into operation in 1953. Only in 1954 was work finally stopped in favour of the Mangere Sewage Scheme. The ecology of Karaka Bay then began another cycle of recovery. (6)
The Sixties came late to New Zealand, but soon there was a new mood of optimism everywhere. Architects came to party and play jazz at Karaka Bay: Allan Wild on sax, Bobby Griffith on trumpet. Flower power; midnight swims; owner-building; sustainable baches; The Group – no one needed an audit to tell them they were doing fine. No one was afflicted by wealthy, pretentious architecture and its associated insecurity.
In the 1970s, as Auckland fell into respectability, the bay began to seem a fringe place of odd people, with odd habits. When the Council sent an inspector to tell Joan Chapple that her outside shower was illegal all the locals rushed to queue up for a shower, naked. The man in the dark suit put his book of regulations back in his briefcase and was never seen again.
Joan has been building continuously for the last 40 years. She understands that architecture should be seen as process, not product. Others might talk of garden cities; Joan wondered why a city should not be more like a garden. She has also turned garage sales into an art form. Barrows come and barrows go, and her small boatshed has grown into a workshop. This is a living house. No one imagines it could ever be finished – no one would want it to be. This is living treasure architecture.
Architect Peter Walker designed his own house before he finally conceded that yacht design sang a more beautiful tune than earth-bound architecture. After Peter had moved on Harry Turbott was architect for the delightful boat house added by Rae Varcoe. Harry’s architecture has always reflected his astonishing sensitivity to landscape and place. With an un-nerving sense of scale the humble, modest boat house snuggles into the shadow of the remnant of pohutukawa forest.
Towards the end of last century the bach became the beach house, a shift that was as much social and attitudinal as it was architectural. At Karaka Bay the power cables went underground. Someone decided to cut the grass. Soon the Council came with screaming machinery, and as the decibel reading went off the scale the locals lost control. It was not long before some people stopped saying hello.
The 1980s saw increasing pressure from people who wanted to change the bay. Land agents and developers turned up, talking of “potential”. Friction developed between those who belonged to the bay, and those who thought that the bay belonged to them. By the ’90s the cockle beds, which for a thousand years had provided the sand on the beach, were dead. Sludge had replaced the sandy flats, and the shell banks which provided erosion protection had been bulldozed out of the way. Concern and respect for the environment was replaced by “management”.
Then, as always, the clouds passed and the sun came out again. Terry Hitchcock, a master of the vernacular, was architect for alterations to the O’Shea house for Bill Grayson and Penny Caughey: Creosote and white windows, and a memory of Vernon Brown. The Bampton bach came back to life as the studio of artist Corina Koning, who now lives in the original pole house.
The new millennium brought new enthusiasms and new architectural energy. Jeffrey Masson fell in love with Karaka Bay and decided to stay. Nicholas Stevens designed his new house; the old house on the site was barged off to Kumeu. A steady stream of Americans has been arriving at the bay asking how they might immigrate. Nicholas has designed the bay a new party space – perfect for salsa dancing, outdoor Shakespeare, or “The Cry of the Snow Lion”. A stranger recently asked who was running the “play centre” but locals know the Masson house is really a library in disguise (a hundred thousand books need more than a house.) The weeds on the roof of the Masson house arrived after Nicholas had left. Some people like them, some detest them, some don’t notice. Specifications do not stop the clock. One day, perhaps, planners will be known as postponers and procrastinators.
Tomorrow – soon – the architecture will be different at Karaka Bay. History teaches us that this much, at least, is certain.
1. See K.M. Holloway, Maungarei; an outline history of the Mount Wellington Panmure and Tamaki districts, Auckland, 1961, and R.D. Crosby, The Musket Wars, Auckland, 1999.
2. David Rough, Early days in Auckland, 1896. The scene described by Captain Rough is depicted in a painting by W. Jordan held in the Auckland Institute and Museum Library.
3. Holloway, Maungarei.
4. E.J.Searle, City of Volcanoes, Auckland and Hamilton, 1964.
5. John Logan Campbell, Poenamo, London, 1881.
6. The Brown’s Island sewage saga is recorded in Graham Bush, Moving against the tide – The Brown’s Island Controversy, Palmerston North, 1980.
This article was first published in "Architecture New Zealand", March/April 2006