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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

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 ImageA sermon from a turbulent priest

Tony Watkins, late of the University of Auckland's School of Architecture and Planning, might have slowed down lately but he has, in the words of Gough Whitlam (Australia's 21st Prime Minister, and the only one to have been sacked by a Governor-General), maintained his rage. Here's his latest musing on urban issues in Auckland, prompted by a proposal to develop QEII Square which, as it happens, is situated right next to the current premises of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.




"It is important to remember that the big urban design decisions are made by a haphazard collection of people, with no particular knowledge or skill, who walk in off the street and become councillors. They have no reason to be concerned about their decisions, as in three years, or at best a few more terms, they will move on, to be forgotten, taking no responsibility for what they have decided. In theory expert opinions from hundreds of highly paid, university trained, urban designers are available to guide councillors, but these people have romantic ideas of a perfect world and very little idea about politics or people. In the real world they are irrelevant. They imagine a world that will never be. These experts are paid for reports, images, and appearances, not results.

Once upon a time Auckland had a working port and a working city so that everyone just got on with the jobs which need to be done, doing the best they could within surveyor's plans dropped on top of them. Neither the neo-classical [sic - neo-liberal, surely?] economy nor developers had yet been invented. For more than a hundred years of colonialism people just built what they needed. By 1953 a Planning Act had been passed and everyone decided that planning was a good thing, although no one was quite sure as to what planning was.

In the seventies grand ideas of planning ahead developed, and we began having visions. Robert Kennedy prepared a plan to guide future development of the land reclaimed (hang on a minute what does that mean?) from the sea. It all seemed like a good idea and gave us a fashionable European square to destroy the old vernacular street pattern. The bean counters had a look at it and, of course, decided it did not make enough money. It was all about the economy. Then a developer, a new breed invented to realise profitable dreams, refused to proceed unless public land was privatised, and also wanted the prime site. Naturally. A collection of young architects screamed loudly that the Air New Zealand building would shade the square and make it windy. No one listened. The Council came down in favour of the developer. The private development went ahead. The public square languished. Idealism was forgotten.

Time passed, and the urban designers had a new vision. Bring the railway to Queen Street and create a transport hub. In the competition I advocated continuing the railway onwards to have the efficiency of a through station. At the very least follow the precautionary principle of the RMA and protect the route. Everyone on Council, both the councillors and the urban designers, laughed at me. Queen Street was a dead end and they loved it that way. Dead-end Britomart went ahead and quickly reached its predictable capacity. It was hailed as a design triumph.

Meanwhile QEII Square was filled, emptied and filled again. Finally millions were spent taking over most of the square for a central bus interchange. Public transport needs cold windy places to wait for buses. At last urban design had triumphed, a visual link (it used to be a road) had been punched through to the harbour and we could rest for a bit. The problem with resting is that no one is making money, and rates could be reduced if they were not needed to make the rich richer.

More time passed and by September 2014 the Council began having mega-visions appropriate for a mega city. Council acknowledged that Britomart station was a dead-end after all and a $2.4bn urban design proposal to extend the railway would save the walk up to K' Rd. Forget that it could all have been done years ago at a fraction of the cost. Rip up everything. Councils suffer from early-onset Alzheimer's, but more research needs to be done.

Constantly patching up urban design mistakes can be very expensive and public open space tends to be seen like the family silver. An asset. The solution? Sell QEII Square to a developer. It was, after all, windy and shaded by the old Air NZ building, just as the young architects had said it would be, long ago. $60 million from cashing up the family silver inherited from frugal forbears could go towards extending the rail. However, the Council had meanwhile given consent for parking under the square, to make absolutely certain that the rail loop could not proceed. Instead of just removing the consent Council decided to compensate the developer for not being able to put it in. Much of the money supposedly going into the public purse evaporated. The developer laughed all the way to the bank.

The developer was then permitted to erect a 36-storey building on top of the square. In urban design terms this could be called "intensification" of public open space. Right in tune with the Unitary Plan. The developer was now able to capture all the benefit of the Britomart railway station, in effect privatising it. Could it get worse? Of course. The developer then convinced the Council to get the buses removed to create a forecourt at public expense to enhance the private development.

All the astonishing amount of "urban design" skill and money used to create a transport interchange went down a hole. The buses will be moved to Albert Street, which is already overloaded with traffic. Millions more dollars of public money will be needed to sort out the mess, with no possible solution for buses coming from the east.

The meagre profit, if any, remaining from destroying the whole idea of a public realm at the bottom of Queen Street was then to be devoted to "enhancing" the relationship of the city to the harbour. This was going to involve covering a large part of the harbour with concrete so that the public would be able to walk on water without getting wet. Over time continuing this bold urban design strategy would make it possible to walk to Devonport. This incremental planning process has been operating for some time at the old Okahu Bay valve station for anyone who does not understand it.

Meanwhile, recognising that some peasants might want to swim, a beach was to be provided next to the stormwater (euphemism for sewer) outfall. Forget the Waitemata Harbour Plan. Not much chance of a changing shed, however, as the plan was to "remove clutter" from the Quay Street end of Queen's Wharf to make a bus park for cruise ships. Another people space. People catching buses, but none of them Aucklanders. Cruise ships are apparently good for the economy. The only Auckland buses are to be sent to Albert Street to enhance private development and dis-enhance public transport.

These "ambitious plans" for "transforming downtown Auckland" will open up new urban design opportunities. The potential of the new public spaces on the new Quay Street promenade to create private profit could be realised. 36-storey developments could go ahead, further enhancing the relationship of the city to the sea.  A new promenade could easily be created in front of the new high rises, so nothing would be lost, except perhaps the public space of the harbour. The mind boggles and what could happen and every urban designer must be salivating at the possibilities.

Did anyone complain about any of this? Not the universities; they understand the importance of not biting the corporate hand that feeds. The media loves the images and the fanfare but has forgotten how to spell critique. It's all about selling newspapers, and urban design at least is good for that."


First published in the NZIA Bulletin September 2014 

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