Last week I won an award, second prize in the Auckland Architecture Association Urban Eye competition, for a short essay about architecture in Auckland. Here is said essay:
One of the simple pleasures of living in Auckland, until recently, was the view from the top of Queen Street where it meets K Road. Queen Street falls away towards the harbour, running in a straight line until it turns and disappears behind the Civic Theatre. Much of the city centre is visible, but so was a glimpse of the harbour and of the peninsula on its far side.
But then Deloitte came and took away the view. The management consultants have their new headquarters on Queen Street, a green glass tower with metal trim. It is not an ugly building, but it is a tall one. And as it rose over the last few months, that glimpse of the harbour gradually disappeared. It wasn't much - other office towers built over the last thirty years had steadily eroded the view - but it was all we had. Now it is gone. The last view of the world beyond has been blocked out.
Auckland is a city that steadily is being enclosed by its buildings. Every building that is demolished is replaced by one that is much taller. Each new development takes away another piece of the sky and cuts us off from our surroundings. On Beach Road, the Scene Apartments offer their residents views across the harbour, but take away the view once enjoyed from the street. Further up, on Symonds Street, new apartment blocks have taken away what remained of the view to Rangitoto; the same has been done by the office buildings on Shortland Street. It is not just that these buildings are tall, but they stand on elevated ground, on the ridges that surround the city centre. As architecture, some are quite appealing. But whatever their merits as buildings, they seem to have been constructed with little thought for the city.
A particularly sad case is that of Myers Park. Buildings constructed in the last twenty-five years have hemmed it in and darkened it. It always had buildings on its perimeter, but the most recent are taller and more imposing than their predecessors. The latest is the redevelopment of the Chatham Building on Pitt Street. A two-storey building which had stood for a century was taken away and replaced by eight storeys of apartments, leaving only the original facade. From the park another segment of sky has been taken away. Doubtless the views of the park from the apartment balconies are part of the realtor's pitch to prospective buyers, but the park has lost for their gain.
Of course, tall office and apartment buildings are inevitable in a modern city of. Space is at a premium; businesses need places to work and people need places to live. The prestige of a tall building is also at a premium: although much of a corporation's work might be done in nondescript buildings in business parks on the edges of the city, having a headquarters building in town is important to the corporate mana. Although the corporation might occupy only a few floors of the building, it has a presence and a place to display its logo. The apartments, too, offer much for their occupants, especially the convenience of being in the heart of the city. But the cost of these benefits is in many respects felt by the city as a whole.
Auckland City Council used to produce picture books about the city to encourage tourism, at least until the 1960s. The Auckland they show is bright and cheerful. Queen Street especially seems much lighter than today. The pictures were always taken on the best days of summer and were carefully selected to show the city in its best light, but still it is obvious that the city centre is a darker place now. The tourism books also tried to show that the city as part of a larger environment . They always included photographs taken from high points to show the city set beside the harbour. Today it would be difficult to find places to take those photographs. Auckland's setting can only be seen from the gaps between the buildings.
The city always has had a difficult relationship with its surroundings. We live beside a vast natural harbour but we cut ourselves off from the sea by building a port. The landward sides of the city are bounded by motorways and surrounded by suburbs. But our recent building has isolated the city centre still further. It has closed the city in upon itself. We have built concrete barriers around us, preventing us from seeing the place in which we live.
With thanks to Mr Finnemore for telling me about the competition.