While people are inspired by strong form, their hearts and minds are primarily captured by engaging experiences.John Coop
There is a place in any city for iconic buildings with unique form to become talismanic. That sometimes happens through highly innovative technology - for example the glass pyramid of The Louvre or the dome of St Paul’s - or it can be through good timing. The Empire State Building was constructed during the Depression when America needed to believe in US achievement: there were better things to come. Sometimes it is also innovation in the typology that is the foundation of achieving iconic status. Before the Louvre, many museums were simply academic institutions. The modernisation of this typology (by introducing restaurants, cafés and a major bookstore) was integral to the democratisation of culture, and turned the museum into a civic experience.
The role a powerful form has in representing the identity of a city and community will always be valid, but we don’t always have that option. In fact, an iconic building might not be the right answer around what people seek when connecting with place. Take the Sydney Opera House, for instance, so often referred to as the ultimate reference point. For the first 30 years, the public’s experience of that building in terms of attending an event and engaging with it wasn’t good. More recently, it has been transformed into a more open and accessible space, with a richer purpose. It connects with Circular Quay, you can walk into the building to see an exhibition, pick up information, or have lunch there. The barriers have come down.
While people are inspired by strong form, their hearts and minds are primarily captured by engaging experiences. That changes everything. It means when architects design an office building, a tertiary education project, or a convention centre, we need to see the project as part of the city and focus on the human dimension including the needs and aspirations of the occupants. How will people work in the building, use the technology, connect with one another, eat, drink and socialise? And importantly, how will the building contribute to the public realm coherently? The new Auckland Convention Centre is very strong in this space. It will be central to the city’s identity for the visitors who us the building, and in some ways also for locals. At Warren and Mahoney, we worked hard to avoid it being a stand-alone, singular form. It’s a strong form but it’s also highly permeable both physically and visually. The building can be entered on all sides and a public laneway through the site provides connection to the city. It will tell powerful stories about New Zealand both within its fabric and in its artworks. The reality is there was not the budget to create, say, an iconic roof form. But also it was not the correct response for a site that is within the fabric of the city.
Commercial Bay on the other hand is different. Its location on the waterfront brings with it the responsibility to design a sculptural form for the tower but, as it meets the ground, ensure that the project is inviting and of a scale that does not dominate. Commercial Bay is an answer in ‘cross-section’ if you like as to how architecture shapes the identity of city - a balance of form and experience.
How are we doing in this opportunity to use architecture as a tool for creating social identity? Many put forward the notion that New Zealand’s cities are filled with like-minded glass boxes. By and large, that impression is correct.
A great deal of our established built stock is of the same height and the same size and the buildings do have a similar appearance. If these structures are of a high quality in their detailing and their proportion, then that’s not always a bad thing. When you think of great cities of the world such as Paris, Copenhagen, New York and Barcelona or even more locally parts of the commercial district on the fringe of Sydney (eg Surry Hills), you have row upon row of comparable buildings that are simply well built and well designed. Together they provide a cohesive urban tapestry – a unified whole. In New Zealand, we simply haven’t had a high enough volume of work produced in one decade, to achieve the same results. In the last building boom in 2005/2006, there were only two major commercial projects built in the CBD – 80 Queen Street and the Ernst & Young building at Britomart.
It’s difficult to build a coherent city when there is insufficient concentrated growth. But, take a look at our skyline. That time is beginning here now. Along with a thriving economy, there is perhaps a more sophisticated level of thought and process about what a building can and should be and more courageous clients to push those projects forward. And it’s not just happening in the CBDs of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. It’s happening on a localised level. Some commercial work on the city fringe is playing its part. The retail precinct in Mackelvie Street by architects RTA Studio is a good example. It’s very Ponsonby: delicate, detailed and happy to include an ornamental expression. The same firm’s Ironbank building in K Road responds intelligently and confidently to context and Patterson Architects has achieved some superb work in Parnell. There is a growing body of work that responds to place where the ubiquity of commercial architecture – those maligned glass boxes - is overcome.
Neither is this revolution happening only in commercial, institutional and civic contexts. The Unitary Plan has unlocked the residential realm. Post World War II, the architect-designed home in the suburbs was the exception to the rule – the ‘funny’ house in the street. But times have changed. In Auckland, more than 50 per cent of housing over the next 20 years will be high-density apartments, or medium-density townhouses, designed by architects. We are now invited in. It’s a great privilege and a responsibility. Within these new villages where future residents (young and old across many cultures) will live in apartments, there needs to be decent, small-scale true public space. The evolution of cities like Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and even Tauranga is being steered by multi-disciplined teams of master planners, architects and landscape architects to provide a built fabric that makes living here a positive experience. It’s this, rather than iconic buildings, that translates into identity. When people say “I loved my visit to New York”, they don’t think of the Empire State alone – they remember the sights, sounds and feel of the city as a whole.
It’s an exciting time for architects and architecture in New Zealand, where higher density can translate into a coherent fabric for ‘our place’: cities where identity will be defined by experience not form.