Good vibrations: Y&R overhauls old council space

The old Auckland City Council workshops are now home to a much groovier bunch of tenants - ad agency Y&R. Here's how artist Jason Dempsey overhauled the space.

The old Auckland City Council workshops are now home to a much groovier bunch of tenants - ad agency Y&R. Here's how artist Jason Dempsey overhauled the space.

When advertising agency Y&R wanted to relocate from its (admittedly quite daggy) Parnell headquarters to something befitting a young, slightly hipster company, they called on artist Jason Dempsey to help. 

Dempsey, who’d done the fitout for Grey Lynn agency String Theory, was tasked with overhauling 780m of space in Wellesley Street’s City Works Depot – originally the Auckland City Council workshops, designed by city architect Ewan Wainscott. 

The space offered him “plenty to draw from”: steel portal frames form the skeletal connection from front to back, with perfectly dimensioned glass framed windows at front and above to the east and west, six-metre ceiling height, with extruded steel wall cladding defining the spaces.

“Everything had to be grunty,” says Dempsey. If an open-plan approach were to feel natural and believable in such a vast warehouse, it had to be devoid of “fancy little dividing walls” or chill-out areas. 

Instead, it’s hand-built from big timbers, heavy steel and laid down solidly. 

“It’s all strong, real rooms and furniture all naked and connected. If everything felt real, once people moved in, the use of spaces outside defined work areas would happen naturally and personally to each person.”

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Dempsey used salvaged steel wall panels as dividing walls and retained the steel floors to match the “toughness” of the original structure. 

“The team at Y&R found a cool spot for a fresh new start,” Dempsey says of the design brief. “They were excited about its potential and asked me to go hard and not mess it up. They liked my bespoke building approach, my use of materials and fabrication and thought I would be a good fit for them.

“The idea was to reflect a new vibrant Y&R in an energetic, functional space that was fun to work from and fun for clients to visit.”

Dempsey was given four months to complete the project, including remedials and sound-proofing to inter-tenancy situations (a multitude of others, such as digital agency Augusto, Shed Five Caf and Brothers Brewery also call the City Works Depot home).

“With our hands-on approach to building, time is always a factor in getting a result that justifies the exploration of materials and application,” Dempsey says. 

“Just about everything in the Y&R installation was made on site. It was important to push ideas as far as we could, but also be willing to deviate and change applications to save time and money. 

“The process takes a team of like-minded people to communicate ideas and find solutions. It’s good to have someone from a little distance to suggest another angle or point out the stupidity of what you may be doing at the time.”

The end result is exactly how he initially envisioned it, “even though I didn’t know what that was” and the process was streamlined from start to finish. Dempsey was surrounded by a talented team of builders and fabricators with a real interest in the project, “not watching the clock or cutting corners but really wanting to find solutions to on-site needs”. 

The result, to a visitor to the agency premises, is one worth inspecting – from the forklift in reception to the tiniest recycled detail in unlikely locations.

“It was always in mind to create an environment that represented a good energy – something mechanical or factory-like,
where you could see the inner workings and feel connected to things that were happening there.”