Fraser Gardyne: Sticking to the subject

Designer Fraser Gardyne, of gardyneHOLT design partners, poses the question: How many buildings constructed over the last fifty years in Auckland do you remember, let alone wish to protect into the future? Only a few spring to mind, and that, he says, is a real problem for this country. In his opinion piece, Gardyne argues that considering the longevity of our design decisions is integral to the successful brand of Auckland.

I was a little taken aback recently when talking to a fellow designer who has returned to New Zealand after spending a few years working overseas. She described New Zealand as being ugly. I defensively disagreed. She said Amsterdam was beautiful. I thought Amsterdam is old and flat and full of canals. We live in the most beautiful country in the world. Where are the mountains, the sea, the bush and green rolling hills?  But then we started to talk about what she meant. She wasn't talking about our National Parks and sweeping rural scenery. She was talking about our cities and the seemingly disparate way they have evolved over the years. Then I started to notice things that normally I suppose, I just accept.
I always watch the Tour de France on TV, which I love watching as much for the dramatic visuals and travelogue as for the sporting theatre of the cycling. This year the race started in Holland and whilst it was a bit flat, it was amazing to observe. Huge power-generating windmills (which New Zealanders are uncomfortable to allow into our landscape) sat alongside coastal roads and long stretches of recreational beaches. Spectacular modern architecture sitting comfortably alongside centuries old buildings that were built to last and continue to be well maintained. And despite the relatively huge population, it looked ordered, tidy and beautiful in a man-made sense of beauty.
This reminded me of the importance of having a clear and consistent theme running through design concepts, regardless of what you are designing.
When visitors come into New Zealand, the majority fly into Mangere Airport in Auckland. On route into the city, they are driven through a mix of road works and suburban sprawl. Our housing and commercial architecture is often best described as temporary. How many buildings constructed over the last fifty years in Auckland do you remember, let alone wish to protect into the future? There aren't many. Off the top of my head I can think of the West Plaza which has a style that endures. I also like the new NZI Centre on Fanshawe Street and the striking Ironbank Building on K'Road. And you’d have to say the Sky Tower makes our skyline stand out. The city as a whole however is missing a constant theme and regular structure. Because of our low cost and quick return mentality, our developments often look past their use-by date shortly after construction.

Auckland is on a superb geographic site, but as a designed human environment it lacks the recognisable factor apparent in the most aesthetically pleasing cities around the world. And, like commercial brands, we shouldn’t underestimate the knock-on effect of aesthetically pleasing visuals.
My real point here is that we need to consider the longevity of our design decisions. We should never forget to ask the question of our designs, how will this age? Does this billboard, building or business signage enhance or deter from our environment? Rather than asking how cheaply we can produce something or how loudly our designs can shout, we should be asking - do we need to produce this at all? How do we create something of better quality that people will really value and want to retain going forward?
In a roundabout way, this relates to Auckland's ongoing, embarrassing Queens Wharf debate, which really does illustrate New Zealand's often unfortunate way of doing things. It is decided that to be fair to everyone, there should be an open competition to design an outstanding world class, iconic scheme for the wharf and ‘party central’. Then the architects who have contributed their massive inputs of time and associated costs for free, get told that we can't afford their grandiose ideas or that their entries are not worthy. Once again, politics gets in the way of the long-term public good. We have great creative minds in New Zealand, the equal of anywhere else on the globe. What we don't have is deep pockets or a ready appreciation of what great design can achieve. This rings true across all sectors, not just public infrastructure. Outside of the design ghetto, we need to better communicate the lasting impression created by quality and appropriate design that sticks to a central theme. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a city or an FMCG product, the same principle applies.
This all comes back to the importance of doing one thing and doing it well. As designers or architects, we may have many messages to get across or ideas to use. But we should always remember that sticking to one overarching theme is what works best for all communicators, and that includes us.

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