I moved back to Auckland in 2005 after 15 years away; I’ve since lived in two apartment buildings. The first was the gorgeous, century-old Courtville, which looks across the street through leaves of gigantic plane trees to the High Court. Later we moved to one of the ‘Star Flats’ at the bottom of Freemans Bay, a group of modernist blocks developed by Auckland City Council in the 1960s and set in park-like grounds designed by the great Harry Turbott. Both of these buildings have been delightful to live in. They have also taught me, more than ever, the value of public space.
Image via Bayleys
Part of what made Courtville so dreamy was the area around it. Just a minute’s walk away was the manicured splendour of Albert Park, a place that made sitting on a park bench and staring at a fountain seem like a perfectly logical way to pass an hour or so on a weekend afternoon, especially if the magnolias were in bloom. Tourists would wander amongst sunbathers, while others performed balancing acts on elastic bands they’d stretched between the trees. It was an idyllic contrast to our compact apartment, and the fact we had to share this space with so many other people – that to visit was to participate, however passively, in the ebb and flow of urban life – only made it more appealing. It was a place that made us feel we belonged.
Albert Park was created in the 1880s, almost 40 years after The Domain was established. Sadly, I’m struggling to think of many memorable public spaces Auckland has created in the years in between. Recently, though, it’s been encouraging to see the city awake from more than a century’s slumber to energetically develop public space that actually invites people to linger. Think of North Wharf, where Fearon Hay’s understated sheds set up a casual public promenade that welcomes hordes of wanderers on any sunny weekend day, and where kids can frolic in the water under Michio Ihara’s Wind Tree sculpture. Serious public investment has resulted in a seriously loved public space.
Back in the central city, I’m buoyed by the revamp of Freyberg Place, where artist John Reynolds’ “exploded Spanish steps” (created in conjunction with Isthmus Group) provide a plethora of sunny lunchtime seats for the downtown crowd, and Tibor Donner’s beautifully restored Ellen Melville Centre (Stevens Lawson did the refurb), a perfect piece of modernism, is blissfully free from the ground-floor retail crap that once swamped it (the square itself is not quite blissfully free of motor vehicles, a crying shame the council has promised
I’m also excited by Auckland Council’s scheme for a linear park linking Victoria and Albert Parks, a promenade that reclaims space for pedestrians from the cars and trucks that have held sway over this city for too long. Auckland needs more of this thoughtfulness, and not just downtown. Well-designed public space may cost money, but it delivers serious value. It shouts civic pride and creates a feedback loop that will, I hope, stimulate the creation of more of it, allowing all the city’s citizens to feel happier and more connected to this place as a result.