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A coming of age, part three: Nat Cheshire lays down the bricks to build a foundation for Auckland’s future

  • Read the first column in this series, ‘A coming of age: How Auckland City can flourish from an angsty teenager into a young adult’ here, and part two, ‘Women In Urbanism on how to create a safer Auckland city‘ here.

A key challenge of our time is to navigate the perils of urban sprawl. According to The Guardian, the amount of urbanised land is set to triple to more than 1.1 million square metres globally by 2050. As New Zealand suffers from its own unique challenges in protecting our environment, learning to build attractively, resourcefully, and efficiently with height is critical.

A key development that will alter the topography of Auckland, both physically and symbolically, is a new 10-storey hotel being built by Cheshire Architects. It’s named The Hotel Britomart and will be located at the corner of Gore and Galway St. It shall offer compassion against the towering faceless buildings which have become the blueprint for tall structures in downtown Auckland.

By comparison, The Hotel Britomart offers weight, irregularity, labour, and humanity. It draws from the history of the Waitemat?, provides a chance for Cheshire Architects to build with scale, and carries a new vision for tall buildings in Aotearoa.

Architectural delineator’ Nat Cheshire, who heads up Cheshire Architects beside his father Pip, describes the constrained state of tall buildings in downtown Auckland.

“The design-led studios whose small buildings we love have rarely been tested at building tall. Building towards the sky is done almost exclusively by really big offices and Australians. By comparison to their towers our little clay building is tiny. A decade ago we saw our similarly tiny moves in Britomart not just as projects in themselves, but as contributions to the systematic upheaval that was changing the mechanics of development in our city.”

Cheshire is renowned for his hand in the reform of Britomart, turning sparse desolate city blocks into discernable retailers, restaurants, theatres and other urbanities. He’s built the City Works Depot, transfigured buildings across the country – such as the recent rebuild of No.7 Balmac in Dunedin – and is currently embroiled in new developments including Morningside in Kingsland.

Again, he will transform Auckland’s downtown landscape, but this time into the sky – helped by fellow principal of Cheshire Architects and the architect of the hotel, Dajiang Tai, who “touched almost every space made in the precinct”.

“We have great faith in the epicentric power of small things made with full hearts and fierce focus. We hope now of our little hotel that it may prove similarly catalytic, provoking an organic contamination of our slippery, mirror-glass skyline.”

The Hotel Britomart embraces difference with its heaviness and irregularity. It will be made of brick, a reaction to the glass curtain-wall towers of our city and our time. The exterior shows off an unorthodox constellation of windows, while the interiors are distinctly designed by Cheshire Architects. Further features include five landing suites, three of which offer ‘generous outdoor sky gardens’ made in collaboration with Seattle’s Lucas Design Associates.

Cheshire speaks of the process: “It’s is made from tiny little sods of clay dug out of the ground and pressed into tiny thin long slender bricks. They are all different from each other, rough and mismatched, all of the things the glass is not.”

The building doesn’t stand in isolation, but joins the restoration of two heritage buildings, Masonic and Buckland, which are connected by a laneway. These additional developments work together to culminate layers and complexity to the precinct.

Furthermore, The Hotel Britomart will bind the history of the Waitemat? harbour into the building process. An embodiment of modern Britomart philosophy that ‘celebrates its history and embraces its future’.

“In Britomart it seems logical and exciting: you have all of this grainy, heavy history, where brick was piled upon the mud of a reclaimed foreshore,” Cheshire says. “There are a number of conversations you can have with that living history, but it felt to us most exciting to make a building that was an echo of that rough old language – an echo enervated by the freedoms and precision and proportion of the 21st century.”

A number of other companies have also invited creative solutions to building tall and  resourcefully with urban space. TallWood has combined old materials with new technologies to build tall using wood, plus new co-housing schemes have propped up, such as Cohaus, the twenty unit community housing development in Grey Lynn, Auckland. Although The Hotel Britomart is not a solution to housing, it could redefine our perception of tall buildings,  which in turn invites new forms of density into the cityspace.

Cheshire says, “For over half a century Auckland has been swollen and diluted by its dormitory suburbs, its ghettoisation of imported labour, the destruction of public tram systems in favour of private cars. It’s even madder now. What Auckland must do with the next half century is build inwards and upwards. The trick is to provide our people with exhilarating models for that radical a reversal. We’re not saying a hotel building provides a model for our living differently. But if we can help this city imagine a version of itself that is both tall AND worth being in love with, then that feels like a worthwhile little brick to lay in the foundations of our city’s future.”

A vision for the future

Although these are only a few of the many developments that are underway across the city, the diversity of groups tackling as complex a challenge as the future of Auckland’s urban landscape provides reason to be optimistic.

A combination of thoughtful architecture, new technologies, and progressive thinking could satiate the intensity of a growing population, among other new-world issues like climate change, home ownership and more.

As Ludo Campbell-Reid sums it up: “There is not a more exciting time to be working, the city is on fire, this is a city that is becoming a young adult, not a juvenile delinquent.”

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