West side stories

West side stories

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"Bomb every shoddily built, sky-blocking apartment building and replace with green fields and high-density buildings that don’t wither the soul,” wrote a characteristically irate Kerre Woodham in the Herald on Sunday recently. Urban design doesn’t normally make it into populist newspaper columns, but then there are few cities as cursed by cheap, thoughtless architecture as central Auckland.

Woodham was unfavourably comparing New Zealand’s most populous centre with its southern counterparts in Wellington and Christchurch, but she could just as easily have been heralding the coming of Rhubarb Lane, a multipurpose retail, commercial and residential development which will shortly begin construction across an historic site bordered by Wellesley, Nelson and Sale streets.

Within the new district dubbed ‘Victoria Quarter’ bounded by Hobson, Fanshawe and Union Streets and the motorway, developer Douglas Rikard- Bell imagined a space with the character and sense of community of New York’s Upper East Side. In fact, a link to promotional material for Rhubarb Lane welcomes the interested by portraying the development as Auckland’s ‘lower West side’.

Six of Australiasia’s most acclaimed architects take different portions of the structure, giving it the idiosyncratic identities of buildings constructed in the old neighbourhoods of New York and London

“I wanted to be able to work with the Godfathers of the town plan to make this district [Victoria Quarter] equally suitable for living, working and playing—giving it that wonderful inner city experience,” he says.

So rather than have the development be the product of a single firm, Rikard-Bell instead commissioned six of Australiasia’s most acclaimed architects to take different portions of the structure, giving it the chance to have the idiosyncratic identities of buildings constructed in the old neighbourhoods of New York and London. The models show that each firm has left a distinct stylistic imprint upon their portion of the super-structure, from the striking frontage of Warren & Mahoney’s ‘Tattoo’ to the ingenious layout of Architectus’ ‘Tetris’.

The five buildings surround a shopping precinct which will be tenanted by retail storefronts providing produce to nearby residents. In the mix will be a winery, butcher, theatre and bar, and that essential of inner city living, the chocolatier.

Aside from the mix of architects involved, the second most striking element of the development is its insistence that the buildings work equally for commercial or residential purposes. This required some delicate negotiation with the council, but the end result is that every one of the 79 ‘aPods’, as they’ve been dubbed—which range in price from $500,000 to $4.5 million—can be used as a home, office, or mixture of both. It’s in keeping with the character of the area, which features similar, although more ad-hoc, approaches along Sale St like the former Berlei factory and Telecom’s just-opened $280 million HQ on Victoria St West.

Rikard-Bell has a theory that Auckland is less a city than a series of hamlets, each of which requires its own community centre to truly serve its residents. He’s at pains to avoid criticising the council for allowing the hollow excesses of the apartment boom to occur, instead emphasising the “tremendous job” they’ve done in drafting the district plan for Victoria Quarter.

Giving him peace of mind is that he can sell his apartments in the knowledge there are strict safeguards in its plan regarding how the surrounding land can be deployed. Rhubarb Lane itself, in addition to the shopping precinct and ample underground parking, will also feature a large landscaped park alongside its main structure, with a stage for public performances.

While the development is now fully in motion, it’s had some perilous moments along the way. Idealog first covered the planned development in 2006, when it was expected that the apartments would be on the market within a year. They were envisaged as just the start of a “20-building development covering the same space as the Sylvia Park site, but in the heart of Auckland”.

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The global financial crisis intervened, stalling proceedings for a while and even threatening the entire enterprise when Westpac attempted to call in its loans in 2008. The project was eventually saved, though the crisis delayed the breaking of ground by a couple of years.

With a quarter of the apartments now sold, and commitments to all but one of the retail spaces, the developers are optimistic they will be able to commence construction early in 2011. This will deprive Auckland of a large, unloved car park, but also Deus Ex Machina, a café-cummotorcycle museum which has become a cult favourite.

You get the feeling, though, that Deus’ aesthetically-refined proprietors won’t mind ceding the space to a project as sophisticated and forward-looking as Rhubarb Lane. It’s a development which will grow in the shadows of some of the city’s most characterless apartments on Nelson St; a beacon of hope in a city awash with eyesores.

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