Art Places

The Continuing Demolition of Auckland


In March this year the kauri frame of St Marys Church was wrenched from its historic site, moved across Parnell Road on rollers, twisted by 90 degrees, and deposited beside the brick expanse of Holy Trinity. In many countries, such a scenario would not only have been illegal, it would have been unthinkable. In Auckland it happened easily, and provides a sobering lesson to those of us concerned for the preservation of our architectural heritage.

Mountfort's 1886 structure had been acknowledged as one of the finest wooden neo-gothic churches in the world. It enjoyed the Historic Places Trust's 'A' category ('permanent preservation ... essential') and the Auckland City Council's district scheme classified it as a 'C1' building. Under this scheme, even 'C2' buildings 'should not be wilfully removed, damaged, or altered in a major way unless there is a compelling reason'.

Partington's Windmill (built 1851 ) in 1898. For tourist appeal the now-adjacent Auckland Sheraton is no substitute. Needlessly demolished in 1950.
(Photograph from the Auckland Institute and Museum)

The 'compelling reason' in this case was the Auckland diocese's ostensible desire to 'restore' the building as a capacious lady chapel (for weddings and baptisms), for the grandiose yet ultimately unfinishable cathedral complex. The empty site, still flanked by the oaks Bishop Selwyn planted, suggests a yet more compelling reason: multi-million dollar construction potential. Why else mutilate a structure of such historic importance, when $75,000 towards its restoration on the original site had been pledged to an ad hoc preservation society? And why else risk alienating so many Aucklanders, including 17,000 who signed the petition against the move, at a time when the church is appealing to the city at large for aid in completing Holy Trinity?

Whether you opposed the move or not, you should be able to recognise the implications for a growing tribe of endangered buildings. Some of these also bear the same meaningless 'inviolable' classification as St Marys. Rumsey's magnificent Supreme Court House, soon to be an empty neo-gothic relic of our judicial past, may later exist as yet another memory, of the august ancestor to a prime-site inner city 'development'. The inevitability of the process, even including the yet-to-be-orchestrated protest, leaves us mere citizens to embrace a paranoiac cynicism. Buildings, like people, can in this city be made redundant, can be intentionally neglected, and can die and be forgotten. They can even be felled in their prime.

And yet they are a vital part of our future that we cannot afford to leave to the 'experts' who are transforming the city. The true experts are ourselves, the citizens, the people who liked the old-fashioned Victoria Arcade, who enjoyed going to film festivals at the Regent Theatre. Until, that is, the 'seventies deemed these exceptional buildings redundant.

We must realise that many important early buildings (including most twentieth century buildings) lack any kind of preservation order at all. If you own them, you can do what you want with them. Whatever the 'objective' architectural merits of Alexander Wiseman's 1912 Ferry Building (as compared to Westminster Abbey, let's say), in its context it is exceptional. Its Edwardian neoclassical brick and stone now keeps almost exclusive company with late-model international bland. Within, the portico comes as a respite from the wind-blown stretches of Queen Elizabeth/ Downtown Square. Here, in the only structure along the whole waterfront that the public can casually wander into, you can eat squid, watch the oil patterns on the water, or catch a ferry to Devonport.


Edward Rumsey's Supreme Court House (built 1865-67) photographed in 1873 by D. L. Mundy. Will this building last much longer?
(Photograph from the Auckland Institute and Museum)

Yet we read that this building - to the naked eye in an excellent state of preservation - will cost $11 million to 'restore', based on a consultant's estimate of appeasing draconian earthquake codes at the prices of four years hence. The same consultant estimates the cost of a brand new replacement at a mere $3.26 million, including $500,000 for demolition and removal of the old building.

The message is clear: this building will go. When more sea has been reclaimed and we no longer have to catch ferries there, and when the Harbour Board offices enjoy more spacious accommodation, then they will have these irrelevant, old-fashioned brick walls dismantled.

For every commercial emporium given the chichi treatment (most recently the Queen's Arcade and, more disastrously. the Old Customs House), we see entire blocks faIIing. These blocks not only often contain distinguished structures (the Auckland Drug Company building that fell beside the Star Hotel is a good example), but can also represent entire passages of ordinary, honest, authentic architecture from our commercial and industrial past. Until a row of sturdy reinforced brick shops at the outset of Great North Road was laboriously demolished last year to make way for Datsun Corner, who could have thought we needed another car-yard in this street?

And at the other end of Karangahape Road an entire block is being transformed to blend better with the Sheraton, and the projected needs of the short-term visitors for whom this will be home base. They don't need the joyously eclectic range of amenities offered by the Parrot Bar, Chinese and Italian restaurants, tattoo parlour, bedroom shop, health food shop and Adriatic Ball-room. They'd prefer greenstone and sheepskins, and clean, expensive food. They wouldn't be remotely interested in anything too 'typical' of the country they're visiting. Unless they're the adventurous type: in which case K. Road in the meanwhile begins outside Sheraton Corner boundaries.

What's most remarkable is the ease with which we forget how things used to be-where in fact our favourite shops or meeting places were. The demolition/reconstruction industry in Auckland's historical centre is engaged in war precisely against notions of the city as connected to a vital past, as full of spaces made exceptional by the passing of time and by their location in human memory. While there is a nascent awareness of the need to conserve as much as possible of our irreplaceable early architecture, it's clear that this grows in proportion to the effacement of any real nineteenth century identity in the inner city.


Alfred Smith's Victoria Arcade (built 1885) early this century. Needlessly demolished in 1978, for the new BNZ building.
(Photograph from the Auckland Institute and Museum)

It's an awareness that does not accord with the continuing construction of the capitalist city's inner sanctum, and is therefore relegated to the fringe: the sentimentalists, the nostalgics, fighting their doomed battle against progress.

The demolition of important buildings is nothing new in Auckland. J. A. Froucle told of witnessing the 1885 demolition of William Mason's St Pauls, in Emily Place: the first major gothic revival church to be built in New Zealand. (Begun 1841, consecrated 1843, and not in fact a Selwyn church.) Great works were in progress; labourers were swarming like bees, cutting away a huge projecting cliff to enlarge the area of the port. Bishop Selwyn's church-the first built in New Zealand-stood on top of the precipice, and we arrived just in time to see the roofless walls before they disappeared in the falling rubbish. In a few days the church was gone. Sentiment belongs to leisure, and in the colonies, just now, they have none of either.'
(Oceana, 1886, p209.)

Almost a century later, we desperately need to revise our attitudes towards surviving early architecture. No longer can these structures be seen as expendable, by equating colonial with provisional. There simply are not enough left.

All of us who see the importance of our forebears' architecture have a duty to help make sure the best examples are preserved. Not demolished, not moved, not 'restored', but preserved as the wonderful buildings they honestly are. Unique survivors like the old Supreme Court, the old Bank of New Zealand and the Ferry Building must remain. As resources for the future, they are beyond valuation.

But we also have a duty, to ourselves and our own sense of the past, to explore the city now, in 1982. This century's city, with its mega-structures and Stalinist squares, increasingly refutes the pedestrian intrusion. Traffic lights blink on the main drag strip. But only the pedestrian discovers many authentic passages of an earlier city: the intimate brick alley off Swanson St, recently demolished for a new hotel; the derelict courtyards, fig trees and early buildings between Federal and Hobson Streets, projected site for the new bus depot. The decay, the accelerated ageing of many of Auckland's historic buildings is uncanny: directly informing us that soon far fewer of them will remain. Walk around and look. Look especially at the Supreme Court, at Teutenberg's carved heads and gargoyles, at the delicious marriage of brick with stone. More than we need the memories, we need the realisation that it's there.