Auckland's Freyberg Place revamp is (almost) a total triumph

Photography / Sam Hartnett

Getting in step

Welcome to the central city’s new oasis: after an $11 million makeover and months of construction, Freyberg Place has emerged from behind the fences with a triumphant new look that melds art, architecture and the city’s history. Just one thing: can we please get the cars out for good?

Two men pressed against the wire perimeter fence on the O’Connell Street side of the new Freyberg Place shatter the quiet city twilight. “Get out of there,” shouts the one in a black coat. The other, in a red jacket, elaborates with a torrent of abuse. Their target: a group of four or five skateboarders who have found a way into the almost-finished construction site to test the potential of the newly formed concrete steps lining the bank in front of the Metropolis tower. The skaters’ cascading flight down to the multi-coloured red and grey paving at the bottom displays a certain poetry in motion.

Variously called “the steps to nowhere” and “the exploded Spanish steps”, they are part sculpture, part landscape, part civic artwork, the focus of an extraordinary urban public space transformation that is the result of unique collaboration between artist John Reynolds, landscape architects Isthmus Group and Stevens Lawson Architects.

The tirade from the red and black coats continues. “We’re leaving,” says a skater completing a last spectacular jump. “Great the adults are doing all the yelling and swearing.”

I don’t imagine this was quite the sort of dialogue Reynolds, first appointed in 2014 by Auckland Council to work with landscape architects at Isthmus Group on initial design concepts, would have expected in the made-over Freyberg Place. When we talk he’s relaxed about it. The edges of the steps have stainless steel deterrents to stop boardslides or grinds, and some of the paving is deliberately bumpy, so the place isn’t skater-friendly. But in the evening, if the square is largely unoccupied, if skaters find a way and don’t damage the concrete, c’est la vie.

Spontaneous interactions, dialogue, drama and inclusiveness are very much what the new Freyberg Place is all about. A major part of the $11 million makeover includes not only the square, but the refurbishment by Stevens Lawson Architects of the 1962 Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall as an urban community centre, with a range of flexible rooms for meetings, gatherings and functions.

Architect Nicholas Stevens says the essence of the design is a seamless integration of what will now be called the Ellen Melville Centre and the made-over Freyberg Place. “We came up with this concept of the urban living room,” he says, referring to the ground floor area that once housed retailer Pumpkin Patch and now accommodates up to 60 people as the Helen Clark room. A new floor-to-ceiling glazed wall now opens onto tables and chairs under a verandah created by the building’s striking pilotis columns, bringing Freyberg Place indoors and vice versa.

The military themes of the former Freyberg Place square (which was last revamped in 1996 by Patterson Architects) – the bombshell-like bollards and street lamps shaped like parachutes – are gone. The old square, bounded by low walls and seats and its adjacent water feature, was actually quite a nice place to sit in the sun and have lunch. It had a certain shabby chic charm, but the paving was cracked and uneven and it was feeling worse for wear.

In the new design there is no actual square, but a vast expanse of paving connecting to a new extended shared space joining up O’Connell Street, Courthouse Lane and Chancery Square. Most opportunities for gathering, for having lunch in the sun, are now on the cavalcade of steps, providing a huge range of options to linger: some of the steps have timber seats, some are concrete, some paved, others planted. Some are pathways and some lead to hidden tracks up the bank.

Reynolds brings further drama to the paved area at the base of the steps with slightly precarious looking cantilevered platforms, designated “speakers steps” – one under the huge transplanted pōhutukawa beside High Street and the other opposite. “It’s like the Hyde Park speakers’ corner,” he says. “Any city of scale, or ambition to be the ‘most liveable’, must accommodate the basic human desire to congregate, or at least rub shoulders with one’s neighbours, fellow workers, or strangers, in an amenable public forum.” He talks about appreciating “streetness” and including everyone in the cosmopolitan city we live in, rough edges and all, allowing that the square will inevitably be put to unexpected and subversive uses, enjoyed by both skaters and skater haters.

In the refurbishment of the Hall, which was substantially altered in 1996, the building’s key modernist features designed by Tibor Donner – its butterfly roof, elegant elevating pilotis, expressed concrete frame and crushed quartz and marble chip render finish – are brought to the fore. A new bronze artwork by Lisa Reihana occupies the building’s O’Connell Street exterior. Upstairs, the original Ellen Melville Hall and stage have been restored, along with the woven tukutuku panels that line the back wall under an elegant undulating slatted timber ceiling referencing the influential Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The timber James Bowie sculpture that was originally outside is now in the foyer. The panels of rough-cut glass, with their distinctive turquoise hue, are back too.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, as Reynolds remains furious about a fundamental design flaw: “the car fouling” of a pedestrian oasis. In the approved design of early 2016, Freyberg Place was going to be a pedestrian-only space, and the existing lane between O’Connell Street and High Street would have closed. But then a few retailers complained and, against the advice of council officers, the entire design team, and 80 percent of local respondents to council’s own public consultation, the council decided to re-insert the road. “The design expressly animated the relationship between the building and square, with the brief to seamlessly enhance family and public interaction,” says Reynolds. “The absurdity of imposing random motor vehicles amongst parent groups enjoying coffee and their children playing between them and the enticements of the square is an astonishing relinquishment of any level of common sense.”

The compromise has rows of retractable bollards on the High Street entrance and O’Connell Street exit so the road can be closed off when there are events in the square. “The plan is, in the future the road will be formally stopped to traffic,” says council project leader Lisa Spasic. “However, in the short term vehicles will be allowed to pass through.”

Reynolds characterises his four-year involvement in the project as an attempt to develop an artwork that functions for locals and visitors alike. “It’s perhaps a mirage rather than a monument,” he says. “Not a plonk-down bronze sculpture but a participatory public installation.” The massed concrete steps are an attempt, he says, to create a civic artwork in the heart of the city. This also includes an etched artwork by Graham Tipene in the playful water feature that cascades in a series of pools among the steps. “What we were doing was really a sort of pink and white terraces based on the terra firma of that space,” Reynolds says. Isthmus Group founder David Irwin agrees: “This is really Albert Park flowing down the hill. Originally this was lava, part of a volcanic form. We said, ‘OK, we need to get up and down this grade. How do we celebrate that?’ Then the idea of a cacophony or a collision started to develop.”

How does Reynolds feel about the result? “From the top lawn at the foot of Metropolis it’s got some real drama. That seat looks like it’s going to be an absolute primo spot to have a coffee. Maybe nine out of ten. I hope the distinctive and complex music of the steps will invite people to pause, linger and occupy the space.”

It is here that history – Freyberg, Melville, Donner – has been repurposed for the people with drama, dialogue and verve. The end result is an oasis that’s one of the best public spaces this city has seen.

The who’s who of Freyberg place

Some of the people behind Freyberg Place’s history – and its new redevelopment.

Lord Bernard Cyril Freyberg was a highly decorated general serving in both WWI and WWII. He became the 7th Governor-General of New Zealand from 1946 to 1952. The one-and-a-half times life-size bronze statue of him has stood somewhat hidden in the shrubbery on the slope in front of the Metropolis building since 1978. Now Freyberg is repositioned less confrontationally to the Pioneer Women’s Hall, but on a more prominent platform.

Eliza Ellen Melville was born in 1882 and became one of New Zealand’s first female lawyers. She was highly active in promoting women’s causes. In 1913, she was the first woman to be elected to a municipal authority in New Zealand. She held a seat on the Auckland City Council for 33 years to 1946. During that time she suggested a hall be built for women’s societies and as a memorial to the pioneer women of the province. It was not until after her death in 1946 that the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall was given the go-ahead, and completed in 1962. The Ellen Melville Fund has recently been established to support women in leadership and higher education. A large number of women have played key roles in the Freyberg Place project, including Sarah Bishop and Karen Ehlers of Isthmus Group; Yvette Overdyck and Elspeth Gray of Stevens Lawson Architects; and Auckland Council’s own project manager, Lisa Spasic.

Tibor Donner was born in Austria-Hungary in 1907, and immigrated to New Zealand in 1927. As chief architect to the Auckland City Council from 1945-1967, he designed the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall and other public buildings including the Civic Administration Building and Parnell Baths

Lisa Reihana is an Auckland artist who has created a new bronze sculpture for the area’s refurbishment. Located on the O’Connell Street façade of the newly restored Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall, the sculpture, entitled ‘Justice’, references Melville’s life.

John Reynolds is an Auckland artist who was part of the team behind the square’s refurbishment, which was led by Isthmus Group.

Stevens Lawson Architects, established by Nicholas Stevens and Gary Lawson in 2002, was brought on board to refurbish the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall.