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March of the pylons

Mar 7, 2016 Urban design

A new park reclaims Auckland’s grit.


Until the pizzazz of recent libraries and train stations, Auckland’s signature style of infrastructure could be described as Mundane Epic.

The Harbour Bridge, the Waitakere Dams, even those Star Wars AT-ATs that the Ports of Auckland call “cranes” — their size, not their sweetness, are what catches the eye. They’re everyday, utilitarian, but not to be ignored.

Even when politically or environmentally suspect (as so much of it is), Mundane Epic instils a sense of awe, of near-sublime; even when misguided or outdated, its cleverness compels begrudging admiration. Think of the wide grey rivers of Spaghetti Junction surrounding the CBD like an island moated by tarseal. Or the triumphant march of the pylons along the Southern Motorway.

One can now enjoy the uneasy thrill of viewing the city’s run-of-the-mill gigantism from a new grandstand. Taumanu Reserve, Auckland’s latest piece of coastline, is a knobbly little anomaly. It is 6.8 hectares of reclaimed land — $28 million worth — tucked in beside the Southwestern Motorway at Onehunga. And in spite of its rawness (the trees need to grow) and the warnings not to swim after storms (just like on the North Shore), I like it enormously. Its pathways are full of friendly beings: families promenading, dogs walking their owners, shirtless joggers pushing pushchairs.

Teenagers gently disdain each other’s bicycle prowess (“it’s not a drift unless you turn!”). Picnic-table graffiti gently encourages consumerism (“Whittakers + dairy milk = life/ ?”). The birds wade on, oblivious.

I like that I can float at Taumanu while watching the sun set west across the calm water — something you can never do on early-to-bed east coast beaches, with their cold, premature shadows. And I particularly like that the sunset view is framed in Mundane Epic. To the south (recently endorsed as “magnificent” by one Steve Braunias) are the five tall cement silos whose shabby rotund whiteness is echoed by the nearby Manukau Cruising Club.

But even more impressive, leading the eye up Hillsborough’s urban forested flanks is a row of large pylons. Close enough to swim to, these monsters prevent the view across to the Manukau Heads from becoming too choc-box cute. They provide grit for the oysters under their feet.

Whereas St Heliers will forever be the pretty starlet (Margot Robbie, say), Mundane Epic styling makes Taumanu an instantly craggy Harvey Keitel. In urbania, why hide infrastructure to create an artificial “nature”? One of the best things about the wonderful Parnell Baths is the view of trains from the hot tub. More beaches could be cosmetically enhanced by a pylon or two.

Still, let’s not get carried away. I’m not a fan of splitting parks with motorways (car-crazed toddlers may disagree). The best that can be said for Taumanu’s SH20 is that it’s surprisingly easy to forget about, once you’re on the beachfront. And while I’d argue for pylons not to be ripped out due to their looks, they shouldn’t be kept just for their looks either. Jim Jackson, who fought for 10 years to turn Taumanu from a 40-year-old forgotten promise into reality, points out that, over land, power lines restrict development enormously.

The Mundane Epic is put in its proper place in Ted Ngataki’s as-yet-untitled Taumanu sculpture known as the Wayfinder Pou. Intricate and intriguing, the pou’s flat totara planes mirror their setting, showing One Tree Hill, conifers on the horizon and the nearby Sea Scouts hall. Ngataki, a kaumatua of Ngati Tamaoho, tells me that some members of the five iwi and hapu of Taumanu manu whenua are still uneasy that Taumanu has eaten up yet more of the harbour, so the pou uses only generic motifs.

The face (kanohi) of Papatuanuku appears not once but twice, a reminder that the earth of Taumanu is not only from the Manukau but also from Waterview.

Ngataki has also included the silos and many pylons, and the motorway itself, the cars mere speeding chevrons within a traditional pattern. But these self-important structures are sketched lightly within more timeless and meaningful — and firmly carved — surroundings: not only Papatuanuku but also Tangaroa of the sea, wearing a beard more seaweed and mussel than hipster.

Satisfyingly, Taumanu and its pou celebrate the city dweller’s constant, unexamined experience: the melding of concrete and sea, steel and sky, Mundane Epic hubris and enduring myth.


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