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The Facadism Problem

Jan 23, 2014 Urban design

Is paying lip service to our past good enough?


The image is forlorn. The 1885 Wong Doo building squatting beneath the proposed 14 storey “Fiore II” apartment tower at the corner of Hobson and Cook Sts is a sad manifestation of our city’s warped development. It is trumpeted as heritage saved — the first use of Auckland Council’s Built Heritage Acquisition Fund. But the overshadowing signal is heritage lost. A token gesture against development inexorably devouring the old. A triumph of progress over memory.

Various commentators, including ardent heritage campaigner and NZ Historic Places Trust board member Allan Matson, have denounced the design as façadism. “It looks dreadful. It’s such a blunt, un­sophisticated architectural response,” he told Auckland City Harbour News. Blunt, unsophisticated retention of historic façades tends to be the default position for heritage preservation in Auckland — especially around Queen St. Think the art deco Jean Batten building now incorporated into the Deloitte Tower, the former Bank of New Zealand building opposite and the Queens Head Tavern façade on the corner of Mayoral Drive.

Heritage advocate Sandra Coney, who’s just retired as an Auckland councillor, rejects the façadism putdown. In a letter to the Herald, she said such comparisons were unfair, pointing out three of the building’s shops on Hobson St would be preserved and restored and the original veranda reinstated. But it’s just the shop on the corner and its upper level that remain as they were in 1885. The adjacent two shops keep their original street façade but their interior will be reconstructed. The rest, including most of the upper level and the building to the rear, is demolished. In other words, a façade with a portion of the original corner attached.

“For pedestrians and passing vehicles,” insists Coney, “it will still be a familiar landmark, reminding us of Hobson St’s historic character, and people using the shops will admire the close-to-original interiors.”

Will they? Hobson St’s historic character has long gone — its tram lines removed in the mid-20th century and the road changed to one-way to feed the motorway. Most of the street’s 19th- and early-20th-century buildings have been demolished — many from the 1980s onwards to make way for a streetscape of monotonous urban blight — an architecture of density, swiftly and roundly decried. Indeed, the present developer, Korean-owned KNC Construction, formerly Dae Ju Developments, was permitted to demolish a row of Edwardian shops beside the Wong Doo building to make way for the first of its twin Fiore apartment towers. And there’s certainly no engagement with history in the tower design.

A few remnants survive: at 119 Hobson St, the Albion Hotel built in 1884; and, at 140 Hobson St, the 1852 former Prince of Wales Hotel, now the City Mission, But amid the roar of motorway feeder traffic and rows of apartment towers, it’s hard to see the lone Wong Doo building reminding anyone of anything — except perhaps that there’s been some terrible mistake.

The significance of the building for Auckland’s Chinese community has long departed too. The last tenant, Canvas City, sold camping gear. Generations of the Wong Doo family lived and worked there from 1940, importing textiles and also fireworks.

As the business expanded, the family bought more property nearby, at one stage owning sites on three corners of the intersection. They sold up in 2004.

The building itself is pretty enough: described as “a competent essay in Italianate architecture, without being a particularly notable example”. Aficionados of classical lingo may be impressed by the two-storey façade’s rusticated pilasters, segmented arched windows, acanthus- leafed capitals, the fine row of dentils on the projecting cornice and the ornate parapet with an open balustrade of interlocked rings.

Doing something is better than nothing. Especially in the context of the council fighting to overturn demolition consent that had been granted in 2004.

It’s hard to argue against the acquisition fund’s other investment in two workers’ cottages built between 1857 and 1865 in Airedale St. The dwellings have endured a colourful career of owners and tenants — from labourers to tailors, saddlers, cooks a dental laboratory, the Auckland Adult Video Club and Bobbi’s massage parlour. Now they will be restored and on-sold. Well and good, but to what end? And with outcomes like the Wong Doo building, perhaps it’s worth asking what are we fighting for? Heritage for heritage’s sake?

At the opening of Auckland’s Heritage Festival last month at Shed 10 on Queens Wharf, heritage talk was cheap. “Heritage is about retention. Heritage is about thinking, about debate and about vision and, my god, it’s about leadership,” raved Waterfront Auckland chair Sir Bob Harvey.

Jasmax’s Richard Harris, whose firm designed Shed 10’s elegant, honest refur­bishment: “It is said that a city without its heritage buildings is a city without its memory.” Mayor Len Brown: “After many years, Auckland has finally learned its lesson about the need to retain and cherish our heritage.”

Has it? A glance outside to the plastic Cloud (also by Jasmax) — a blithely juxtaposed gyrating clash against the 100-year-old shed — suggests not.

Perhaps the key to built heritage lies not just in the story the building tells, but in the community’s engagement. At one of the festival’s events, 200 people crowded into the 100-year old refurbished Victoria Theatre to watch Devonport Heritage’s A Tale of Two Houses. Part Grand Designs, part Missing Pieces, the film unlocks the history embodied in an 1890s stately home fallen into ruin and a 140-year-old cottage with a clumsy 1940s addition — the sort of houses that in Devonport’s recent past have been lost, often through demolition by stealth.

What’s revealed are the houses’ multiple layers and resilience, especially during the 70s, when both were butchered into flats. Today, both happily succumb to Devonport’s gentrification and take on a more sympathetic modernity in their restoration — the price for ensuring heritage survives.

In the case of the dilapi­dated Flagstaff House mansion, that includes a proposed infinity pool for its new owner, a Russian billionaire. Here, courtesy of the city’s insane property market, an elitist paradise lives and breathes its past. It also provides Auckland with a reservoir of memory.

First published in Metro, November 2013.


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