A Choice Day out at the Auckland Waterfront

How much do we love New Zealand, huh? If you’ve ever spent a lazy Saturday enjoying Auckland’s waterfront before the realities of winter set in, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the slice of heaven Dave Dobbyn was singing about, not some pouty chick...or Footrot Flats. (Go on, listen to it.  Nothing better than a bit of da-da-da to put you in a good mood)

I enjoyed just such a day in mid-April, at the end of the brilliant IFLA landscape conference and Gibbs Farm sculpture park field trip.  Judging from the crowds, about half of Auckland had the same idea.

Auckland has one of the kick-ass-est harbours in the whole world, and sailing seems to be a compulsory activity. Boats from all round the globe cosy up to each other in the berths. Just how sassy is Janice of Wyoming?

You can easily walk to the waterfront from the downtown area. If you’re coming from further afield the main Britomart train and bus station is just on the water’s edge. And if you’re heading for one of the harbour islands, this is the place to catch the ferry.

Auckland city was born at the waterfront in 1840. For a long time before that, the harbour was a vital, sacred part of Maori life. In recent years, spurred by hosting the 2000 America’s Cup and the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the working harbour has been gradually inviting the public back in. You can read more about the redevelopment, including the different precincts (Wynyard Quarter, North Wharf, Karanga Plaza, Silo Park and more) on the Waterfront Auckland website.

Here are my favourite moments: 

1. Lay out the Welcome Mat

This supergraphic barcode helps pedestrians navigate two carparks connected by an operating bascule bridge on their way to Wynyard Quarter.

2. Pop-up Library

Here, another welcome mat is laid out. This time it’s artificial turf that marks a little gathering spot in front of a shipping container library. Lilliputian furniture can be moved around to suit the sun.

3. Containers

Why stop at just one. The information kiosk deftly stacks containers into a sculptural heap to anchor one corner of Karanga Plaza. The public loos are here too, and it makes a natural backdrop for events and performances. The day I visited there was a piano in the plaza (tick!) and students played all day to advertise an upcoming concert. Special mention should also go to the superbly attired lady whose fabulous orange trousers hit just the right note beside the containers.  Respect.

4.  Different Types of Seats

Sometime different types of furniture can make a place look untidy and feel disjointed. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, maybe because the bridge crossings, changing path widths and varying neighbours make each of the precincts along the waterfront feel different anyway.

The seats in Karanga Plaza roll back and forth on rails. They’re also great if you and your friends can’t bear to be apart for even a moment.  The seats along North Wharf look like miniature versions of the piled-up shipping containers.  The seats outside the Viaduct Event Centre are bar stool height, behind a long concrete counter.

5.  Oasis

At the end of North Wharf, before it erupts into a giant playspace, is this quiet pocket with places to sit out of the hustle and bustle.

6.  Playtime on Steroids

Pros: This massive wonderland of play imagines what this part of the sea was once like. Giant shells, barnacles and other creatures can be climbed over, sat on or spun around and around. There’s also nets and swingy things, a vast bed of sand and a low wall of stones for practicing clambering and balancing. At the end of the play area is the sculpture Wind Tree, relocated from its former city home to a new shallow reflecting pond.  It doesn’t take much grey matter to figure out that this also attracts kids like crazy.

Cons: it’s so big because this is apparently a future development site. Let’s hope some place for play remains and it doesn’t all turn into a dreary, but revenue-generating, 9-5 office building.

7. Sexy Water Management

This is not just some pretty planting behind the containers, although it does look great.  Look closely and you can see that the planting beds are set down below the paving.  This allows water to run off into the planting where it’s filtered and cleansed before going back into the harbour.

The same thing happens at Silo Park at a much bigger scale. Stormwater runoff here is directed into a long linear channel, densely planted again, and criss-crossed with paths.

8.  Working

I love most about this part of Auckland’s waterfront is that it’s very much a working harbour.  The navy occupies a vast land holding to the east, and there is an gigantic shrink-wrapped vessel being repaired down near Silo Park. All very cloak-and-dagger.

Whilst disused silos form the backdrop to Silo Park, the silos of the bulk storage facility dominate the scene.  Some are painted and act as huge sculptural installations behind the gantry.

These sites operate around-the-clock, constantly bringing life, activity and people to the waterfront.

It’s a delicate balance, essential to get right, but for me it would be disastrous if all of this stretch of harbourfront was ‘cleaned up’ and industrial activities moved on to somewhere ‘out of sight’.

9.  Gantry

This 12m high, 110m long structure was built to 'screen' the bulk storage tanks behind.  Climb to the top and you'll get a great view into this part of the harbour that I find just as interesting as the parks and promenades, maybe more so.

It also reveals long views back towards the city, and along the entire waterfront public places, and is a perfect spot to watch life unfold.

10.  Weddings, Parties, Anything

The waterfront is a go-to place for quality Auckland people-watching and overheard conversations:

“I never knew this place was ****ing here, bro.”

“I know, bro.”

In just a few hours I saw plenty of tourists, but also locals who’d come down for a function, a wedding party having photographs taken, kids riding bikes, people running and exercising, those who’d brought their lunch with them, those who were headed for a restaurant, and those who were lining up for a pie or a coffee or a smoothie to have while sprawling at the picnic tables or on the lawn. Little kids were in the playground, bigger kids were at the basketball court.  The temporary summertime stalls were busy and the summer movie nights were still being advertised. Students lounged, couples canoodled, and the blue sky hung on as long as it could overhead.

And that’s the secret to great public space – enabling all different types of people feel welcome.

What do you think? If you’ve visited the Auckland Waterfront recently how did you find it? Leave a comment below letting me know what you liked best.

If you know someone who’d enjoy reading this article be sure to share it, and check back soon for more from the wonderful world of parks, gardens and landscapes.

Big Prawn...Yawn: THIS sculpture park features the biggest from the world’s best

There’s nothing I love more than the opportunity to explore a new landscape. And if that landscape also happens to contain a couple of artworks, so much the better.

So it was with edge-of-the-seat anticipation that I joined 39 other curious people recently, on a bus headed to Gibbs Farm, about an hour north of Auckland.  The site visit was one of several on offer at the International Federation of Landscape Architects annual conference.

Although I was naturally fascinated to see the rural landscapes north of the city, (many with rich, diverse histories, and others under threat of encroachment by the growing city) it was the art that was calling my name.

But first some background.

Gibbs Farm is owned by Alan Gibbs, a well-known and uber-successful New Zealand businessman. He bought the original property over 20 years ago, and has added incrementally to his holdings. The farm lolls its way over rolling ridges, gullies and flats, in an ancient landscape surrounded by the stupendously spectacular Kaipara Harbour, the largest in the Southern hemisphere.

The scale of the landscape has, unintentionally, driven the art agenda: most of the works are the largest the artists have ever produced. From afar they look tiny, even insignificant. It’s not till you’re standing face-to-face with a 6 metre high rusted steel wall that the true scale actually registers.

So who are the artists who have created these vast wonderments?

Let’s start with that 6 metre high wall.

That would be Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour (1999/2001). 

It’s made of 56 Corten steel plates, each 50mm thick and 6 metres high, and it runs for 252 metres.  That’s almost the length of 1-and-a-half jumbo jets. 

According to the visitor guide the “…steel plates lean out 11 degrees from the vertical and trace a single contour line across the land in a way that, in the artist’s words, “collects the volume of the land.”” 

This wall draws you in. The forty of us from the bus set off cross-country with hive mind determination. Like lemmings to the cliff we made for that wall. 

Once there, each panel continued to mesmerise, with miniature rusty landscapes of colour and pattern and texture extending out along the surface. 

Looking up for a moment, it was possible to see something on the distant horizon: a few bent paper clips perhaps? 

A reasonable hike instead revealed it to be Horizons, by Neil Dawson (1994).  Without something to give it scale, it looks like a wonderfully light calligraphic drawing, or maybe a piece of paper caught just at a moment of billowing in the breeze. 

Instead it’s a brilliant trompe l’oeil, etched in steel some 15 x 10 x 36 metres, and suggesting “…a giant piece of corrugated iron blown in from a collapsed water tank on some distant farm.” 

If Serra’s work collects the land, Dawson’s collects the sky. 

Over the course of the day clear blue skies, white clouds, and finally lowering greyness all settled in behind, colouring in the finely drawn linework of Horizons

We’re on a ridgeline now, and only the briefest of trudges brings us face-to-face with another gobsmacking sculpture. 

This one has “a fleshy quality which the artist describes as being “rather like a flayed skin”.” Ummm...choice, bro. 

Engagingly titled Dismemberment, Site 1 (2009), this work, by the fabulous Anish Kapoor, is compelling. 

Two vast elliptical steel rings are placed 85 metres apart, and a taut reddy-pinky membrane fabric stretches anatomically between. 

In the presence of such a strange and disquieting object it only seemed fitting that a lone, and apparently quite friendly emu came up to join us as we sat down to lunch. 

From this part of Gibbs Farm the Kaipara is close. The landscape plunges down to the beach, and the huge receding tides. We follow, until the Loch Ness monster stops us in our tracks. 

Looking closer, its arching loops are of no marine origin. Instead they are made of Scottish sandstone, each block 1.4m2. 

Together these 11 structures make up Arches (2005) by Andy Goldsworthy. 

I imagine they look utterly gorgeous in the sun, but in the late afternoon gloom they took on a mysterious quality which was only enhanced by the flock of sheep which suddenly ran along the foreshore to visit their local merino henge. 

Were these four works all that was on offer, one could go away a happy person.  Amazingly though, the hit parade continues, with gigantor works by Richard Thompson, Sol LeWitt, Daniel Buren, Maya Lin, Bernar Venet and more. It will be interesting to see how many more great works the site can support: given their vast scale they really do need breathing space around.

We were fortunate to be led on our tour by well-known New Zealand landscape architect Garth Falconer. He has been discussing, designing and debating the Gibbs Farm landscape for nearly as long as it’s been operating, and his generous, thoughtful and knowledgeable presence brought many insights to our day.

For those who are Garth-less, don’t despair. Gibbs Farm is open monthly by appointment. Find out more at their website. Take your walking shoes, get off the roads and paths, and enjoy a wonderfully stimulating day engaging with eye-popping artworks in an amazing setting.

Now it's your turn. If you were Alan, who would you invite to create the next uber-artwork for Gibbs Farm? Let me know who and why. And if you enjoyed this article, be sure and share it with your friends so they can have a say too!

Walls That Tell a Story

Can you guess where this wall might be?

How about this one?

Even in close-up, these walls are starting to tell stories.

Stories about their location, about their history and about the conditions they experience every day.

It’s a bit of a no-brainer really, once you start looking properly, to tell that these walls are near the waterfront. Both can be found in the ever-increasing necklace of public places fronting Auckland’s famous harbour.

Let’s start with those oyster walls. They’re part of a massive temporary, playspace in Wynyard Quarter. The whole design by Isthmus imagines a waterfront that might lie beneath the existing ground, and the walls help tell that story.

On fine sunny days big kids and small were all over it like you wouldn’t believe. From a distance the shells in the walls can’t be seen, but then the scale, mass and colour of the concrete takes over the job of telling the story.

The other wall is part of a revetment wall near the end of Silo Park that tumbles down to the water. It’s the daily tides that have painted it in such beautiful graduating hues.

The wall acts as a mini amphitheatre, with everyone walking past able to look down and see you. Despite this the change of level creates a surprisingly private and secluded nook (a nookie nook for this pair...) away from the main promenade and activities.

These blocks that make up this wall have been recycled by Taylor Cullity Leathlean | Wraight + Associates from old precast concrete units that were once used for storage.

I love the stories embedded in landscapes, and the connection they create between the past, present and future.

We are working on a project at the moment that will make walls using existing paving that we're removing to create better level transitions. Doing this creates a win-win: we solve the challenging Once built, these walls will then become another chapter in the story of this landscape.

Examples like this are everywhere if we take the time to look. Where have you encountered walls that tell a story? How could you adopt this approach to tell a story in your landscape? Let me know in the comments below.

And if you enjoyed this taste of Auckland’s waterfront landscape then stay tuned, as I’ll be sharing more in the next few weeks.