Speaker by Various Artists

A bigger vision

by Chris Van Ryn

For some time now we have been lobbying against the proposed extensions and alterations to our city art gallery. With few carrying the banner in protest of the changes, why then do we persist with the cry to stop works and review the process?

The architects have done everything in their power to create the best possible result within the constraints of a very difficult brief - very successfully, I might add. The problem is that the constraints are so debilitating that the end result can never be anything but a compromised solution. What are these compromises?

For starters, the council has a traffic management plan in place which sees Kitchener Place designated as a major arterial route for heavy traffic (buses), as determined by the city's traffic management plan. At the same time, the gallery cites an increase in visitors to 400,000 people per annum once the development is in place. Even as you read this (well, maybe not in the middle of the night) there is a good chance that traffic is currently banked up along Kitchener St towards Wellesley St. The new traffic plan will see this increased significantly. A proposal for increased traffic and increased people sounds to me like a recipe for accidents.

Ah, but the gallery proposed a solution to this problem! Narrow the road down to single file via means of a "throat". This will allow frustrated motorists to take ten calm breaths while they watch hordes of visitors make their way across the new art gallery pedestrian crossing to the current exhibition. Result: a major arterial route narrowed to a single lane and a whole lot of breathing going on.

The existing building is a listed as a heritage A historic classification, which includes the French colonial building as well as the sculpture garden and water feature. With the new entry lobby proposed (which amounts to little more than a large convention area), the heritage A listed sculpture garden is substantially compromised, whilst the water feature is demolished, to be replaced by a new (smaller) water feature.

The proposed development, in order to achieve the brief put forward by the Auckland Art Gallery, required a reclassification of 1,117 square metres of Albert Park (itself a protected area) under the Resource Management Act so it would become build-able land, i.e. "local purpose (art gallery) reserve" instead of "historic reserve".

The consequence of this is the loss of 13 trees (of more or less significance) and a major loss of the view and access through to Albert Park from Khartoum Place. While Auckland City, and, in particular, the inner city, swells in numbers by virtue of migration and immigration, demands on parks and recreation areas increase. Parks serve as incredibly important spaces which facilitate mental and physical health and social understanding at a critical time in Auckland's developing multicultural city. A major entry point to Albert Park from the city end is via Khartoum Place. Recent upgrades of High Street and Lorne Street by council have as their goal the aim of encouraging people to take these as a route to Khartoum Place (also planned for a substantial upgrade) through to the park ... except the park is now to be reduced in size and blocked off by a proposed art gallery extension ... oops.

Anyone with any travel experience to major world cities knows that in the years to come, as cities become more and more populated by residents and workers, parks are critical to the health of the city. We should, common sense and logic say, be looking at ways to increase the size of our parks, to increase and make more welcoming the entry to these parks, rather than reducing their mass, removing trees and cutting off access, as per the current proposal.

The significance of a well-appointed, world class, iconic building (incidentally, the gallery maintains that the proposed development is of a "world class gallery" and an "iconic contemporary building") cannot be underrated. This project is simply NOT a project with a big enough vision. Yes, (gallery director) Chris Saines has vision, but it's small.

His vision is for a larger gallery with improved operations, better security and enhanced facilities for sponsors. His location is on the Auckland map, on the corner of Kitchener St and Wellesley St. Mine is on the world map. My vision is for a world-class city and a world-class country.

The gallery fails to understand (or simply ignores) that this project is an opportunity to create a world statement. The applicant (the Art Gallery) does not seem to see that architecture serves to manifest a people and a culture in one of the most powerful and visual ways, that, given the chance, the whole world can see and recognise. The Auckland City Art Gallery does not just serve the people who frequent the gallery. It serves all the people who live in Auckland as well as the rest of New Zealand.

In today's world, where religion is on the decline, our iconic buildings will no longer be cathedrals and temples. Instead we need to look to galleries and museums and other cultural facilities for this opportunity.

In the end, a project like this will tell on us and we will share what it says with the rest of the world. If it goes ahead in its current format it will say that the people of Auckland did not care one way or another about a world class, iconic art gallery.

It will say that parks are just not that important. It will say that the people in positions of influence have no vision. It will say that we have no culture, because we are a young country, so we are still developing. It will say that Auckland as a city has no real identity. It will say that as a city we have been demolished by developers with faceless, mediocre developments and appalling apartment blocks, and, more than that, it will say that the city residents will get what they asked for because most did nothing to change it anyway. It will say that we are all lost in our own tiny life stories and that as a people we have no greater story to tell. It will say that we suffer from a severe lack of ability to think, with logic and reason, with a rational approach to problem solving.

It is futile and dangerous to enter into the subjective territory of what is good architecture and what is not. We all know that what one person likes, another does not. However, there are some academic criteria which can be used to guide us in determining the value of a design which is largely achieved by analysing the characteristics of what the world sees as world class and iconic. What are the hallmarks of these works? Location.

The space around a building ("negative spaces" is the jargon) has as much influence over the form as the form itself. So many of the world's great buildings, whether located on the waterfront (which so frequently they are) or inside parks, have generous spaces around them to enable them to breathe and come alive. Most are standalone buildings (as opposed to being attached to another building from a different period) and have their own cohesive and distinctive design language.

Frequently, creators of world class, iconic buildings are risk takers, producing daring and breathtaking results, like the Sydney opera house with its orange peel forms or the Pompidou Centre with reversed structure or Frank Gehry's Bilbao museum in Spain with an almost chaotic and hectic management of form.

Daring developments will frequently push the boundaries of materials and necessitate research and development into new technology. Many times they will challenge building rules as they push for a better environmental partnership, as they push for more sustainable, green buildings. They make daring statements. They have grand entryways. Often they enter the master planning of a city so streets and boulevards are along sight lines of entry and interior vistas and landscaping hails their presence before your arrival. In time they mature so that our great grandchildren learn of them in history books.

As a participator in these buildings, you are left with a feeling of being uplifted and empowered. You have a sense of wonder at the combination of excellent minds that worked together to achieve the end result. You are empowered, because, without even recognising it, you admire the vision that created this building. This is a vision that has moved a nation forward. It has not been compromised by meeting the status quo. People send postcards home to their friends and family of the building at sunset with a note that says..."Why can't we do something like this?"

If the art gallery project moves ahead in its current form, what will our visitors write on the postcards of the gallery? Or maybe there won't be postcards. Instead, maybe there will be an e-mail with a low resolution snapshot ..."Hi Mum. This is the city gallery. I'm off to Piha tomorrow, so hope to see something interesting there ... "

Chris van Ryn is director of freestyle design ltd.