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New Zealand – Putting up with bad architecture

Architecture in the land of the Long White Cloud suffers from suburban creep and a lack of identity

Until the Ironbank building was highly commended at last year’s World Architecture Festival, New Zealand was relatively unknown architectural terrain. Designed by RTA Studio, the six-storey project in Auckland’s Newton district is a sophisticated urban infill. Set among Victorian arcades, shops and ethnic restaurants, its collection of Cor-ten steel boxes stacked at angles provides space for start-up retail and office units.

The awesome landscapes of the Land of the Long White Cloud still tend to dwarf its architecture. In the 18th century, swathes of virgin bush were denuded for pasture, and Auckland, the county’s most populous city, is now a creeping monoculture of bungalows and gardens. European and Japanese cars, two in every drive, are the inevitable answer to limited public transport. While space is still considered plentiful in a country of only 4 million people, development remains horizontal and loose, rather than vertical and tight. High streets are low and linear, with canopies reminiscent of the Wild West. Warehouse shopping and light industry are strung along the motorways, like a rot seeping into the landscape.

In contrast, Rotorua, where Maori villages, mud pools and geysers, are tourist attractions, higher land values mean that the historic Princes Gate Hotel, a late-Victorian gem, has now been swamped by a po-mo congress centre, tatty motels and spas.

The architectural zeitgeist in New Zealand’s coming-of-age is diverse but contradictory. Natural beauty is exploited, to be later recreated artificially, and the rich heritage of Maori architecture is either reduced to a carnival or neutered in museums. One conspicuous growth industry is sports and retirement villages for native New Zealanders and well-heeled new Australian, South African or American immigrants. At Jack’s Point near Queenstown, developer Fletcher Living offers ‘a rural mountain retreat’ with architect-designed homes in imported Canadian cedar, while the largely indigenous landscaping is supposed to placate the campaign to ‘grow natives’. It’s an immaculate Stepford Wives tableau of golf course, clubhouse, man-made lake, and the Remarkables, an alpine mountain range, thrown in.

For the older retired generation there are villages such as Pinesong in Green Bay, populated by descendants of pioneer Anglo-Saxon and European farming stock. The sanitised rural idyll satisfies a desire to be pampered and protected in a benign social environment. But though the crime rate is currently low, if a cleft grows between the rich, who can afford quality, and the poor, who can’t, that statistic may change.

Architecture for small budgets, density and energy saving is not yet seen as a priority, but design standards are being established through regional awards and publicised in a national media normally given over to sport. Meanwhile, however, investment projects are being given free rein, to the detriment of the environmental resources the country should be protecting. Why is downtown Auckland a crowded jumble of high-rise blocks, without breathing spaces, bisected by broad rivers of motorways, rendering pedestrian routes a nightmare? Who allowed the few historic urban ensembles to be amputated? How has such a rich country put up with such poor architecture for so long?

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