Britomart, Auckland High Court, and St James Theatre: Heritage Buildings as Social Media

A brief note: apologies that this has taken so long to complete. Other deadlines compelled me more urgently!

The International Day for Monuments and Sites

What’s heritage? One facet I’m interested in is how the answer to that question changes with time. It seems inevitable (and proper) to me the contents of the basket labelled ‘heritage’ will change through the century, as New Zealand’s demographics change. I quite like the idea that heritage is a curated selection of the past, chosen by the present, on behalf of the future. And who’s curating will change.

Heritage is not interesting to everyone. But certain people, at some point in their lives, get interested in the remnants of the past that surround them. Heritage advocacy groups try to help more people to get bitten by the bug, and, with the long view in mind (always!), they want to reach out to younger generations, who’ll have to choose to take up the responsibility for looking after the old stuff.

With this aim in mind, ICOMOS (the International Council for Monuments and Sites) runs an “international-day-of-“. This year, the intention was to use social media to reach out to younger generations and foster all those warm fuzzies. Yours truly got involved in helping to organise some events to celebrate the Day, and, in discussion with the Auckland organising group, we came up with idea of going out to look at some Monuments’n’Sites and discussing the buildings themselves as pieces of social media.

You what mate? Bear with me. It’s not quite as nutty as it sounds. Public buildings don’t spring unbidden from the earth. They’re always, naturally, built with an end in mind—to communicate something about their purpose and the intentions of their builders. With that thought in mind, and with some wise guides to help us, we went to have a look at three prominent Auckland buildings. What were the messages that the buildings were made to communicate? What are they saying now, in their current context? What might happen to them in the future? When I finally finish writing this preamble, you might find out…

Jeremy Salmond and site visitors pause outside the CPO to examine the surrounding buildings: no longer “an oasis-of low-rise”?

Britomart (the CPO), with Jeremy Salmond

The Britomart story is somewhat circular, which seems fitting, given that the City Rail Link is all about completing a loop. The Britomart site was one of Auckland’s first train stations, built atop land reclaimed from the sea with the spoil from the demolition of Point Britomart. When the Central Post Office (the CPO) was built there (starting in 1909), the train tracks had to be shortened to make room. This left heavily-laden steam trains without enough flat runway to build up the speed they’d require to get up the hill to Newmarket; so, in a huff, the Railways moved to Beach Road, demolishing a couple of commemorative brick archways as they went —”out of spite,” said Jeremy.

So what does the CPO communicate? I asked. “It’s a typical Government building,” was Jeremy’s reply. Grandeur was the word he used to characterise its effect. Speeches were made in front of it, troops paraded there on their way to war, and punters meekly approached the grand elliptical counter to buy a stamp or two. The CPO was the face of government: reassuring, vigilant, stable.

Only, of course, nothing’s stable. The Post Office changed—radically—and moved on. After a period of neglect, and the threat of demolition in the 1990s, the CPO was repurposed. At last, the Railway got their station back! In the meanwhile, the warehouses of the Britomart precinct had come under threat from development, offering to turn what Jeremy called “an oasis of low-rise” into a field of tall towers. Jeremy was instrumental in developing a precinct plan, preserving some of the smaller buildings amongst their new neighbours.

The CPO’s looking a little dowdy around the edges right now, but we feel assured that it’ll get prettified when the CRL works are done. Once again, it’ll stand over an open square, projecting authority, but with far taller company looking down affectionately upon it.

Site visitors arrive at the High Court

The Auckland High Court, with Harry Allen

Up the hill, then, to the High Court. As we walked, Harry pointed out that the court’s location had been a significant choice, a signal of its prestige. It was finished in 1868, as British troops were leaving the fort at Albert Barracks. It’s vaguely military in tone. with its castellated tower, but this is clearly a fortress of justice, not of arms. We’re taking over now, was the message. The war in the Waikato had been fought. Pākehā power was here to stay. Nestled between churches, the Court asserted secular power and social order. Later the merchants of Princes St and the Northern Club came to shelter under its reassuring flanks.

The waiting room outside the main courtroom, Auckland High Court

Ecclesiastical was Harry’s term for the building. I’d be tempted to go as far as penitential. It doesn’t photograph well on a phone, but the waiting room outside the main courtroom is a clearly designed to induce a certain state of mind in witnesses or prisoners.  The Law is mighty. Do not try to fool us.

Site visitors in the waiting room outside the main courtroom, Auckland High Court

NZSEE Conference 2018

This weekend I attended the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering conference, entitled From Inangahua to Kaikoura and Beyond. The NZSEE publishes conference papers (with a small delay) at its website, so it’d be unnecessary as well as presumptuous to attempt to summarise individual presentations. What I do want to do, briefly, is set down my impression of the two conflicting schools of thought at the conference about the …and Beyond part of the theme. Why? Because the way in which this apparent dichotomy gets resolved might make a big difference for heritage conservation.

Blinded by Science

One camp says that engineers have started to believe their own hype. Dazzled by the potential of Big Data, and the promise of sophisticated software models, engineers have started to believe that they can not just model events and natural phenomena but predict them. They’ve been quoting coefficients to two decimal places as though that were meaningful, and producing special studies to permit themselves to avoid meeting minimum performance standards.

Instead of getting more and more specialised, this argument says, and instead of running ahead of the capabilities of the profession and the reality of commercial practice by dreaming up increasingly complex methods, let’s adopt a basic risk model that covers the whole country more or less equally. And let’s not focus on a minimum standard of safety, but on designing structures that might still be useful for something once the dust settles.

In the Weeds

It’s a technical conference. Many of the presenters were there to talk about their research into specific avenues of knowledge: how earthquake waves propagate; how concrete floors deform; the probable intensity of shaking at a given time and place. Instead of generalising across the country and working from first principles, their goal is to discriminate between individual cases and to know how to treat ’em. Research, modelling, and better, more ubiquitous instrumentation holds the key to tailoring solutions to specific problems.

Heritage in the hinterlands

I’m not qualified to judge; but I do have an opinion. For what it’s worth (you decide), I’m leaning towards the idea that—for the moment—we need to accept a different level of risk in different places. I got interested in working with heritage and engineering in part because I was thinking about the fate of small-town New Zealand in a post-Christchurch era. I don’t want to see the embodied history in those places obliterated. To my way of thinking, it’s clear that if we adopt the school of thought that everywhere in the country should be treated more or less the same, we’re going to have to demolish a lot of old buildings. They just don’t make enough money to pay for their own repair.

At Pompeii, the state-of-the-art archaeological practice is to leave everything in the ground. There’s masses of unexcavated material. But too much has already been excavated—we can’t conserve it all— and it’s getting ruined by exposure. Besides, the science is advancing so much that it’s smart to leave plenty untouched. Analysis methods that haven’t been developed yet might be able to tell us marvellous things about Roman life—if we don’t get too eager and stuff up all the raw data.

What’s the analogy? The pace of innovation in earthquake engineering is immense. In my opinion, it might be smarter to use the science we have to tell us where shaking is likely to be less intense, and, for now, do little or nothing to historic buildings in those places. Yes, it would be riskier living in an old building in Paeroa than in Ponsonby. And it’s all very well for me to say, since I don’t live in an old building and I don’t live in a small town. But the alternative is that we bulldoze our history too hastily. Let’s be smart about fixing the worst stuff, and be equally smart about leaving the less risky stuff for a later, wiser time.


To the kind and generous real engineers who spent their time talking to a wannabe engineer! And also to the speakers and organisers of the conference. It was excellent.

Kopu Bridge article, with Stacy Vallis

Here’s a piece that Stacy Vallis & I wrote about the Kopu Bridge near Thames. It’s a 90-year-old swing-span bridge, quite lovely. Management of the bridge has recently been handed over to a community group who are going to open it up to walkers and cyclists.

Our source material for the article included some really interesting articles from Heritage NZ and Engineering New Zealand (formerly IPENZ). From an engineering perspective, I particularly enjoyed reading the 1930 article by AJ Baker on the construction of the bridge. It’s linked through from the bottom of the ENZ page.