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