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Lies, damned lies and architects' drawings
Chris Barton
Monday December 4, 2006

Blame Pete Bossley. His architectural firm did the drawing that did the damage. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a giant circular object had landed. An enormous flattened egg sat on a platform at the inner reaches of the Manukau Harbour - in a tidal backwater beside an industrial wasteland. It was joined to the shore by two pathways. It throbbed from below and pulsed from the top with white light. It was alive.

Bossley had not just laid an egg in the Manukau mud, he had paved the way for others to lay similarly outrageous eggs at the water's edge. And so the rugby stadium drawings, videos and propaganda multiplied. For weeks Aucklanders were engaged in an epic battle. It was bizarre.

The city, noted for its absence of beautiful buildings, was engaged in an architectural argument - about aesthetics.

I first met Bossley in the 1970s when we were in the second year at the Auckland School of Architecture. He was always destined to be a star, standing out because of his already masterful drawing.

These days, of course, the pen has given way to computers, 3D walk/fly-throughs, animations and special-effects videos.

But with all this persuasive technology at architects' fingertips, why did Aucklanders say no?

Bossley's Manukau folly had the classic hallmark of the architect in creative play - the aerial view, a god's eye perspective, looking down on one's work.

The problem with a plan viewed from on high is that it's not the way mere mortals typically see the world. So that when an image from altitude arrives - in a newspaper, on TV or a website - it's always challenging to take on board. And because it's something new in someone's backyard, almost always alarming.

It's not the first time Bossley has dropped his vision into the water on an unsuspecting Auckland. Many will remember the glass-encased structure he plonked in the harbour by Princes Wharf as a memorial to Sir Peter Blake.

Although it was dubbed a "glass coffin", it has survived - albeit in a scaled-back form - and managed to capture both Government and Auckland City funding.

In contrast, the first images of the Waitemata waterfront stadium were mostly aerial views. This was a big mistake.

Panoramic helicopter sweeps of gorgeous scenery are great for tourism promotions, but not for architecture that people have to live with. The overhead shots emphasised a monument to look at, rather than a place to inhabit.

Although the architects eventually released some ground-level perspectives of their waterfront plans showing how the public would have access, it was too little too late. Lesson one for architects from the stadium fiasco is: present your lofty vision with your feet on the ground.

But whatever the merits of Bossley's egg in the Manukau or Warren and Mahoney's translucent bedpan on the wharves, the aerial views we saw and debated so heatedly did express something about two crying needs - the wish for a modern civic building Auckland can be proud of, and a longing to reclaim our water's edge as a public space.

Bossley's design near the airport would have been an impressive sight for people flying into Auckland. And from Mangere Bridge the white shell form hovering over the water could have looked stunning.

You couldn't really say the same of the waterfront bedpan, which was also called an "ill-conceived haemorrhoid cushion". Many also saw the object on the wharves as a barrier to the harbour.

The impression wasn't helped by the first images of what a waterfront stadium might look like - a picture of the 66,000-seat Allianz Stadium in Munich transplanted on to the Auckland site.

Lesson two for architects: if information gets out about your building plans, make sure you have your drawings ready.

Not that the images that we finally got for the Warren and Mahoney design were much better. Despite a polished video it still looked like a big visual barrier.

The architects tried to limit the effect by encasing the structure in glass. But there was no escaping the fact that high stands seating 60,000 people would be made of impenetrable concrete.

Belatedly they delivered an image that Aucklanders were aching for - a perspective outside the stadium on the wharf showing people strolling while others sat at restaurant tables enjoying the sea view.

What might have happened had this drawing been showed first?

But when it comes to botched designs, and probably the real reason alternative stadium designs proliferated, the first Jasmax scheme for Eden Park takes the cake. Even though there were scale models and drawings galore, it was impossible to ignore the major design flaw. It had a bit missing at one end - a tragic compromise looking cheap and incomplete.

As alternative stadium locations emerged, Eden Park eventually woke up and revealed its grand design - a full stadium in the round. It wasn't inspiring but at least it was a proper stadium.

The killer drawing is hiding on the Eden Park website - a view from a seat high up in the new stand, with the stadium packed with people and the All Blacks playing on the field below. Corny, yes, but an image where one could hear and feel the roar of a crowd of 60,000.

The last word goes to children's book author Jonathan Gunson who, late in the piece, came up with the "waka stadium". It was a preposterous image. The new wharf platform had been transformed into a canoe with a soaring 290m waka prow decorated with Maori motifs.

As a piece of kitsch mimetic architecture - mimicking the shape of an object not normally associated with building - it was superb. Gunson says he did it only to get attention and to show what might be possible on such a great waterfront site - something to rival the Sydney Opera House. Sadly the result shows Gunson should stick to writing children's books.

But Gunson's waka did express a sentiment that many felt during the stadium controversy. There is nothing inherently wrong with putting a big building on the waterfront - it just needs to be good.

The past few weeks have also shown the city is ready to have an architectural debate. So if there is to be a waterfront transformation make sure the drawings, 3D walk-throughs and videos are superb.

Go ahead. Convince me.