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Waimahara project manager David Thomas and lead artist Graham Tipene stand in front of their new art installation at Auckland's Myers park.
On the left: Auckland Council Waimahara project manager David Thomas. On the right: Waimahara lead artist Graham Tipene. Design: Archi Banal. Photo: Auckland Council.

ĀteaDecember 22, 2023

Waimahara: Myers Park and the reindigenisation of central Auckland

Waimahara project manager David Thomas and lead artist Graham Tipene stand in front of their new art installation at Auckland's Myers park.
On the left: Auckland Council Waimahara project manager David Thomas. On the right: Waimahara lead artist Graham Tipene. Design: Archi Banal. Photo: Auckland Council.

A renovation of Myers Park is only the latest in a string of efforts to reindigenise the CBD of our biggest city.

Announced by the sound of a roaring thunderclap, artist Graham Tipene proclaims that this is his Tony Stark moment. He throws his arms up to reveal a spectacular light show in the Mayoral Drive underpass between Tāmaki Makaurau-Auckland’s Myers Park and Aotea Square. Tipene is addressing a crowd of Auckland Council staff, artists and media at a preview of Waimahara – the renovated northern end of Myers Park.

Waimahara is a must-see for both residents and visitors. Alongside the sound of thunder, soothing natural noises like wind, taonga puoro and Tiritiri Matangi tūī song play out through an arsenal of speakers. Broken down into its segments, the space’s name encourages people to reflect on and remember (mahara) water (wai). To inspire that, a ramp and staircase snake their way through a sculptural riverbed representation. Above, the roof is littered with tuna trapped in hīnaki, as shifting sheets of chainmail-esque aquamarine-coloured plastic simulate the nurturing, therapeutic flow of an awa. (The sheets, called Kaynemaile, were created by Lord of the Rings art director Kayne Horsham.) Waimahara is masterfully lit up by ceiling lighting and lights built into the artworks. The masterminds behind the audio and lighting are creative studio iion, who also did Te Ara i Whiti/the Pink Path. 

David Thomas, Auckland Council’s Waimahara project manager, says that the audio and lighting “immerses you in the wai” in all its sacred glory. He admits it was challenging, but ultimately fulfilling, being a Pākehā project manager on a mana whenua-led project combining tikanga with innovative technology.

The hīnaki, tuna and kaynemaile on the roof Waimara shown here in an array of colours.
The various rooftop art works of Waimahara. (Photos: Supplied)

Like an awa, Waimahara is ephemeral with lighting effects, colours and audio always changing – “creating a space that will never be the same,” says Thomas. Waimahara reacts to people’s presence and the current wind plus weather conditions, changing its effects in response.  It can also be reprogrammed for specific occasions, for example a Matariki light show. 

Tipene (the lead artist) created Waimahara for people to learn about nature, Auckland’s history and to motivate them to protect te taiao. “We could sit in the classroom and do it or we could do this. For me, this is way more fun,” he says. Tipene believes his new installation is a perfect learning opportunity for “those wairua people” who like to connect to places by “sitting, listening and using the sounds and the visuals to take you somewhere.” Tipene adds that with this mahi toi he wanted to push artistic boundaries. “A lot of art you stand in front of and experience. But for this we want you to be inside it and totally surrounded.” Waimahara activates all your senses (apart from taste). He says Waimahara is a place to whakarongo, not simply listening but “whakarongo as in ready your senses.” 

After a decade working on this over cups of coffee at his dining room table, Tipene says he and Thomas “knew we wanted to make it super immersive and interactive.” Waimahara is ambient and immersive in its current form, but its interactivity will begin next year. Two waiata for Waimahara are being composed by Moeahi Kerehoma, Tarumai-i-Tawhiti Kerehoma-Hoani, and Tuirina Wehi. The waiata will go live in March, and visitors will be able to learn them. Singing the waiata will trigger audio and light responses at Waimahara, giving the space a theatrical accompaniment, Thomas explains. But even without the waiata, the space has a theatrical effect aided by the energy and sounds coming from the neighbouring comedy, music and theatre venues like Auckland Town Hall, Basement Theatre, The Classic and Q Theatre. 

Waimahara project manager David Thomas and lead artist (plus Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei mātanga toi) Graham Tipene stand in front of their new art installation at Auckland's Myers park.
Waimahara project manager David Thomas and lead artist (plus the mātanga toi for Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei) Graham Tipene stand in front of their new art installation at Auckland’s Myers park. (Photo: Auckland Council)

‘Sometimes underpasses are regrettable pieces of infrastructure,” says Thomas, who puts the historic Mayoral Drive underpass in that basket. But his colleague Jenny Larking, council’s city centre development lead, says they’ve turned “an uninviting and desolate car parking space” (she says uninviting is an understatement) into a cultural celebration that “looks after the wellbeing” of residents. 

Myers park is the natural connection between Karanga-a-Hape and, via Aotea Square, the CBD-proper, but its connective potential has been underutilised. The park had a reputation as central Auckland’s most dangerous place, restricting its thoroughfare capacity. Kindergarten pupils were told not to go to the playground after school, and university accommodation residents were advised to avoid Myers park after dark. A string of crimes, including homicides, over the 2010s didn’t help its image. The park’s section where Waimahara now presides was its arse end where you were more likely to find needles, smashed bottles and Vodka cruiser-coloured vomit than beautiful mahi toi. (More lighting as part of the park’s renovation has improved safety.)

As a colonised formerly indigenous space being reclaimed, the history of this park mirrors Tāmaki Makaurau-Auckland’s broader story. In the 19th century, sections of this area were part of the garden of the Nathans, a wealthy Jewish family whose home occupied the Saint Kevins Arcade site. The rest was overrun with bush or occupied by squatters. At the turn of the 20th century, mayor Sir Arthur Myers turned this part Nathan family garden, part overgrown gully, part slum into a public park – named in his honour. 

The former dinghy, seedy Mayoral Drive underpass.
The former dinghy, seedy Mayoral Drive underpass.

But long before Auckland became a concrete jungle, the Waihorotiu awa flowed from a spring in modern Myers park, down Queen street’s course to the old shoreline at Fort Street. Te Waihorotiu was a thriving awa providing abundant kai and freshwater for tāngata Māori. Nearby were kainga, and where it flowed into Te Waitematā were trading hubs. Some of the tūpuna who lived near Te Waihorotiu were ancestors of Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, whom Tipene is a member of (among other iwi). He believes the tāngata whenua-wai relationship is an integral part of Māori indigenous identity across time – and Tipene views the artistic interpretations of water within Waimahara (which reference te Waihorotiu) as a representation of that relationship. 

Earlier this year during the Auckland anniversary weekend floods Te Waihorotiu, which was forced underground in 1860, dramatically reared its watery head. As Queen Street’s pipes overflowed, water ran at street level down the old course of the Waihorotiu awa, turning Myers Park and Queen Street into a river for the first time in 163 years. Auckland’s floods exposed the need for built-in flood mitigation in our urban environments. 

As he points to the park’s gully, Micheal Brown, council’s Myers Park project manager, outlines a natural rain catchment with intense flows down the course of the old awa. To avoid another watery mess, Brown ensured the natural bowl beside Waimahara became a huge stormwater drain. (Wetland species were planted to help.) During periods of heavy rainfall, this flood mitigation system quickly drains half an Olympic sized swimming pool’s worth of water, equivalent to roughly 1,250,000 litres, into Auckland’s stormwater network.

A photo showing Pukekawa (Auckland Domain) in its ordinary dry, sportsfield state – juxtaposed with it returning to its historic form as a wetland because of the Auckland anniversary weekend flooding.
During Auckland’s floods former waterways reclaimed their historic aquatic statuses, including the Waihorotiu awa, the original foreshore and (pictured here) Pukekawa/Auckland Domain. Pukekawa didn’t dry fully for more than six months. The floods proved the necessity for built-in flood mitigation systems in New Zealand cities. (Design: Archi Banal. Photos: Getty Images and Supplied)

Despite a new government criticised by opposition MP Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke as attacking every corner of te ao Māori, Auckland’s reindigenisation continues. “There’s a lot of work being done around the city to reconnect to ancient narratives,” says Tipene. Not only are spaces that celebrate te ao Māori important for this reclamation, but as names of government entities revert to English, ingoa Māori are vital. 

Writing about governmental te reo Māori policies, Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes said, “Māori names are important, especially those connected to place, as they’re often connected to a deeper meaning of that place.” Tipene adds, “not only are we bringing back historic narratives, but also historic names so that those names are never lost. This [Waimahara] is one of them.” But he also acknowledges the role the City Rail Link – which Tipene says is interconnected with Waimahara – plays in Auckland’s reindigenisation.

When the CRL opens, the names of its new or renovated train stations will be ingoa Māori deeply connected to Tāmaki Makaurau. No not an English name then a Māori one, as the government pushes, but simply an indigenous ingoa. Neighbouring Waimahara on Mayoral Drive, the Waihorotiu train station (set to become the country’s busiest) invokes the same awa that inspired Waimahara. The renovated Waitematā (formerly Britomart) and Maungawhau (formerly Mount Eden) stations reference the harbour and maunga they neighbour. Karanga-a-Hape station is a correction to the grammatically incorrect “Karangahape” spelling – referring to Hape, a tūpuna from Hawaiki who visited this ridgeline turned Auckland’s beating artistic heart. 

A render of the Waihorotiu station, which will soon become NZ's busiest train hub.
A render of the Waihorotiu station, which will soon become NZ’s busiest train hub. (Image: City Rail Link)

Clearly, Waimahara is only one of the many footprints of reindigenisation scattered throughout the colonial city of Auckland – especially within the CBD under the patronage of Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, other mana whenua, Auckland Council and locals boards. In particular, Ngāti Whātua has its footprints all over this process. Alongside Waimahara, Ngāti Whātua was instrumental in other recent CBD developments – for example, Te Wharekura (Quay Street’s cultural and environmental education hub), its neighbour Te Wānanga (a waterfront public space) and the Waihorotiu path (expanded space for pedestrians/bikes/scooters on Queen Street). The iwi helped with older CBD redevelopments too, including handling the landscaping of Wynyard Quarter by planting indigenous species. 

But, in an acknowledgement of ancient whakapapa connections, other iwi are also now getting involved in renovating the central city. At 254 Ponsonby Road (formerly a Nosh supermarket turned Liquor King), the new civic space “Ponsonby park” is being planned – where classic CBD development partners Ngāti Whātua, Auckland Council and the Waitematā local board have partnered with the Waiohua iwi collective. In conversation with The Spinoff, Kingi Makoare (pou hāpai tikanga taiao for Ngāti Whātua) called Ngaati Te Ata – a Te Waiohua iwi working on Ponsonby Park – Ngāti Whātua’s closest cousins in the city through a shared history of intermarriage. 

Even at Myers park examples of inter-iwi collaboration for the betterment of all Aucklanders exist. Ngāi Tai Ki Tāmaki artist Tessa Harris designed the pātikitiki pattern on the staircase connecting Waimahara and Mayoral Drive/Queen Street. The pattern, based on flounder, references how abundant te Waihorotiu once was with life. 

Tessa Harris' staircase artwork showing a pātikitiki pattern based on flounder.
Tessa Harris’ staircase artwork showing a pātikitiki pattern based on flounder. (Photo: Auckland Council)

Tipene encourages those experiencing Waimahara to not only use their sight and hearing there, but he also adds, “it’s not a place where you don’t touch. Do touch the space, but just don’t ride your scooter over it.” A once dingy, seedy underpass is not the place you’d expect to hear beautiful tui song in central Tāmaki, but Tipene, Thomas and their team transformed Myers park’s northern end from the CBD’s arse end into a must-see artistic, community and cultural attraction. Imagine what a similar team could do with a more inviting space.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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