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What Auckland’s new Freyberg Place gets so right – and what it doesn’t

Auckland’s newly refurbished Freyberg Place is a wonderful new public space, says Simon Wilson. Except for those times when it isn’t.

I sat on one of the big concrete steps in the newly refurbished Freyberg Place on Tuesday evening, watching a man covered in tin cans beating sticks on a blue 44-gallon drum. A little girl in a fairy skirt went up to him, walked around him, took one of his drumsticks, played with the tin cans, talked quietly to him and he to her, and she had the time of her life. Everyone there was having the time of their life. We all took a lot of photos. It was Artweek, Tin Can Man (Chris O’Connor) was a performer, the crowd was out for a good time.

Tin Can Man and a friend, Artweek in Freyberg Place. (All photos Simon Wilson)

A few days earlier I sat in the Helen Clark Room on the ground floor of the also-refurbished Ellen Melville Hall, the modernist masterpiece that sits on the north side of the square, for a talk by a visiting transport planner. The gloom of evening settled outside. People strolled, sat, simply enjoyed being there. Only a couple of cars drove through.

Auckland has a new public square and it’s fabulous. In so many ways.

The pōhutukawa is now a feature of the place, where previously it was ignored. There are new nīkau, new terraces that get you to the upper levels and form the seating for a marvellous performance amphitheatre. There’s a complicated water feature, spilling down channelled parts of the steps. Lots of seating, lots of native shrubbery that will grow, and softly coloured bricks and tiles laid over the quietly undulating ground.

Best of all, and hardest to describe, it seems to me the proportions are right. Height to depth, distance from far end to focal point, the breadth and the space of it – they all feel comfortable, relaxing, and also invigorating. I want to see Romeo and Juliet there, I want to eat my lunch there, I want to hear music I’ve never heard that captivates me, I want that guy in the tin cans to come back and remind us all just how serendipitously rewarding it can be to have an oasis in the middle of a busy city.

Lord Freyberg, legs planted wide, keeps watch on his special place, with the Metropolis behind him.

Freyberg Place, halfway along High St. You look up and there’s the Metropolis building, towering over, an art deco masterpiece/incongruous architectural folly (take your pick, I favour masterpiece). The neo-classical Chancery – more obviously a folly but kind of admirable nonetheless – and some very splendid genuine period buildings as well. O’Connell St, the shared space that has to be the most beautiful 100-metre stretch in the whole central city, running away from the northeast corner of Freyberg, and now with a promising new restaurant at that end.

O’Connell St makes an utter mockery of High St itself, which is still stuffed with cars parked on both sides and more cars cruising their way through, only there because their stupid drivers think they might find a park. High St has had a renaissance, retail-wise, and is now the heart of the city’s pre-eminent men’s fashion precinct, alive with restaurants, tourist shops and more, crammed with pedestrians. Hey, Auckland Council, just do it. Close the street to cars after 10am and watch how that street blooms.

Meanwhile, Lord Freyberg, cast in bronze, his legs planted wide, his greatcoat wrapped around him, keeps watch, glaring across the square at the Ellen Melville Hall. It’s delicious. Freyberg was commander of the New Zealand troops in World War II; by reputation, the toughest of the tough. Melville was a leading feminist in the suffragist age: only our second woman admitted to the bar (in 1906) and the first to be elected to a city council. She practised law for 37 years and was an Auckland City Councillor for 33 years.

Freyberg Place, Freyberg Square, it seems to be called both but no matter. That public space with that building and that statue reels with historical significance, and the people who did the makeover – especially Ludo Campbell-Reid and his team at the council’s Auckland Design Office, Stevens Lawson Architects, Isthmus Group and the artist John Reynolds – should all feel exceptionally proud. They have graced the city.

Busking outside the Ellen Melville Hall on Freyberg Place.

They haven’t done it perfectly, though. Personally – I’m going to start a stupid angry crusade on this unless someone saves me from myself – I would love to see more seats with backs. It’s the fashion: flat benches to sit on. I don’t know, I’m sure there’s some people-focused excuse they can trot out, but it’s not people-focused, not at all. I bet they, the designers of modern public space seating everywhere you look, just think flat benches look better than benches with a back.

But if you’re old, frail, have a bad back, want to rest up as opposed to merely sit down, you want something to lean against. It’s arrogant and ignorant not to recognise this. Freyberg Place has seating for a few hundred people, crammed in, but only about six of them, crammed in, would be able to lean their back on a proper support. It is the work of misanthropes.

Worse, there’s no shelter. Nowhere to sit when it rains – which is one day in two in Auckland, or basically every day from July to December. Almost nowhere to sit if you want some shade: the pōhutukawa will shade a lucky few, but that’s it. This descends from the misanthropic to the incompetent. We live in a country where the sun is a health risk and it’s not credible that urban planners fail to understand this.

It means they will have to install sun umbrellas and how dumb is that? They could have designed shade, doubling as rain shelter, into the place, so it looked good, instead of having to install it later and risk having it look, well, like they had to add it later.

I asked Ludo Campbell-Reid about the lack of shelter on Twitter: “Hey Ludo, it’s raining on Freyberg Place and I can’t find the sheltered seats,” and it became quite a conversation.

He said I should take a brolly and I said I didn’t think that was a good answer to the question of how the designed public spaces in Auckland should deal with either rain, or the sun and the risk of melanoma.

He also said, “Of course not, but simply catering 4 every eventuality is also not how to design successful spaces 4 people. Some self responsibility req’d.”

People reminded him that it rains on average every second day in Auckland and he did concede: “Balance of shade and light and protection/Shelter Is key design consideration. Will have to monitor and respond creatively if req’rd.”

But then he seemed to go back on that with: “Can’t plan for every eventuality. Might as well live in glass bubble.”

I don’t know. Frequent rain and dangerous sun aren’t “every eventuality” for Aucklanders, they are the condition of our lives. Ludo’s quite keen on taking the verandahs off shop fronts, too – although I’m not sure he’ll get a lot of support for that. And meanwhile we have Freyberg. The cars shouldn’t be allowed to drive through, some people need to rest their backs, and it’ll need some kind of shade modification come summer, presumably unbudgeted. But oh yes, it is lovely.

Ellen Melville Hall and Freyberg Place on a wet day.

This story was updated at 8.25am on October 12.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson

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