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BooksJanuary 17, 2023

Welcome to HomeGround: the building that changes lives


Sam Brooks reviews a remarkable book about a remarkable building – one that took 20 years to conceive and a community to build.

I see HomeGround, the new home of the Auckland City Mission, every day. I’ve seen it go from the last stages of construction to being fully open. In the space of only a few years, the place has turned from a skeleton of promise, a metallic question mark, to a true community hub – a place on lower Federal Street and Hobson Street that feels like it provides what the rest of the CBD truly lacks: community and warmth.

I imagine my impression of HomeGround aligns with most people’s, even the people who don’t see it every day. It’s a gorgeous building that puts the architecture of the apartments in the hundred metres surrounding it, direction regardless, in a harsh light. It feels modern, it feels futuristic, and it feels oddly inviting. Modern apartments can often feel like fortresses, protecting what’s within. HomeGround doesn’t feel like that, it feels like it’s openly inviting you in. What’s it all about, and how can you be a part of it?

The exterior view of HomeGround (Photo: Mark Smith)

Simon Wilson does a better job of exploring HomeGround in this new book (subtitled The Story of a Building That Changes Lives) than I can. Firstly, he’s got just under 250 pages (including gorgeous photos by Mark Smith) to do it in. Secondly, he’s had access to the people who paved, and then walked, the road that made HomeGround possible, from conception, to design, to building. Thirdly, he’s Simon Wilson. This is the journalist who can make a squabble about a pavement in Grey Lynn as compelling, rich, and detailed as a Shakespearean soap opera. If he’s got a story as layered, as rich, and as informative as the one that HomeGround has to provide him with, he’s going to do good – if not great – with it.

Simon Wilson (right) pictured at HomeGround with Lisa-Marie (middle) and Ivan Tepu (Ngāti Rereahu) (left) (Photo: Mark Smith)

For those unfamiliar, HomeGround is a project that the Auckland City Mission set upon in the mid aughts with a vision to end chronic homelessness in central Auckland. The result is a building that, based on Breaking Grounds, a supporting housing model developed in New York in the 90s, delivers permanent housing, wraparound care and addiction support on the same site. The building as it stands today has 80 tenants, a clinic, a library and a kitchen. It is what it says on the tin: a homeground.

Wilson retells a story that has been in the making for nearly 20 years, from the building’s conception, through to the fundraising, design and actually building the damn thing. Throughout the book are interviews with the building’s current tenants, workers, and other people who have been key not just in making it happen, but also key to its continuation, and its unique, world-leading kaupapa.

Although this is ostensibly an architecture book (it is categorised thusly on the Massey University Press website) it feels so much more like a collage of the people who make up HomeGround. After all, a building without people is basically a ruin-in-waiting. It’s here that Wilson really, truly shines – he’s able to capture a person’s essence quickly, economically, and then get out of the way to let them tell their story.

Craft can often be distracting in a book like HomeGround. It’s the writer saying, “look ma, no hands!” as they ride a bike. Anybody can ride a bike, anybody can tell a story. The ability to tell one without getting in the way of it, without somehow force-arming your name in front of the title, is true craft. That’s what Simon Wilson displays here (and also, infuriatingly, what he seems to do on a daily basis at the Herald). Take this paragraph about Lisa-Marie, a current tenant at HomeGround:

“Lisa-Marie calls everyone my bro, and darling, and G. She calls Ivan ‘Poppa’. The words and ideas tumble out of her, one story after another. She laughs a lot.”

From these well-chosen details, we get a perfect image of Lisa – indeed, as perfect as the photo on the page opposite this passage. There’s a reason why photographer Mark Smith’s name is on the front of the book beyond what I can only assume is standard practice. Half of the reason why the book is so effective is that Wilson’s words are accompanied so well by Smith’s photography, which is no less accomplished. The photos are gorgeous, which sort of goes without saying, but more importantly, they capture the inner nooks and crannies of HomeGround.

Lisa-Marie (Photo: Mark Smith)

The most impressive thing about HomeGround is not necessarily how it tells the story of the building – the nature of tenders and designs is intriguing but not necessarily worth ruining your upholstery for – but how it tells the philosophy of HomeGround. You can feel Wilson pushing at the edges of his remit throughout the book to urge more individuals, more boards, more people with the means and the money to achieve what HomeGround has, to do the same thing elsewhere, even as he’s highlighting how much it was a confluence of the right people, with the right tenacity, and the right philosophies, that got it to happen. 

One of the most prominent “characters”, such as they are, in the book is philanthropist Richard Didsbury, who also provides the foreword. He’s clearly someone who Wilson puts his ideological lot behind, and quotes like, “Its owners don’t want anyone from their own whanau to ever have to walk through the door.” It’s not just that Wilson throws his lot behind him though, you can feel him quietly, persistently, boosting the philosophy that makes HomeGround so special. People don’t tend to write books about things they don’t believe in – although journalists might be the exception there, they’ve written many a pageturner about things they emphatically do not believe in – but I can’t say that I’ve read a writer who believes as much in their subject as Wilson.

Richard Didsbury (Photo: Mark Smith)

Kindness has become sort of a dirty word. It’s hard to say it, or even type it, and not think of Jacinda Ardern’s earnest, perhaps slightly gormless, call for kindness and how it has been twisted, bent and thrown back like an unwanted toy. There are times when Wilson’s storytelling around HomeGround threatens to dip into generic kindness, but he never does. He sticks to the story: HomeGround happened not because of people entreating to people’s kindness, but to their humanity. Recognise the humanity in people, their need to be recognised as such, and watch us all flourish as a result.

The reality is that many of the people who need HomeGround most probably won’t read this book. It’s got a $65 pricetag, and I felt wary even putting it in my tote bag to take home to review. It feels untouchable and yet somehow, the exact opposite of its subject: a vital, welcoming thing. It would be easy to write it off as just an architecture book with uncommonly good writing and gorgeous photography. And don’t get me wrong, it is that. But it’s also a blueprint, a challenge: this can be done. It was done once, and it can be done again. It takes a writer of Simon Wilson’s skill, and passion, to make it seem so obvious.

HomeGround: The Story of a Building that Changes Lives by Simon Wilson with photographs by Mark Smith (Massey University Press, $65) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. 

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