After 27 years, Unitec is vacating the iconic Auckland building previously known as Carrington Psychiatric Hospital. Now a local social enterprise trust wants to give it a new life as a hub of education, art and community.
The door to the basement was locked. For nearly two hours we’d been guided through the countless halls and rooms of Unitec’s building one and it was the only place that seemed to be out of bounds. It was, most likely, a simple health and safety precaution so that people wouldn’t tumble in the poor light. But as we turned away and ventured down another hallway, I couldn’t help wondering if any secrets were being concealed behind that locked door.
What was down there in the darkness? Was that where they were hiding the evidence – the harrowed scribbles on stone walls from a century of cruelty and shame?
For the past 155 years, the imposing neoclassical building once known as Carrington Psychiatric Hospital and the Whau Lunatic Asylum has scowled at the village of Point Chevalier and at virtually everyone who has ever headed west along Great North Road. It’s one of the city’s architectural icons, and – with its Italianate-Romanesque façade and sprawling wings – an enduring symbol of colonial grandeur.
But it also serves as a reminder of the intolerance of the past. It’s no secret just how crudely Victorian and early 20th century New Zealand society viewed the idea of mental health. Stories abound of the dubious methods used to treat those with psychological illnesses over the last 150 years: electric shock therapy, lobotomies and forced institutionalisation. Those with even mild conditions were removed from society and hidden like shameful stains because they “deviated from social norms”.
Of course, history is never black and white – it’s also widely accepted that plenty of healthy rehabilitation and care took place throughout New Zealand’s mental health institutions. In its later years, in fact, Carrington Psychiatric Hospital came to be known as a convivial and community-minded place where staff enjoyed working and patients were treated well.
In any case, the building today is far removed from that era. It’s been nearly three decades since Unitec’s architecture and design department took over the place, and any vestiges of the former psychiatric hospital have long been refurbished.
However, with Unitec having sold the surrounding land to the government for housing development in 2018 and is currently in the process of vacating, there are questions about what to do with the category one historic building. One option, pitched by a local social enterprise trust, is to open it up to the community. In partnership with Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau and the Crown, The Point Chevalier Social Enterprise Trust (PCSET) has been conducting a feasibility study to determine public interest in turning the building into a centre for community arts, music and education.
Throughout August, the PCSET has been conducting online and face-to-face surveys to gauge public reception and receive suggestions. Overwhelmingly, the community has been in favour of the idea.
“There’s so much demand for it,” said PCSET’s Graeme Bennett as he and fellow project organiser Chris Casey guided a few of us sightseers through the magnificent building.
“There’s nothing like this in Auckland. Part of the feasibility study was to determine the viability over a certain period of time, and they gave us five years to work with.”
As it stands, the building is unoccupied as Unitec staff and students have moved across campus along with their computers. All that remains now are piles of old furniture and academic work: assignments, architecture essays and design collages scattered throughout the rooms among empty cans of V energy drink.
Despite the mess of the place, it’s easy to see the potential. The building has three floors and three giant blocks comprising dozens of classrooms, offices and lecture theatres, plus a café and a chapel. It’s perfectly poised for a new life of creativity and education.
That’s exactly where Bennett and Casey see the opportunity. The template is already there, so it wouldn’t take much to realise the dream; using the existing space for creative studios, residencies, holistic wellbeing centres, community rooms, workshops, and youth and adult education programmes.
“We could put a great big stage here,” Bennett says, gesturing to the lawn at the front of the building. “Or put a fashion show all the way through the middle here. You could do markets all the way around here, and have bands and people jamming.”
“There are so many opportunities, and really we don’t have to do much at all to make it happen because it’s totally usable as it is. The government already pays to maintain it, and our job will just be to manage it and get people in.”
The community enthusiasm for the project was clear on a Saturday in early August when the PCSET had a public information day at the Point Chevalier library. Over the course of the day, droves of people turned up to learn about the project and write suggestions for the space on a whiteboard.
“Workspace for designers and creatives,” one wrote. “Artist’s residences,” said another. “Should focus on diversity, not just a place for privileged people,” one person presciently suggested.
Because of the sheer size of the space, Bennett says there’s no reason why all these ideas couldn’t be achieved if it’s managed properly.
“There’s a high degree of community involvement and engagement; over 200 people have said they would take a space. The community are coming up with ideas to make this place buzz but they don’t want it to be a place of voyeurs and tourists.”
“If we can make it sustainable, then we tick all the boxes. So yeah, pretty exciting stuff.”
However, the enthusiasm for the project is far from universal, and there are some people who believe that the building’s past can’t be redeemed.
I was at the information day at the library, reading a timeline of the building’s history when I heard a woman next to me say sarcastically: “Oh look, they haven’t mentioned all the abuse and exploitation of people”.
Chris Casey, who was a physiotherapy student at the psychiatric hospital in the late 1980s, says the negative sentiment is unavoidable given the history of mental health in New Zealand.
“Everyone’s got different views. Because they were called asylums they were perceived to be dark places. But they were usually very close to nature, out on promontories facing the sun, with big access to gardens and working farms, and the idea was that nature and the elements [were a] part of the healing,” he says.
“But for some people, their memories of it are a bit harsher. Some people may have been put in there even though there was not a hell of a lot wrong with them: for shell shock after the war, head injuries or trauma. Someone may have lost a mother or a relative to an institution, and that’s where the pain is.”
However, Casey says that while the building has a nefarious reputation for some, for others it was a place of great care, compassion and convalescence. That’s exactly what the trust is wanting to revive with its project.
“You see parts of the past and you’ve got to live with it, work with it, because a lot of people saw it as a great place for healing,” he says. “Sometimes people would go there for only two weeks; they’d just had a breakdown and they would go in there to get better. In those cases, people were treated with humanity, and that’s what we see with that building.”
In September, the trust will hand their feasibility study over to the government and Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau to await their verdict. If all goes well, the project could move forward over the next few years. Perhaps then, the locked doors of the past could be opened, allowing music, art, and community to enter; clearing out any lingering shadows.