The Good Citizen podcast focuses on the way good design – and good people – can change cities for the better. In this episode, Jeremy Hansen talks to architect Richard Goldie about his bold idea for a partially submerged stadium on Auckland’s waterfront, a project that’s now a finalist in an international architectural competition.
It glows on the edge of the Waitematā Harbour, an upturned golden bowl seemingly intent on levitation. It’s a stadium or, to be more exact, a dream of one created by architect Richard Goldie and his team at Auckland’s Peddle Thorp Architects. It’s a place ready to bestow its golden glow on people who attend sports games or concerts or any of the other events that might be held under its ethereal-looking roof. The softly lit renderings carry an implicit promise of an exciting future beyond the Ports of Auckland’s big red fence: a place for people to wander and commune and dip a foot into the sparkling harbour. What’s not to like?
Not so fast. Auckland has been down this road before: in the early 2000s, then-sports minister Trevor Mallard pitched the idea of a stadium on the end of Queens Wharf for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The proposal was rejected by the city and, I must confess, I found the idea insane. A stadium by its nature faces inwards, meaning it has absolutely no use for a harbour view. The large-scale liveliness big events would bring to the central city is seductive, but after decades of Aucklanders hankering for better access to their waterfront, why block it with a gargantuan nine-storey building that had absolutely no need to be there? Eden Park is far from perfect, but it was still a relief when the Auckland Regional Council told Mallard to back off with his stadium pitch.
A decade later, Goldie and his team say they have learned from the mistakes of the Queens Wharf debacle, and that their proposal is better for it. For starters, their stadium would be located half a kilometre east on Bledisloe Wharf, a large piece of the port’s holdings that juts into the Waitematā Harbour from the end of Britomart Place. The building is inevitably inward-facing, but a lot of work has gone into ensuring it doesn’t overshadow its beautiful waterfront location. Its bulk is diminished by partially sinking the structure into the harbour bed (more on this later), while glass edges allow views across the top of the sunken seating right through the stadium to the rest of the harbour. In the renderings, the building’s western edge is supported by a colonnade fringed by generous steps that disappear below the surface of the water. It’s a stadium with a remarkable degree of openness, with what looks like a durable, usable public space around it.
It’s a proposal that may remain a fantasy, but it has recently received an important boost. Goldie will be travelling to Amsterdam in early December to present the stadium to a jury at the World Architecture Festival where it has been shortlisted for an award in the ‘Future Projects’ category (its competitors include hotels in China and Iran, a leisure centre in London, and a proposed Waitomo bungy tower by Ignite Architects). A win at the festival won’t guarantee a green light for the stadium, but with projects like this, keeping the idea alive while waiting for the planets of politics, finance and public opinion to align is often one of the greatest challenges.
In the meantime, Goldie has to convince people he has a whole lot of issues under control. The stadium’s working title is “The Crater” which refers to the fact it’s partially submerged. If built, it would require excavation to a level 15-20 metres below the harbour bed (which itself is eight-to-10 metres below the level of Bledisloe Wharf). In the face of alarming predictions of sea-level rise, this design decision could be read as an act of extreme chutzpah or complete foolishness. Goldie says he’s simply following the science, designing a building that takes into account the highest predicted mean sea level rise. He accuses naysayers of a lack of ambition.
“As I like to remind people, we used to build dams in this country,” he says. His message contains an implicit challenge: why, in this or any era, would we shy away from the challenges a project like this presents?
Things would be simpler and almost certainly cheaper if the stadium was located elsewhere, of course. A recent proposal suggested land out the back of Spark Arena could be used for a stadium, but Goldie says that project would require the realignment of Quay Street, an exercise which would push costs up to a similar level to his own proposal. But as neither project has been seriously costed, it’s hard to determine whether this is actually the case.
In any case, costs for the public shouldn’t be an issue if the project is modelled as Goldie suggests. The stadium is currently pitched as part of a sort of a package deal in which a consortium would fund the building from the proceeds of the development of commercial properties on the rest of Bledisloe wharf east of the stadium. There are, of course, some major uncertainties here, chief among them what would happen if the developers went broke. But public-private partnerships have delivered pieces of infrastructure elsewhere, so there’s no reason that, with careful management, this couldn’t happen here too.
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There are other, more mundane challenges. Goldie’s renderings seem to suggest a wharf unmolested by vehicles where pedestrians could wander free, but of course, these gigantic buildings are serviced by a myriad of trucks carrying all the supplies needed to make a building like it work. Building on a wharf means there are fewer places to hide all this activity, which means it inevitably encroaches on the public realm.
Through all this you can sense some Aucklanders casting a jealous eye westwards, wondering whether the stadium is the chance to have an iconic waterfront building all of our own. Goldie brings up the Sydney Opera House, a building whose sculptural bravura brought with it enduring and well-earned fame. Our conversation also brought to mind the striking opera house by Snohetta that sits like an iceberg on Oslo’s waterfront and invites the public to climb all over it – another building that helped redefine a city’s sense of self and the way it’s perceived by outsiders. But there have been plenty of attempts to create similarly iconic structures that have fallen flat all over the world. It takes more than a smash-hit building to transform a place.
There’s something charmingly egalitarian in the notion that New Zealand’s attempt to create its own iconic building would be centred around sports rather than an elite pastime such as opera. But iconic buildings are products of a strange alchemy. Success depends on a myriad of other elements being in place too. Everyone loves the Sydney Opera House now, but that couldn’t be said during its protracted building process. Would a waterfront stadium be the thing that allows Auckland and the rest of the country to see itself anew, to make its citizens feel great about living here, to imagine a more prominent place for the city in the global imagination? Goldie thinks so. And next month in Amsterdam, an architectural jury will decide if they agree with him or not.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.