Summer read: Twenty-one years ago, the Force Entertainment Centre was meant to be the crown jewel of Queen Street. What stands there now is the empty shell known as Skyworld, writes Sam Brooks.
First published on June 17, 2021.
Two security guards stand sentinel over nothing. There are no stores, the toilets are closed, and even if they were open, there are no people to guard them from. A large screen advertises a restaurant that’s no longer open. Pigeons dart around six stories of bridges and MC Escher escalators, seemingly more likely to take up a lease than an enterprising business owner.
It’s a far cry from the vision sent to media ahead of the opening of the Force Entertainment Centre in 1999: “The intention is to let people step into another world – a world which is colourful, full of movement, and above all, memorable.”
If Skyworld today feels like another world, it’s a post-apocalyptic one. The only thing open in the once bustling food court is Yang Guo Fu, a Chinese casual dining chain. The cinema multiplex thrives as best it can amid the movie-drought of 2021. The cacophony of bowling balls slamming into pins echoes out of a comparatively busy Metrolanes on the second floor, and the tinny bleeps of an arcade that opens out onto Queen Street pour out from below.
As rumours of a redesign abound, it might not be the end of the space. But its current iteration is a far cry from its lofty ambitions.
The opening night
When Skyworld first opened on July 29 1999, it was called the Force Entertainment Centre. These days, its name in conversation varies depending on when or how you encountered it. It could be iMax Queen Street, SkyCity Metro, the Metro Centre, or simply, Event Cinema. The building, which had been in the works for the latter part of that decade, frequently making headline news, was built up to be the crown jewel of Auckland’s CBD.
“It was meant to be the most glamorous place in Auckland”, says Aline Sandilands, who handled public relations and event organisation for the opening night. Even though she’d only invited 1000 people to the much-hyped opening, including Shortland Street stars and TrueBliss, she estimates that as many as 1400 people turned up. It was a party to remember. But behind the scenes, Sandilands was fretting.
“I remember thinking halfway through the night that if I got through it in one piece, I would never, ever again organise an event again. It was the stuff of nightmares in many ways.”
The stress began well before the guests started to arrive. When Sandilands’ event crew showed up at the building, it wasn’t ready, she says. “The architects and the builders were still laying tiles down the very front of the building. They’d laid them down that day and they told us we shouldn’t step on them for 12 hours.” Indeed, after the launch party, according to Sandilands, the public opening was further delayed a week due to the “wonky” tiles needing to be realigned.
Not only did the freshly-laid tiles mean that the event planners couldn’t do a run through – which would involve then prime minister Jenny Shipley turning all the lights on – it meant that the food stalls couldn’t access their own facilities. They each had to prepare 1000 servings of food offsite, and run them back to the building.
The next hitch came when Shipley stood in front of the thousand-strong crowd to pull the ceremonial lever. “All the lights were supposed to go on. Nobody had seen that building before, so it was the first time the public had been allowed into what was a magnificent building with the whole mixture of aluminium and glass. It was quite beautiful,” says Sandilands.
Shipley pulled the level and nothing happened. The six storey space remained shrouded in darkness. Sandilands was mortified. “They’d forgotten to tell us there was a 10-second delay. 10 seconds has never seemed so long in my life.”
When the building was finally illuminated, guests marvelled at the strange, futuristic interior. Metal bridges criss-crossed in the sky until they reached the ceiling, several stories high. The escalators didn’t go where people thought they’d go. Black and yellow tiles, barely affixed, covered the floor. On the north wall, lights shone through six stories of structural glass. At the dusk of the 20th century, they were transported to the 21st.
Or at least one man’s idea of it.
“I got quite inspired by the film Blade Runner,” says Ashley Allen, one of the three architects behind Skyworld.
When Allen speaks of Skyworld, it’s with the sort of pride reserved for the success of a distant family member. He designed the building more than 20 years ago, along with Jamie Simpkin and Peter Diprose. “I like the idea that when you come into the building, there’s an adventure,” he says. “But also, each time you’re thinking, ‘How do I get from here to there?’ and it’s a different experience.”
In the original plans the architects had conjured up an even wilder vision than the cyberpunk labyrinth that the Auckland public got. There were meant to be projector screens which would change daily, and a large LED screen with a waterfall down one side. “We would laugh and come up with great ideas. Unfortunately, the client and budget couldn’t keep up with our imagination and so we had to crop a lot of the really fun stuff.”
The distinctive black and yellow tiles at the Queen Street entrance were also the result of a happy accident. Originally, it was intended to be like a Paua shell, but when Allen received the full shipment of tiles, they had nowhere near the lightness and colour of the original sample he was sent. However, due to an issue at a tile factory in Italy, involving Ferrari cancelling a large order, he ended up getting the distinctive bright yellow tiles that dot the ground floor of the centre.
It’s not the only remarkable thing about the Queen Street entrance.
Originally, the building was meant to level off with the footpath but, at the last minute, the council vetoed the plan. Allen remains unclear as to why. It was too late to change the height of the building, so the emergency fix saw the installation of steps, unspooling down into the building in a treacherous semi-circle. That didn’t just make the building less accessible from Queen Street. It also prevented potentially lucrative events like car launches being held in the venue. The steps did find favour, however, with one group, Auckland’s emo kids nesting between Burger King and Borders in the mid-2000s.
The wildest proposition from the original plans had nothing to do with what could go on the floor, but what could go in the sky. “There would be a big airship floating above the building which was going to have a whole lot of searchlights, so it was beaming around the place,” says Allen. “Then, we were going to have an airship on the inside of the building up on the ceiling doing the opposite with searchlights going down.”
The client, Force Entertainment, did not share this vision.
While the inside of the Skyworld building is indisputably strange, the facade has had a lot of thought put into it regarding its austerity: this place is meant to stick around. If you look at Aotea Square from across Queen Street, the tower of Skyworld, which used to house Starbucks, forms a gateway with the Town Hall. “In the olden days, churches and town halls were the highlights of cities. Now, unfortunately, high rises are way beyond all that stuff. But I was keen to try and create something that was a permanent building that would last decades and centuries,” says Allen.
This explains the round stone tower, which is the same height as the Town Hall. Allen hopes that if Skyworld were ever to be knocked down, the corner tower would be historically preserved. “Those two things would then remain as the gateway into the square forever. That’s why we did it with stone, so that it would last 200 years plus without any problems.” The rest of the building was made with glass, spirals, and structural glazing which was new to the country of the time. The contrast of the ultra modern against the simplicity of stone, as he puts it.
Another ultra-modern and ultra-memorable feature of Skyworld is also the thing that Allen is proudest of: That rocket lift.
The lift was designed and manufactured by a Finnish company, Kunki, and shipped to New Zealand. At the time, it was the largest rocket lift in the world, and even though the bottom of it has been removed – which Allen calls “sacrilege” – he believes that it still holds that prestigious title. “I like it when I see children go in there, and they look up at the atrium space, and there’s often a ‘Wow!’”
“I love to see kids doing that and I think that if architecture could do that more often, it’d be more successful. So much of architecture is people playing it safe and I’d much rather a building that people hate or love than just another building.”
Allen talks about one thing that he’s happy that has remained: A seven storey void on the north face of the complex, which runs right from the ground to the roof. It’s not just a window but a glazed structure, with spiders and bolts connecting it to the adjoining walls. When the sun comes through the Bledisloe Building at just the right angle, you see the shadow of the glazing on the aluminium sheet.
Still, that is only once a day. When Allen discusses the state of the building now, it’s with an air of sadness. “The Aotea front has been destroyed, it’s just crap. The inside, the food court and the upper levels has become a hodgepodge of stuff. The basement is just dreadful, disgusting.”
The trouble years
The 21 year-long history of the Force Entertainment Centre has not been a simple one: it involves multiple owners, countless tenants, and rebrandings upon rebrandings. Few of these have changed or expanded on the vision that was once had for the building, and many have detracted from it. Glamour is not the first word that comes to mind.
At one point, this split could be seen the moment you came across the building. On one side of the entrance? Borders Books, a multi-level beloved mainstay of the building until its closure in 2012. On the other? The messiest Burger King on Queen Street, frequented by uni students on lunch breaks or tipsy trips home from town.
Planet Hollywood, one of the highest profile tenants, pushed back its open date multiple times to December 18, nearly half a year after the rest of the complex had done so. Rumours of celebrity guests to the newly opened attraction were rife. Reports that Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere would attend the opening were unfounded. Some celebrities did make the trip, though. Christina Aguilera made an appearance, as did her pop princess counterpart Mandy Moore. Robin Williams attended the premiere of Bicentennial Man with his family.
Less than four years on, Planet Hollywood closed in July 2003, citing changing consumer trends.
In 2000, tragedy struck. A teenager fell 30 metres from the top floor, and later died in hospital. The accident led to new rails being installed on every bridge, from the first floor to to the sixth. It would also not be the last death to happen in the complex. In 2005, a man fell from the sixth floor onto the food court floor. Another man was found dead in the cinema one night that same year.
In 2001, Force Corporation suffered significant financial hardship, reporting a $47.5m loss. Even before the building had opened, it had ended up costing $10 million more than the estimate of $60 million. It staved off receivership when Sky City Investments bought 50.2% of the shares, and repaid a loan that Force owed to the primary investor, MTM Entertainment. The iMax screen closed briefly in 2002, citing low sales and a bad year for blockbusters, and restaurant Teatro closed barely a year after launching. Other high end venues – restaurant Open, bar Ming – closed shortly after.
The building was rebranded as the Metro Centre. This name survives on the side of the building that faces the Aotea Square, and on a banner at the rear entrance.
SkyCity later sold the building to Orchard Funds Management, only to lease it back from those owners. It was then sold to JNJ Investments in 2011. The company executed plans to incorporate more entertainment and leisure activities, which included the second level being converted to include hobby shops like Vagabond Games and a branch of EB Games. In 2012, fast food joint Carl’s Jr replaced Borders Books. Metro Bowling Lanes, later renamed Metrolanes, opened where Planet Hollywood used to be. The basement was developed into an indoor maze and a mini golf course.
In 2016, the second floor of the complex opened a food court – intended as a more upmarket version of the ground-floor space. The offerings included a teppanyaki restaurant, an Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant, and the wildly popular PappaRich, a Malaysian chain restaurant. These are all now closed.
The complex made headlines yet again in 2017 when RNZ reported that the building had not had a WoF for 435 days. The building was refused a warrant because of fire safety issues, including faulty smoke detection equipment. The building was reportedly given a backdated WoF on the written promise from James Kwak, the sole director of JNJ Holdings.
Several fire protection companies told RNZ that the reason why Kwak was unable to obtain a WoF was his refusal to pay contractors. RNZ’s attempts to contact Kwak were unsuccessful, even when Fleming approached Kwak directly, as seen in a video in which he appears to pretend to be somebody else.
The complex has been quiet since lockdown, but it’s only this year that true silence and abandonment has settled in, at least on the ground floor. According to freelance journalist Chris Schulz, as reported in his excellent series of posts on the complex and a feature in the latest Metro magazine, there have been disputes between ex-tenants Coffee Club and Kwak, and future potential design plans that include a floating bar and a totally new external look.
Most of the things that made Skyworld special, under any of its names, have well and truly left the building. Planet Hollywood, Borders, a massive $5 bowl of chips from a Pizza Planet that they would drown in sour cream, that Chinese place that would let you pile your small dish from the smorgasbord as high as you could physically get it.
Even what’s left feels like a remnant of people’s memories. The deep red carpet of that spiral staircase where tens of millions of people have trudged up to the cinemas. The basement arcade, a ghost of the once-bustling second floor arcade. The tables, where you once had to fight to get an empty seat on a Friday night, still lay out on the floor.
But when the sun shines through those seven stories of glass at that one angle, at least one moment, once a day, Skyworld isn’t just a place you used to go, a place where the escalators seemed to go everywhere but where you needed.
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