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The Sky Tower looking iconic (Photo by: Bob Henry/Getty Images)
The Sky Tower looking iconic (Photo by: Bob Henry/Getty Images)

SocietyFebruary 23, 2024

Is the Sky Tower New Zealand’s only truly iconic building?

The Sky Tower looking iconic (Photo by: Bob Henry/Getty Images)
The Sky Tower looking iconic (Photo by: Bob Henry/Getty Images)

Love it or hate it, the big needle has given Auckland an identity. Architect Mat Brown reviews the Sky Tower.

The idea of being “iconic” is difficult, especially in architecture. It’s a complex mix of opportunity, execution and luck.

The opportunities for iconic buildings are rare. When you think of iconic buildings you think of the Sydney Opera House, the White House and the Eiffel Tower. They tend to be highly visible, sometimes because they are tall, but often because their prominence is protected by a harbour or public space. Those sites don’t come around often.

When they do it doesn’t mean that any building will become iconic. You can try too hard. Simple ideas tend to succeed. To become representative of a place, a building needs to be easily recognisable and photogenic. Being “iconic” in architecture is a visual pursuit, and it’s not always predictable.

Te Papa might have been iconic for Wellington. It‘s in a prominent location, a public building and relatively free from constraints that might influence what it looks like. The ingredients were there but when you search “Wellington” in Google images, you need to scroll past twenty six photos of the cable car (I counted them), smatterings of the Beehive and a number of Beef Wellingtons before you get to a photo of Te Papa.

When you Google “Auckland” every image on the first page is of the Sky Tower. Perhaps a Google search isn’t a true test of iconography, but it does highlight a role the Sky Tower plays.

Sky Tower
The Sky Tower has come to define Auckland city’s skyline. Photo: Getty

We are, by and large, social animals. There are lots of benefits to gathering together and cities are the infrastructure that enables that to happen. They help us be with each other and give us something to belong to. In turn they become representative of us. Readers outside of Auckland will have a view of what an Aucklander is.

It’s been 30 years since the concrete tube of Auckland’s Sky Tower started to push up through the skyline. Gordon Moller, the tower’s architect, referred to it at the time as a pou whenua (land post), marking the city. While the city around it has grown, the tower has been a constant. It’s made the city recognisable – a visual representation of the thing Aucklanders belong to. But this mightn’t have been the case.

Sky City (or Harrah’s Casino as it was originally called) was an alternative to a project originally planned on Khyber Pass Road. As a substitute it needed to closely match the original proposal, on a much smaller site. The casino, car parking, hotel, theatre, restaurants and observation tower were all replicated. The Sky Tower’s main observation level is the same height above sea level as the original (but much shorter and cheaper) tower on top of the ridge.

The Hobson Street site sat beneath a view shaft between the top of Mt Eden and Northcote Point. The only opportunity for a tower existed within a small triangle of space in the northeastern corner. A slender structure, resistant to New Zealand’s earthquakes was needed and in order to recoup the cost of this much taller tower it was extended to support (and charge for) telecommunications equipment.

Sky Tower
A carefully balanced crane was used to help piece together the Sky Tower’s bigger, higher sections. Photo: Supplied

As commuters from the North Shore will attest, growth of the city to the west of the tower has been stunted. The view shaft over Hobson St has limited building height, forever protecting Sky Tower’s prominence. Now, whenever the tower is lit up to reflect the current celebration and mood of the city, Ponsonby ridge will always have an unobstructed view.

Its simplicity and elegance has proven timeless with one foot firmly in a Hume pipe’s sales yard, and the other in the Jetsons. Its uniform façade suggests no orientation and offers no cardinal favouritism, reinforcing that it is at the centre, around which everything else rotates.

And so an icon came into being. A combination of opportunity, execution and luck, fitting of the label.

Whether you love it or hate it (and there was plenty of hate), Auckland’s Sky Tower has given the city an identity. It has become a symbol of home to those who live there, and to those who no longer do, but hope to again. In the tradition of pou whenua it connects its people with their land.

Buildings do many things. Some are measurable but others aren’t. The best buildings contribute to society beyond their site, in ways that can’t be measured. The Sky Tower is one of those.

Mat Brown is an architect and co-presenter of 76 Small Rooms, a podcast about architecture in Aotearoa.

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