Architecture photographer (and writer) Patrick Reynolds was on hand to take photographs of The Hotel Britomart as the scaffolding was removed from its exterior and the building’s brick facade was revealed. Here, he talks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about the building and the changes he’s seeing in downtown Auckland.
JEREMY HANSEN: Now the scaffolding has come down, you’ve just photographed exterior shots of The Hotel Britomart for us [The Hotel Britomart opens in October]. You’ve been photographing architecture for a couple of decades now. What do you like about this building?
PATRICK REYNOLDS: It’s a beautiful building. A great addition to the city on a very tricky site - it’s hard to get some useful floor area out of a tightly constrained site with existing heritage buildings beside it. I’m impressed. I’m really looking forward to seeing it at night when the two glazed volumes are lit - the dramatic, dynamic thing of having a suspended massed volume floating over a transparent ground floor. This will make the tower above seem to float, contrasting with the similar glazed volume on top of the heritage Buckland Building. At night those two elements will sort of ‘do a little dance’ with each other; above and below their respective monumental forms. I love the texture and the use of brick. It’s a really interesting decision to kind of mimic the existing buildings in brick but contemporise it by using flush windows. These read like bubbles rising through the bricky mass, or perhaps holding it afloat; there’s a sophisticated playfulness to it.
As well as photography, you’ve spent a lot of the last few years writing about cities, and Auckland in particular. Which makes me think you’ll be keen on the laneway that skirts the ground floor of The Hotel Britomart and passes through heritage Masonic House to Customs Street.
I’m really looking forward to the laneway. A really good city is like a coral reef: It’s full of little corners and increased social interactions when every bit gets used. That’s what you want in the city centre. You want surprise and things that don’t reveal themselves fully, so they invite you in. I think one of the geniuses of the Melbourne laneways is that a couple of them have doglegs so you can’t see through to the next street and are invited down them to see around the corner. You want your city to tease and flirt with you in that way. There’s a grandeur with a big boulevard, but you soon tire of that and want to duck into a little bar or alley, and Auckland has lacked that.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the economic impact of Covid-19 on cities, especially as Auckland Council contemplate significant budget cuts.
I think we should be much more ambitious and realise how free we are to reinvent the city in ways that are appropriate to this century. Budget contractions can be helpful in that they force choice – we have to choose this project over that, and it can force some creativity and low-cost interventions over another big dig, so long as there are people with the talent and the vision to carry it out. The first order of business is we have to get ourselves on the right side of the energy transition and on climate action, because it is a competition and the cities that get there first will have an enormous competitive advantage. In the city centre, we have to significantly reduce the domination of the streets by private vehicles. We learned in lockdown how glorious it is without that noise and those fumes. We need to free the streets up for essential transit and service and delivery vehicles and, mostly, for people. People are the social and economic engine of the city and we’re yet to exploit that resource well. I remain an optimist about Auckland’s urban revival, which has been going on really since 2003 when Britomart station opened, bringing people into downtown and enabling the opening up of the streets and buildings above. The hiccup of Covid will not arrest this progress.
I also think that, on a global scale, small cities like Auckland are in many ways where it’s at. I’m more concerned about the council disbanding its only concentrated design team than I am about the budget cuts impacting the city. If a city isn’t design-led, it isn’t led at all.
So you don’t see the experience of Covid-19 as a threat to cities.
It’s likely that some work from home will remain sticky; it will suit some people and practices. But I don’t see that as a threat to the city. If it frees up some office space for other uses, that’s OK because right now we’re at full occupancy anyway. I know of a few whole companies that plan to move entirely to work from home, and I know of individuals and companies who are desperate to get back to their offices for the socialising and the lunch options. So I’m hoping that our new sophistication with distance communication means there’s less need to fly a long way for one meeting, but in the same city there’s still a lot of value in meeting face-to-face. The power of the city is its infinite adaptability; its death has been predicted so many time before; they always rise again, often renewed, from even the worst insults.
The Hotel Britomart is opening to what will initially be a domestic market. What are Auckland’s best features now, do you think?
To another New Zealander from outside the city, Auckland has size and vitality. It used to be heartless and centreless and that’s changed. We’re getting better at linking the city to its natural features and we’re getting better at this cityness and urbanity. I’m very much looking forward to the vitality that Commercial Bay will bring, especially once the linking public realm is complete.
Britomart, Commercial Bay and Wynyard Quarter have shifted the centre of gravity of the city to the waterfront. I’m very optimistic about the city centre. Now midtown is going to have to step up to this challenge. Luckily the City Centre Master Plan, and particularly the traffic reduction plan called Access For Everyone, is all approved and ready to be implemented to make that area newly competitive with the waterfront. Improvement in one area demands other areas lift their game too. The Queen Street valley with a new de-trafficked laneway network radiating up from a rejuvenated main street will continue this place-quality improvement through the city. All the way, eventually, to the funkiness of K Rd. It is important to remember this regeneration is built on the power of the City Rail Link, because it is always true, particularly in cities, that form follows transport.