Wraight + Associates and Taylor Cullity Lethlean have domesticated a waterfront in Auckland, New Zealand (though you can still smell the fish).
By Gweneth Leigh, ASLA
For more than 30 years, shipping activity within historic ports has been in rapid decline. Facilities are often relocated to larger and more modernized harbors where the machinery is bigger, the roads are closer, and the waters are deeper. Left behind is a postindustrial waterfront that’s seen by the city as an opportunity for a glamorous maritime makeover. But in the effort to maximize development profits, these face-lifts often erase the industrial beauty marks that make these places unique. In their place, generic recipes are followed for creating comfortable waterfront living: one part cobblestone street, two parts pedestrian walkway, a healthy dose of waterside eateries, with a dash of history through a moored two-mast schooner. The experience may be clean and comfortable, but it’s also terribly bland.
The Wynyard Quarter waterfront in Auckland, New Zealand, is different. It’s a landscape that has been mopped, but not sterilized. Active maritime industries cling to the edges of the site and activate it with a purpose that isn’t sugar-coated. The discord of a lunchtime stroll can include the smell of raw fish being loaded into delivery vans, the cacophony of passengers boarding a ferry to Devonport, the thunderclap of dump trucks towing loads of sand, or the shrill of an orbital sander against the hull of a private yacht worth more than my house. Old rusted rails splice through a patched concrete promenade and veer off to unobvious end points. Industrial silos stand as relics on the site and reinforce the scale and purpose of the surrounding machinery and equipment. While there’s a smell and sound to the site that isn’t always pleasant, it’s anything but dull.
The atmosphere of this working waterfront is unapologetic about the day-to-day operations amid latte-drinking onlookers. It brings to mind how genius loci—the spirit of a place—relies not just on physical form, but also the way people engage with and validate the authenticity of its features.
This quality in particular captivated the jury for the 2014 Rosa Barba Prize in Barcelona, which chose the waterfront project from among 11 finalists for its top honor. “It’s not a fake, touristic, and commercial waterfront,” said the jury chair, Michael van Gessel. “The life, tradition, and essence of the harbor is kept intact.”
Once known as the Tank Farm owing to the high number of petrol and liquid chemical storage facilities, the site was formerly heralded by many residents as one of the ugliest in Auckland. The area is part of the Wynyard Quarter—the city’s newest evolving waterfront neighborhood—and comprises about 86 acres of reclaimed land in Waitemata Harbour, along the western edge of Auckland’s waterfront. Nearly two miles of this is coastal frontage. From along the western edge of the site, one can see across the harbor to Westhaven Marina, one of the largest yacht marinas in the Southern Hemisphere.
The area has a long history, stretching back to the 1800s, when it was known as the Western Reclamation and was primarily made of built-out land for the port’s industries. Since then, the site has supported a diversity of commercial activities, including maritime supplies and services (such as diving and navigation equipment, motor refitting for boats, and fish processing facilities); terminals for oil storage and bulk liquids distribution, including ship-to-shore transfers of petroleum and other products; a bulk cement wharf; and storage of dredged sand for use in construction projects. Up until the late 2000s, some 550,000 tons of liquids and cement were transported from Wynyard Wharf annually. However, recent changes in bulk liquid transportation, the introduction of a petroleum and gas pipeline in northern Auckland, and the expiration of site industrial leases made this a precinct in search of new purpose.
In the mid-2000s, the Auckland government converted the site into a mixed-use precinct of residential and commercial development, spurred by planning requirements for hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2011. The intention was to roll out the development over a 20-year time frame, with emphasis on increasing park and waterfront access. Critical to this focus was keeping the wharf edge open to fishing fleets and maritime industry as a way to retain an activated waterfront.
Directors Perry Lethlean, International ASLA, from Taylor Cullity Lethlean in Australia, and Megan Wraight, ASLA, from Wraight + Associates in New Zealand, were the landscape architects hired in 2008 to work in partnership on the strategic planning and design development for stage one of the revitalization. This first phase of work was seen as a catalyst for activating the site and providing a design template for successive precinct projects. Opened in August 2011, the project area focused on the delivery of the public realm within the central harbor area including North Wharf Promenade, Jellicoe Street, and Silo Marina, encompassing a total of 8.4 acres of roads, waterfront, tank farms, and storage sites.
The site design is organized around three primary movements. The waterfront promenade along North Wharf allows people to engage with the harbor edge and its active marine industries. Jellicoe Street sets up a conventional shared street character with dense verge plantings that provide a sheltered contrast to the open sea and sky of North Wharf. The waterfront promenade and Jellicoe Street both lead to Silo Park, a green wedge of open space consisting of a generous lawn and seating area and punctuated by a remnant industrial silo. According to Lethlean, the design team intentionally referred to the space as Silo Park early on to prevent removing the park’s namesake, Silo 7, a concrete tower that previously held substantial amounts of cement. The tactic worked.
Along the northwest edge of Silo Park, one can climb three stories to the top of the Gantry, a 320-foot-long, 30-foot-high elevated walkway (and enter “Gantryland,” as Wraight puts it). From here, visitors are provided a view of the site from the height of the nearby industrial tanks.
The Gantry creates an edge that marks the boundary of the petrochemical industry beyond toward Wynyard Point, a site that is scheduled to change drastically in the next decade into what is termed “premier waterfront living.” As this new development takes shape, the intention is for the Gantry to stay in place, marking the edge between these evolving landscapes. “It becomes quite a good filter,” Wraight says, “and I don’t think we envisaged it quite like that. More as a folly and a bit of constructed infrastructure.”
During initial site investigations, the design team took a forensic approach that carefully identified and mapped existing features. Artifacts were discovered from the site’s maritime and industrial histories that weren’t picked up in the initial master plan, including rail grooves, massive precast block walls, and nautical furnishings such as mooring bollards and cast iron tying rings for fishing vessels. “[The client] probably thought they would be erasing most of these qualities to transform it into a bright and shiny new contemporary city,” Lethlean says. “Our first impression was to say, ‘Hang on, this is an incredible site with such rich layers to it.’” The design team recognized the uniqueness of this found landscape and focused on ways to embrace rather than remove it. While the council was receptive to the idea of retaining this character, it required a shift to understand how this would inform future development. “There are not a lot of precedents that are close to the Auckland experience,” Lethlean says. “We said this was a rare opportunity for them.”
The morning that I arrived at the site, a bright yellow fishing vessel was moored to the harbor while another in more neutral colors of navy and rust shuddered in the waves nearby. Two men were stacking crates inside the boat, while a hefty man outfitted in a bright yellow vest hauled an empty dolly into the back of a small delivery truck and closed its doors.
The contrast of maritime uses bookending the site—the juxtaposition of the “slick and the grit,” as Wraight calls it—provides two very different waterfront experiences. At the eastern end you have the docking point for rusty commercial fishing vessels to undertake the smelly day-to-day operations of loading provisions and off-loading catches of fish, many of which are taken to a processing facility and fish market along Jellicoe Street. Along the western end of the site you have the gloss and glamour of Silo Marina, a sought-after anchorage for superyachts in the South Pacific.
Retaining—and supporting—these different industries required careful understanding of how they worked and operated. Close consultation with the fishing industry, the offshore ferry service providers, and the luxury yacht servicers was important to account for the practicalities such as the turning radiuses for wharf vehicles, the requirements for loading and unloading cargo from fishing vessels, and understanding necessary level changes between boats and the wharf. Added to this was the challenge of keeping the as-found conditions while introducing the friction of pedestrians and cyclists into the mix of daily maritime tasks.
The result is an interactive experience of navigating around operational vehicles delivering anything from ice to electrical goods; watching workers go about their jobs with determined purpose, whether on boats or from the back of vans outfitted with supplies; and meandering with joggers, families, retired seniors, and lunching office workers in taking a lap down North Wharf to see the sights. Issues of safety are put back upon the users. As the wharf is predominantly open with only a few points barricaded off, it’s up to pedestrians to be mindful where they walk. (One fisherman was keen to forewarn the risks of the site, having witnessed people falling in and struggling to get out owing to few access points near the fishing dock.)
Although efforts were made to design North Wharf as the primary docking point for fishing vessels, most of the ships have opted to use an area of the dock running perpendicular to the site, where delivery vans and trucks can do their job with fewer interactions with passersby. While the design has posed some logistical challenges for fishermen, such as proximity of delivery trucks to ships (the gap is too big) or the disruption of illegally parked cars, the fishermen I spoke with weren’t terribly fussed. “We just need to load and unload, then we’re off for six weeks,” one said with a shrug. A sandy-haired fisherman wearing a Sanford shirt was more positive. “Gives us a place to get a beer after work,” he grinned.
The approach to intertwining the old and the new extended to the use of materials. Existing elements distinctive to the site—such as the silos, precast industrial blocks, and old navigation buoys—were either kept in situ or repurposed. New materials were designed in a way that reinforced the existing material qualities, but didn’t replicate the older elements; there would be a clear distinction between what was new and old. “This was identified as a real strategy at the beginning, which drove our thinking, our design work, and detailed design,” Lethlean says.
The outcome is a wharf that reveals different histories. Approximately a quarter of a mile of old rail buried beneath layers of asphalt was uncovered, cleaned up, and fixed down to prevent tripping hazards. Concrete pavement was patched in areas and intentionally kept looking weathered. Industrial concrete blocks were repurposed to form waterfront steps near the superyachts, as well as converted into seats. Polished wooden benches align the southern edge of the Silo Park wetland, revealing the wall of the original wharf prior to reclamation. Brightly colored crates are clustered in front of the dining areas along North Wharf to create informal seating, inspired by the containers used for hauling supplies and catches off the fishing boats.
Jellicoe Street provides a more intimate environment where a series of rainwater gardens and wide pedestrian paths indicate the car is tolerated, but not prioritized. A series of cafés and restaurants aligns the street, punctuated by the strong fishy odor of Sanford’s fish market at the western end. The ambitious planting strategy was inspired by its history as a coastal inlet. Turning away from the more European-modeled streetscapes that dominate Auckland, the design team took inspiration from places like Singapore (a similar Pacific subtropical environment) and incorporated a diverse palette of trees, shrubs, and ground covers planted at high densities. Tree species—including karaka, pohutukawa, puriri, taraire, and nikau—were selected to indicate the verdant forests that once came down to Auckland’s shores. The gardens were also designed to be oversized for purposes of filtering and cleansing stormwater, necessary as the ground throughout the site is contaminated from its previous use storing oil and petrol. Self-seeding of the plantings in the swales has been promoted as evidence of ecological clout.
Although the revitalized waterfront quickly gained a popular following, the site experienced growing pains during the first few months of opening. Auckland has some of the highest vehicle ownership in the world—a fact that the city is actively trying to change. The introduction of a shared waterfront environment that prioritized people over cars presented a different paradigm. “In the first month, we had vehicles landing in garden beds, poking over waterfront edges, crashing into things—not in a dangerous way, but it was an environment they weren’t used to. And I think it was a very challenging time for the client, as they try to figure out what have we got here,” Lethlean says. It took people a while to realize that to truly experience the waterfront, they needed to get out of their cars. Traffic management devices such as additional line markings and bollards provided solutions in the short term.
Six years on, it’s apparent how the careful planning and activation of Jellicoe Street, North Wharf, and Silo Park have helped spur additional development within the Wynyard Quarter. Amid the construction sites are newly finished fragments of public realm that float like jetsam in this transitioning precinct: an industrial-themed play structure, large pieces of machinery repurposed as sculpture, raised beds of a community garden, a piano tucked inside a shipping container. They are the interior pieces of a larger urban puzzle, slotted into approximate locations and inviting use while waiting to be joined at the edges.
The city isn’t afraid to experiment within its public spaces. Walking through the broader precinct reveals frequent patches of fake grass, deck chairs, and shipping containers filled with movable parts in an effort to engage and appeal. These trial interventions are recorded by time-lapse cameras to test design principles and understand what works, what doesn’t, and what needs changing to become more user-friendly. Panuku, the quasi-public agency charged with developing the project, is also measuring, monitoring, and sharing data through its website, Wynyard Quarter Smart, which measures sustainability outcomes for the precinct on topics such as building performance, resource efficiency, environmental quality, and transport.
By this time next year, 600 new dwellings are expected to be finished and ready for occupants. What’s currently a large excavated pit at the eastern end of Jellicoe Street will become a 200-room Hyatt hotel. The office of Auckland Tourism has taken a head lease to put some 500,000 square feet of commercial space in what will become the Wynyard Quarter Innovation Precinct.
Because it’s a working waterfront, the council is honest about the realities of the site, smelly fish and all. Residential investors are required to sign disclosure agreements, which confirm there’s no objection to any of the activities that are happening in the quarter.
Toward the end of my site visit, I passed beneath the Gantry at Silo Park into the untouched industrial area of Wynyard Wharf. The landscape here was a stark contrast to the buzz of activity along the waterfront promenade. There were few footpaths, and even fewer people. Tall chain-link fences followed property lines with signs warning of site hazards. As leases expire for the bulk liquid industries that operate here, it’s expected that the area will be empty of industrial activity by 2026. What’s left behind will be the Wynyard Quarter’s next highly contested space for development—and the next chapter in the story of its waterfront, from the slick to the grit and beyond.
Gweneth Leigh, ASLA, is a landscape architect and freelance writer based in Canberra, Australia. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Landscape Architect/Urban Designer Taylor Cullity Lethlean, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and Wraight + Associates, Wellington, New Zealand. Project Management MPM Projects, Auckland, New Zealand. Environmental Engineering DesignFlow, Adelaide, South Australia. Lighting eCubed Building Workshop, Auckland, New Zealand. Structural/Civil Engineering Beca, Auckland, New Zealand.