Image is everything

Chris Barton of The New Zealand Herald produced an interesting piece addressing how perception of proposals can both aid and hinder getting the public on board. He looks at what impact a few drawings of the now defunct Stadium NZ (RIP) had on public perception of what was(n’t) to be.

Again I’m seeking permission, in the meantime I’ll post both links and article.

Lies, damned lies and architects’ drawings.
Chris Barton

Blame Pete Bossley. It was his architectural firm which did the drawing that did the damage. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a giant circular object had landed. The pictures told a strange story. An enormous flattened egg sat on platform at the inner reaches of the Manukau harbour – in a tidal backwater beside an industrial wasteland. It was joined to the shore by two pathways. It throbbed from below and pulsed from the top with white light. It was alive.

Bossley had not just laid an egg in the Manukau mud, he had paved the way for others to lay similarly outrageous eggs at the water’s edge. And so the rugby stadium drawings, videos and propaganda multiplied. For weeks Aucklanders were engaged in an epic battle. It was bizarre.

The city, noted for its absence of beautiful buildings, was engaged in an architectural argument – about aesthetics.

I first met Pete Bossley in the ’70s when we were in 2nd year at the Auckland School of Architecture. He was always destined to be a star. Bossley stood out from the rest because of his masterful drawing. While most of us were still learning how to put our creations onto paper, Bossley, already a fluent draughtsman, could immediately render his with a slick, persuasive pen.

These days of course the pen has given way to computers, 3D walk/fly-throughs, animations and special-effects videos. But with all this persuasive technology at architects’ fingertips, why did Aucklanders say no? Were the designs and the renderings simply no good? Many accused Aucklanders of lacking in vision, but perhaps the vision we were presented with was lacking.

Bossley’s Manukau folly had the classic hallmark of the architect in creative play – the aerial view. But this was more than a plan, it was in 3D and animated – a god’s eye perspective, looking down on one’s work and seeing it was good.

The problem with the view from on high is that it’s not the way mere mortals typically see the world. So that when an image from altitude arrives – in a newspaper, on TV or a website – it’s always challenging to take on board. And because it’s something new in someone’s backyard, almost always alarming.

It’s not the first time Bossley has dropped his vision into the water on an unsuspecting Auckland. Many will remember the glass-encased structure he plonked in the harbour by Princes Wharf as a memorial to Sir Peter Blake. Interestingly, the vision was presented, not as an aerial image but as side-on perspective viewed from the wharf opposite. And although the scheme has attracted controversy, and has been considerably scaled back from its first incarnation, it has survived and managed to capture both government and Auckland City funding.

In contrast, the first renderings of the Waitemata waterfront stadium were mostly aerial views. As was the propaganda video. When it comes to winning over the public, this is a big mistake. Panoramic helicopter sweeps of gorgeous scenery are great for tourism promotions, but not for architecture that people have to live with. The overhead shots emphasised a monument to look at, rather than a place to inhabit.

Although the architects eventually released some ground level perspectives of their waterfront plans showing how the public would have access to the wharf, it was too little too late. Lesson one for architects from the stadium fiasco is: present your lofty vision with your feet on the ground.

But whatever the merits of Bossley’s egg in the Manukau or Warren and Mahoney’s translucent bedpan on the waterfront wharves, the aerial views we saw and debated so heatedly did express something about two crying needs – the wish for a modern civic building Auckland can be proud of and a longing to reclaim our water’s edge as a public space.

There’s no doubt Bossley’s design near the airport would have been an impressive sight for people flying into Auckland. The location would have also reintroduced Aucklanders to a part of the Manukau harbour long ago lost to dreadful urban planning. There was also the possibility that viewed from Mangere bridge, a white shell form hovering over the water could have looked quite stunning.

You couldn’t really say the same of the waterfront bedpan, which was also called an “ill-conceived haemorrhoid cushion”. Both descriptions indicate a displeased response to what the aerial views presented. There was another response too – that the object on the wharves would be a barrier to the harbour. The impression wasn’t helped by the first images of what a waterfront stadium might look like – a picture of the 66,000-seat Allianz Stadium in Munich transplanted onto the Auckland site, somewhat out of scale, by various media organisations’ graphic artists. The net effect was a massive wall on the wharves. Lesson two for architects: if information gets out about your building plans, make sure you have your drawings ready.

Not that the images that we finally got for the Warren and Mahoney design were much better. Despite a polished video including a stirring haka soundtrack, the images were unconvincing. The video began with an aerial panorama of the city showing how enormous the stadium was, then swung around to a view from the harbour, once again showing what we all knew – there would be a big visual barrier on the waterfront.

Warren and Mahoney tried to limit the effect of this barrier by encasing the structure in glass. But there was no escaping the fact that high stands seating 60,000 people would be made of impenetrable concrete. Belatedly the architects delivered an image that Aucklanders were aching for – a perspective outside the stadium along the wharf showing people strolling while others sat at restaurant tables and enjoyed the harbour view . There was even a suggestion of a beach with some folk wading in the shallows and others swimming. Anyone who knows Auckland’s wharf water – murky turquoise and scummy – knows the idea of swimming there is impossible. The drawing lied, but the image of a beach at the foot of Queen Street was entirely appealing. One can only speculate what might have happened had this drawing been showed first.

But in terms of botched designs, and probably the real reason why alternative stadium designs proliferated, the first Jasmax design for Eden Park takes the cake. Even though there were scale models and drawings galore, it was impossible to ignore the major design flaw. It wasn’t a stadium at all, it was half a stadium with a bit missing at one end – a tragic compromise that looked cheap and incomplete.

As alternative stadium locations emerged, Eden Park eventually woke up and revealed its grand design – a full stadium in the round. It wasn’t an inspiring structure, but at least it was a proper stadium. But once again the images presented worked against it – aerial shots highlighting the enormous bulk of the thing and views from the outside showing towering walls, apparently to allay residents concerns about the impact it would have on their neighbourhood. The killer drawing is hiding on the Eden Park website – a view from a seat high up at in the new stand at one end of the ground, with the stadium packed with people and the All Blacks playing on the field below. Corny, yes. But it was an image where one could hear and feel the roar of a 60,000 crowd at Eden Park.

The last word in the stadium debate goes to children’s book author Jonathan Gunson who, late in the piece, came up with the “waka stadium” design. It was a preposterous image. The new wharf platform had been transformed into a canoe with an enormous 290 metre waka prow decorated with Maori motifs. Entrance to the wharf was through a similarly massive gable gate also with Maori carvings. And the bowl of the stadium had become the hull of boat complete with oars – a tubby Noah’s ark.

It too was an aerial perspective – the best shot being one where the waka seemed to be towing the entire city out to sea. As a piece of kitsch mimetic architecture – mimicking the shape of an object not normally associated with building – it was superb. Gunson says he did it only to get attention and to show what might be possible on such a great waterfront site – something to rival the Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately what’s now proposed – a jumble pile of random curves and geometry – shows Gunson should stick to writing children’s books.

But Gunson’s waka did express a sentiment that many felt during the stadium controversy. There is nothing inherently wrong with putting a big building on the waterfront – it just needs to be good. The past few weeks have also shown the city is ready and willing to have an architectural debate. Bring on more eggs, bedpans and waka. Bring on the rhetoric, architects’ egos and the inevitable disagreement. But we know also that Aucklanders can never agree on anything. So if there is to be a waterfront transformation make sure the drawings, 3D walk-throughs and videos are superb. Go ahead. Convince me.


Filed under Architecture, Design

2 responses to “Image is everything

  1. Peter Entwisle

    It’s true you can put people off a good design by showing them the wrong view of it – although I don’t think that’s what happened with the Auckland waterfront stadium.

    In Dunedin you do need to show people a high view of the Awatea Street proposal because that’s how thousands will most often see it – because of Dunedin’s much greater elevation. The hill suburbs on both sides of the harbour will unavoidably look down on it 24/7.

    But from above or beside it at street level the offered design is a Skoda.

  2. But Peter, surely this is a lot easier on the eye than Mitre 10 Mega. This commercial eyesore has little civic function yet was allowed to proceed.

    I know which building I would rather be looking down upon and it isn’t that orange monstrosity that just dominates every photo up the harbour from the hills these days – argh.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s