Unseen Auckland (Part 2)
My reveal of the Auckland Domain continues, and then I head for the magic of Parnell
This post carries on from Unseen Auckland.
NEAR the Auckland Domain’s duck pond, there is a small monument, erected in 1967 to commemorate one hundred years of the efforts of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, which ran part of the Domain from 1867 until partway through the 1880s. The Acclimatisation Society introduced Northern Hemisphere species to Aotearoa to try and make the country more like Britain. Some of these introductions were innocuous or valuable to farmers, while others proved disastrous.
There were some curious omissions. Stoats, weasels, and rabbits were all brought out to wreak havoc on New Zealand’s ecology. Yet even though it was also in charge of turning the Domain into something vaguely resembling a British park, the Acclimatisation Society never got around to introducing squirrels. As my sharp-eyed editor noticed this January, the equivalent ecological niche in the Domain seems to have been commandeered by the brown rat, another unfortunate import though not an intentional one in this case.
When you think about it, there probably isn’t that much difference between a squirrel and a rat. If rats had fluffy tails, they would probably be a lot more popular.
A statue of Robbie Burns was also erected in 1921, one of three or so castings of the same design by a noted British sculptor named Frederick William Pomeroy.
Burns is described in the inscription as “The peasant bard of Scotland/ the strong advocate of / UNIVERSAL FREEDOM / and / THE BROTHERHOOD OF MAN.”
The statue of Burns in the Auckland Domain is not as well-known as the quite different statue of a seated Burns in Dunedin’s Octagon, in part because a forest has since grown up around the Auckland sculpture.
Today, the statue of Burns in the Auckland Domain is almost overgrown by a forest, and you can only see Burns’s face from underneath
Next to the Robbie Burns statue, there is an immense Moreton Bay fig, an attraction in itself. Though the trees that are obscuring the peasant bard of Scotland are oaks, I think (another of the Acclimatisation Society’s brainwaves).
The 1920s was a decade of great change and building in Auckland, even though the city was much smaller than it is now.
The most conspicuous 1920s addition to the Domain is, of course, the Auckland War Memorial Museum: a vast neoclassical edifice at the very top of Pukaskwa.
The Auckland War Memorial Museum (AWMM) seems to be about the same size as the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra. And just as prominent on its hilltop site, though its exhibits are more general.
Under the three permanently flying flags on top, there is a frieze of military scenes that runs all around the building, as do the names of battles that New Zealanders have fought in, and, above the front entrance, a suitably inspirational quote from Thucydides.
The remarkable thing is that most of these achievements were enacted when Auckland had a population of about two hundred thousand, hardly much more than Hamilton, or Kirikiroa, today.
Anyway, as I mentioned, the exhibits of the Auckland War Memorial Museum are not confined to militaria. A recent addition is a world-first display of two genuine Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons side by side, one male and one female, though obviously, it is a bit late to resurrect the species.
To return to another point, while Grafton Gully may have been destroyed, the Auckland Domain still retains a large amount of rainforest, doubtless inherited from the days when it was known simply as Pukekawa: a name that in this case means the infertile hill, as volcanic rock close to the surface made Pukekawa difficult to cultivate. However, infertility is no barrier to rainforest species. The main thing they require is rain.
Here’s a view from the café, looking out over the duck pond on a very wet day, as you can tell from the newspaper headline. And a seat by the pond, on a slightly better day.
Rainy weather is unfortunately typical of Auckland summers. And for that matter Auckland winters, autumns, and springs.
The quid pro quo, however, is that Auckland and many other parts of Aotearoa New Zealand are full of lush green rainforest.
As the name suggests, rainforest, lush and green all year round, with moss and other epiphytes (parasite-plants) on the trees, only grows where it is rainy all year around.
Year-round drenching by rain is normal in the steamier parts of the tropics. But it is much less common in temperate regions, where winters are usually too freezing and summers usually too dry to support rainforest.
All rainforests are ferny and mossy. In the tropics and the Southern Hemisphere down to about the 45th parallel, rainforests also contain palm trees and giant tree ferns of the kind that dominate the Winter Garden Fernery.
In most of the Northern Hemisphere, tree ferns died out long ago. But because such ancient species survive in New Zealand and can be reached in reasonable comfort, New Zealand’s rainforest has been used as a backdrop for films and documentaries set in the dinosaur age.
Auckland is fairly warm. But it is the year-round rain more than anything else that gives the place a jungly look.
Close to the Robbie Burns statue and the nearby band rotunda, there’s a sign pointing to a historic garden with some more statuary.
The Watson Bequest Statues, created by the British-born William H Wright in 1938 or 1939, symbolise Auckland’s acquisition of strength, wisdom, and fertility after its first century of existence as a colonial and then ex-colonial seaport: an anniversary that arrived in 1940, the same year as the centenary of the Treaty of Waitangi, though the statues weren’t erected on their present spot until the mid-1950s.
Perhaps more remarkable than the statue group is the reflecting pond over which it stands, designed by Auckland’s talented Chief Architect of the time, the Hungarian-born Tibor Donner. In its irregular form, you can spot a bit of the same artistic tradition as the Austrian Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who has since had a museum opened in his honour up in Whangārei. Pretty rad for 1950s New Zealand, I think.
The plaque describing the statues is only visible if they’ve mowed the grass lately, and so, many people imagine these statues represent the three graces of Greek mythology. Even the sign, above, calls them the three muses (in reality there were three graces and nine muses.) Social media has persuaded others that they represent three witches executed on the spot in the days of excessive Puritanism. No, seriously. Roll on the new history curriculum in the schools — it’s needed!
But at least the reflecting pool protects the statues from being ram-raided, which was the fate, in May 2022, of perhaps the most internationally significant sculpture in the park, the Fountain of the Valkyries, sculpted before the First World War by Gilbert Bayes, after whom the Gilbert Bayes Sculpture Gallery of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is named.
According to the website of the Gilbert Bayes Trust, gilbertbayes.com, “He also produced the impressive fountain of the Valkyries, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1912.”
In a really useful 2015 blog post called ‘Cultural Colonising’, which includes a discussion of one of the statues in the Winter Garden as well as some of the statues in Albert Park, we read that:
Gilbert Bayes’ Fountain of the valkyries is one of these more remarkable examples of public sculpture to be found in the city. Prior to its acquisition by Richard Sydney Hellaby (1887–1971) — the self-exiled, artistic scion of an Auckland butchery chain — it had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1912 and, in 1917, reproduced — in colour — in the pre-eminent art journal of the time, the Studio.
Here is an early photo of the fountain in the Auckland Domain by J. W. Chapman-Taylor, a photographer who took many pictures of objects of public interest at the time.
A bronze rider blows a horn on top of a marble block with a bas-relief of valkyries riding horses all the way around it.
The marble block is perched on top of what seems to have been two bird-like figures. I wonder if they stood for the two mythological Norse ravens Huginn and Muninn? The beaks or faces of the bearers supplied the fountain streams.
The fountain was protected by a fence that was locked at 4 pm every day. But that didn’t stop the ram raiders who smashed down the fence and the fountain by crashing an automobile into them one night in May 2022 and making off with the bronze rider and base. The marble block was left behind in a damaged state, probably because it was too heavy to steal.
According to a Radio New Zealand story and some academic work, the trashing of public artworks is really epidemic in Aotearoa New Zealand these days, in ways that do often have a political or anti-colonial motive — the product of objections to what Thompson called cultural colonising — but which are also, in many cases, pretty indiscriminate.
Thus, has been damage to another modern artwork of no particular political significance called the The Loafers, to the so-called Five Rams in Auckland’s Myers Park (carved in China and actually five goats, a Chinese symbol of fertility), and to a third statue of the progressive poet Robbie Burns, this one in Hokitika.
And so on and so forth. When I was on the Auckland City Council, I helped approve a modern statue, by the artist Christine Hellyar, to go into a park called the Alice Wylie Reserve to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, and women’s efforts in general. I was gutted to learn that that statue has been damaged beyond repair in the last few months as well.
For the time being at least, there is still a lot more in the way of statuary and public art in the Domain, both old-timey and more modern. The Elliot Memorial Gates at the Grafton Entrance to the Domain, on Park Road, are quite impressive in themselves.
This sort of thing might indeed be colonial, old-fashioned, and British, or Austro-Hungarian in the case of Donner’s pool: European cultural colonisation of the South Pacific in other words.
All the same, you have to think of the effort that went into trying to create a beautiful city — by the best means the Aucklanders of that time knew how — when the whole city’s population was the same as one of its suburbs today.
Surely in most cases, the best idea to generate more diversity in public art is not to destroy the old but to create new public art that matches the much greater population and diversity of today’s Auckland.
Otherwise, people will just say that we live in a destructive age.
Anyhow, moving on, behind the Watson Bequest Statues, Pukekawa’s great expanse of surviving rainforest and forest walks begins.
Though Pukekawa was probably always covered in native rainforest to some degree, it’s clear that some exotic (non-native) species of palm have also entered the mix, whether that was the fault of the Acclimatisation Society once more or not.
There are many websites and links to walks you can do around Pukekawa, that is to say, the Auckland Domain. None of them seem to be totally complete or exhaustive, so it pays to search and explore.
To the east of Pukekawa, or in other words off the left side of the 1949 aerial photo, there is also the suburb of Parnell, which would have been an outlying village when the Domain was created in the 1840s.
Parnell is very old and historic. It includes the oldest house in Auckland that is still standing, Hulme Court, built in 1843.
Parnell also includes a cluster of Anglican church buildings, of which the oldest date well back into the Victorian era.
Parnell also contains the conjoined Dove-Myer Robinson Park (the Parnell Rose Gardens) and Judges Bay Reserve, and a couple of ravines similar to Grafton Gully, which today form the Scarborough and Alberon Reserves.
Alberon Reserve is indicated in the map just above, but it is shown too small, and Scarborough Reserve is not coloured green at all (I have given feedback about this).
Alberon Reserve is famous for its forest of palm trees, which rivals the rainforest of the Auckland Domain itself. Even more obviously in this case, the forest contains exotic species.
In both reserves, you hike down into the respective bush-filled ravines, and then back out again. It is just a pity that Grafton Gully is not still in the same condition.
Here are some more Parnell photos. First, a couple of stained-glass windows from the modern Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
And then some scenes from St Mary’s-in-Holy Trinity, an important example of the ‘wooden gothic’ style of the colonial North Island, where abundant timber and fear of earthquakes led the colonists to break with the honest-to-God stonework — no pun intended — more typical of Christchurch and Dunedin, cities erroneously thought to be free from earthquake dangers in those days.
An eagle lectern is another old-fashioned touch.
Parnell also has a pleasant shopping street and cafe district, which includes another Art Deco library from the 1920s.
And Parnell Village, a deliberate re-creation of an old-fashioned system of alleys built in the 1960s and 1970s by a developer named Les Harvey, long before ‘lane life’ became trendy.
There is an account of the development of Parnell Village in a book that was published in 1977:
Les Harvey strenuously resists any attempt to analyse the success of his development in the usual commercial or planning terms. Magic, he insists, is the product he sells, and he points to the swirling, organic patterns of the brick and wood paving, which he started off at one end, and then allowed to develop their own spirit and direction as they went. Down one slope the bricks formed a ‘mountain stream.’ Les follows it down, describing how it gives delight on a rainy day as it ‘chortles and tumbles’ down to a wide puddle to soak and evaporate in the sun. Magic, and a feeling for ‘the way people move, and sit, and touch things.’ He demonstrates some of the different places where people can sit — steps, sandstone blocks, terraces of old railway sleepers where your elbows rest comfortably on the terrace above…. The lesson of Parnell Village, and of other places like it, is that we do not need to wait for multi-million dollar projects to transform our towns and cities. By imaginatively opening up to pedestrians the existing fabric of buildings and alleys and car-parking lots, property-owners can realise a profit on older buildings, and people generally will enjoy a richer, more varied urban experience.
On that bright and cheerful note, I should conclude with the observation that it is now exactly 100 years since the Auckland Summer Carnival of 1923:
The energies of that time, of those who built the old-fashioned villas and churches of an older Auckland some fifty years before, and of eccentrics like Les Harvey fifty years later, all seem like a reproach to the general flabbiness of Auckland today.
And that’s even with twice the population of the 1970 and about eight times the population of the 1920s, let alone the population of Victorian-villa Auckland which never got much above 60,000.
A city, today, in which all that those who are in charge seem to be able to accomplish is the construction of suburban shopping malls, motorways, and really dull sorts of office buildings, while those who are poor and alienated go around breaking things in the middle of the night.
What could 21st-century Auckland be like if we really put our minds to trying to create a beautiful city once again?
Much of the research and photography for this post and the earlier first part was independently undertaken by my editor, the urbanist Chris Harris, who also chose the title Unseen Auckland in homage to a classic 1960s photobook called The Unseen City.
The passage about Les Harvey appears on pages 47 and 48 of Walking Around Town: Planning for Pedestrians in New Zealand, by John Mackay, published by the Ministry of Works and Development, Wellington, 1977.
I’ve also come across a couple of information-packed web landing pages about Parnell, parnell.net.nz/discover/heritage-and-history and parnellheritage.org.nz.
See, further, my earlier post, Auckland: Thoughts on a Young City.
If you liked this post, check out my award-winning new book about the North Island, available from my website a-maverick.com.