When the first of two kōrimurimu was revealed in July, Mayor Phil Goff encouraged Aucklanders to lie down on the linen-like surface and “breathe the sea air, gaze skyward and hear the movement of the tide below”. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind to do in Te Wānanga, Auckland’s new waterfront public square, next to the Ferry Building between Princes and Queens Wharves. But people are standing and sitting on it. Kids seem to like its bounce. And some are lying on it – a sleeping bag was spotted there recently.
What if a bunch of drunk people get in there and go a little crazy late at night? “That’s exactly what it’s loaded for,” says Isthmus architect Sarah Bishop, pointing out that there’s a secondary system, a safety net, underneath. The mat is tough too: made of woven strands of military grade, camouflage green used in cargo nets for lifting heavy loads.
One must admire the bravery, not to mention the innovation, of installing this interactive work in a public place. Roughly the size of a large trampoline, the kōrimurimu is one of several large holes – Isthmus calls them openings – cut into the concrete platform 73m wide and 600-950mm deep along the revamped two-lane, tree-lined Quay Street Boulevard. Designed as an intertidal plateau, it extends 36m above Waitematā Harbour, hovering on 49 piles.
Entering the kōrimurimu requires a 600mm descent and a worthwhile act of trust. Its name means to be covered in seaweed – rimurimu being a seaweed native to Te Waitematā. The artwork, by artist Tessa Harris (Ngai Tai ki Tāmaki) in co-design with Isthmus, using traditional Maori hatched weaving like a basket, is a “visual ecological response” – a kind of memorial to a time when the he downtown foreshore was covered in seaweed, a vital food source for many species of fish now also in decline.
One could say that the entire porous public space of Te Wānanga is a memorial. Its undulating, jagged edge, which juts out into the harbor in stark contrast to the straight line of the now reinforced sea wall along the edge of Quay Street, takes its organic form from the historic natural shoreline of the sandstone headlands, present in 1840 , but now long known from successive land reclamations. A trace of what was happening in pre-colonial times.
“Conceptually, we’re trying to create an intertidal shelf,” says Isthmus director David Irwin. “And, in that, we have ecologies for humans and for nature.” This includes massive transplanted pōhutukawa reintroduced as a “coastal forest grove” surrounded by other native plantings, including rongoā (medicine) and harakeke (flax) species, now blooming in six huge steel planters hung below off the shelf like giant limpets. The gardens are surrounded by bench seating made of reddish-brown Tonka hardwood from South America. The concept of a tidal flat is also expressed in the strip of shell concrete that runs along the edge of the port of Te Wānanga, giving the effect of stranding on a beach.
The other openings are framed by steel railings resembling giant kina shells and invitingly shaped to lean on and gaze out to the water. “The goal is really to demonstrate that there’s an ecology here and that we should take care of our water,” says Irwin.
Here, Isthmus worked with Richelle Kahui-McConnell (Ngāti Maniapoto) and Jarrod Walker (Ngāpuhi) to anchor some 38 ropes of kūtai (mussels) seeded with floats – as used in mussel farming – under the public bridge. The aim is to support the recovery of the vast kūtai beds that once covered Te Waitematā’s seabed while filtering its extremely polluted water. Despite their remarkable filtering ability – each mussel capable of filtering between 150 and 200 liters of seawater per day – such are the pollutants here, they are sacrificial kūtai, not to be eaten except by fish who know no better. . As such, the kūtai act as perfect bio-indicators of aquatic health in the inner harbour. You have to admire the ambition, but it’s also hard to see how the seabed sludge here, thick with decades of oily heavy metals and other runoff, will ever be cleaned up just by filtering. We imagine that a more drastic intervention is necessary.
A later stage of Te Wānanga’s design incorporates open-opening floating pontoons off the public deck. Moving vertically with the rising and falling tide, the pontoons contain ropes and marine ecology nets for kelp beds to provide habitat for other marine species. It is possible that the pontoons will become a “floating research station”, containing scientific equipment measuring indicators of water quality and the health of marine species.
Leaning over the opening of the east balustrade gives a view of the past – the 1920 stone staircase of Auckland’s historic ferry infrastructure running along part of the Quay Street seawall, now reinforced against earthquakes. Other heritage features that appear to clutter unnecessarily include the blue steel Auckland Harbor Fence, first erected in 1923 along Quay Street, and a 1915 memorial obelisk for Harbor Board staff serving during the World War One. One can’t help but think that Te Wānanga might be better off without these colonial reaffirmations of space. Certainly the new waterfront access means that the jarring intrusion of the fence should now be gone and the war memorial obelisk is perhaps better situated at the museum. Let Te Wānanga, who weaves mātauranga Māori through its spaces and stories, speak as a masterclass delivering the Auckland Council’s Te Aranga Māori design principles. As seen, for example, in the wooden handrails of the concertina steel balustrade that winds around the edge of Te Wānanga harbour.
Here, Reuben Kirkwood (Ngai Tai ki Tāmaki) has carved a contemporary interpretation of a Te Wairere motif symbolizing the relationship between land and sea. The whakairo (sculpture) is complemented by Harris’s tightly laced natural fiber bindings or haumi – an expression of union.
In Isthmus’ descriptions of the space, much is said about how the design offers a new invitation to the water’s edge, the space between land and sea, city and port. “It will restore the edge as a place of respite and refuge: a basket of knowledge for all who visit, and a breathing point for everyone and everything that filters through this bustling place where city meets sea. ” Sometimes the descriptions use spiritual metaphors: “Stitching land and sea together, the design brings to life Te hā o Te Tangaroa, the breath of Tangaroa the god of the sea: the natural rhythm and space between high tides and bass…”.
In the face of all this, it’s disappointing that the design doesn’t do much to combat climate change. You could argue that in the massive amount of carbon emissions used in its concrete construction, it contributes to the crisis. Irwin says the choice of concrete was to ensure Te Wānanga was sturdy enough to “survive a great catastrophe”. But if it is a flooded waterfront, whether due to sea level rise or extreme storm surge, then Te Wānanga will be an appropriate memorial for the council of Auckland and Auckland Transport sticking their heads in the sandstone.