Party Central can go jump in the water

For once Aucklanders seem to be realising the wisdom of patience. Queens Wharf is worth waiting for and shouldn't be buggered for the sake of the rugger

Former cabinet colleagues John Banks and Murray McCully join Mike Lee today to have a chin-wag today about the future of Queen's Wharf. My fervent hope, just this once, is that the meeting is all talk and that nothing comes out it. Zero. Nada.

Surprisingly, happily, a consensus seems to be building around what to do with the large wharf at the bottom of town, and that's to do as little as possible. For now. Queen's Wharf is where the Queen St valley meets the harbour and should be the city's 'something special'. It deserves more than a few million spent on a cruise ship terminal knocked up in a year and a bit and it cries out to be more than just a place for rugby fans who can't afford tickets to the games (aka most New Zealanders) to get munted.

This seems to be one of those rare Auckland moments where it seems the city of sales and speculators seems to have found some long-term wisdom. Who thought we'd ever see the day? Mike Lee led the way, dismissing the quick-fire design competition as a cheap and nasty failure. Lee called the designs "lacklustre, underwhelming and mediocre", capturing the public mood very nicely indeed.

TV journalists did suitably scornful stories and, to its credit, the New Zealand Herald has filled its op-ed pages and letters section with people commenting on designs on offer. Blah, blah and blah just about sums up the reaction. So John Banks has now joined in, suggesting one option that could stem from today's meeting would be to do nothing.

And the people said amen. The council offered $47 million and a matter of weeks to local architects to come up with a design for the wharf, which the government wants to be "party central" for the Rugby World Cup in 2011. If for nothing else, John Key should lose the 2011 election for using that phrase, which now dogs discussion of the wharf at every step. Ugh. It's a phrase that reeks of Rheineck, wine coolers and sad, fading streamers swept into a corner.

The budget and timeframe demanded a cheap and rushed solution, while the "party central" concept forced the development into a RWC cul-de-sac, when what matters is the generations of use the wharf will have after the cup, not a few days one wet spring.

What should have been glaringly obvious from the start is that "party central" only needs room for a few bars and big-screens, some comfy public space, a bit of crowd control and some shelter from the rain... and that's about it. The needs for the rugby and the needs for the city long-term should be separated out once and for all for the sake of form and function.

The designs weren't entirely without merit; turning one of the old sheds into a wharenui, creating a slipway at the end of the wharf or an inner-city beach show a smidgen of imagination probably within line with the smidgen of a budget. But much, much more is required.

It would be nice to think a local architect would have the chops for this job, but frankly I don't think that matters. And given the quality of architecture in this city in recent years, I think it unlikely. The Germans went to Briton Sir Norman Foster to re-jig the Reichstag and Bilbao's fabulous Guggenheim museum was designed by American-Canadian Frank Gehry; patriotism should demand great design for future Kiwis, not a Kiwi design.

Despite what some doubters say, Queens Wharf is the place for Auckland's landmark building. The Tank Farm is half a generation and a couple of kms away. We want something special in the heart of the city, a pedestrian-friendly icon and we want it in around five years time.

As I was writing back in June, we need a considered discussion about the wharf's long-term development. Even the cruise ship terminal idea needs more thought.

The obvious solution that now seems to be winning favour is to do the absolute minimum in time for the RWC. Strengthen the beams, spruce up the sheds a little for some shelter, and hang up some fairy lights; that should just about be enough. In the meantime, pull together a serious budget and start a worldwide design competition in search of a landmark building that joins the city to the sea, and vice-versa, something that speaks of who we are.

I'd love to think a home-grown architect has got it in them to create something worthy, but one look around the recent architecture of this city suggests otherwise. I suspect we need help.

I've made my pitch in the past for a museum of exploration to be housed in whatever building arises. But more important than this or that idea, is the fact that we end up with something magnificent on this magnificent site.

Usually Aucklanders are divided and apathetic and more often than not the city's leaders leave us tearing our hair out in frustration as they make something very simple, very complicated. I'd assumed the worst again this time, but my faith has been restored. At least, it will be if Msrs Lee, Banks and McCully have the good sense to do bugger-all.