05 July 2015

Auckland architecture: Let there be light

I’m a big fan of the architecture of the Art Deco era, which flourished around the world through the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. There’s something about its combination of bold geometric shapes and exuberant ornamentation, and that blending of ‘Machine Age’ imagery and materials with more traditional craft motifs, that I find pleasing to the eye.

I like to focus on the minutiae of different architectural styles, in this case the lights, lamps and lanterns that adorn some of the Auckland’s Art Deco buildings and, during my wanders around the inner city, I’ve found some fabulous examples. And I’ve included one red herring to finish.

Former South British Insurance Building, Shortland Street, Auckland central
Is this magnificent or what? It's one of a pair, each about a metre tall, that flank the main entrance of the former South British Insurance Building, built in lower Shortland Street in 1927-28. 

Not surprisingly, this is a heritage-listed building, described thus on the Heritage New Zealand website:  

… a fine example of a 1920s 'Chicago-style' office block … Such high-rises marked a considerable shift in design and business organisation from the smaller, single-tenancy offices used in the mid to late nineteenth century. … [This] building was one of the tallest structures in Auckland, and of self-consciously 'modern' design. … Its interiors include some of the finest Art Deco ornamentation in the city centre, and it makes an important contribution to the urban streetscape.

Former Parnell Library, Parnell
The same man who designed the former South British Insurance Building – M. K. Draffin of Grierson, Aimer of Draffin – also designed the former Parnell Library building. 

A New Zealander by birth, Malcolm Draffin (1890-1964) completed his architectural apprenticeship in Auckland in 1910, served with the NZ Field Engineers in the First World War, then completed additional training at the Architectural Association School in London

As well as these two buildings, his design work also included the Auckland War Memorial Museum.  

In 1996, Parnell Library was relocated to larger premises in the Jubilee Building, and this building was sold into private ownership. 

It has subsequently, and very sympathetically, been turned into a private home, with business premises at street level and living accommodation above.

Courtville Apartments, Auckland central

These Art Deco beauties sit either side of the main entrance to the 1919 Courtville apartment block (also known as Corner Courtville because it’s located on the corner of Waterloo Quadrant and Parliament Street, to distinguish it from Middle Courtville, in Parliament Street).

This building was one of Auckland’s earliest high-rise apartment blocks and, according to the Heritage New Zealand website, ‘shows the influence of the architecture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright of the Chicago School’.

It was one of several inner-city apartment blocks to be designed by Australian Arthur Sinclair O'Connor (c.1884-1943), who came to New Zealand about 1908.

Westminster Court, Auckland central
Once again we have links between the apartment block this light adorns and the previous one. Not only is Westminster Court just along Parliament Street from Courtville but they were also designed by the same man, though this building is more recent, having been designed by A. Sinclair O’Connor in 1934. 

It’s an eight-storey block, originally contained 50 apartments, and is still much sought-after by city dwellers. The building’s facilities include an indoor heated pool, a spa pool and a sauna, a games room and a barbecue area. 

As you might have guessed, apartments in this stylish building do not come cheap – here’s a recent sale.  

Old Arts or Clock Tower Building, University of Auckland, Auckland central
Despite its rather flamboyant design, this is one of my favourite Auckland buildings and it’s also one of the most recognisable. 

Nowadays, the Clock Tower you can see in my photo (above) is symbolic of the University of Auckland but the building was controversial when first built in 1926, being described as ‘un-British and out of harmony with our national character’ – this, obviously, before New Zealand had really developed a character of its own! 

Once again we see the influence of Chicago style in an Auckland building, as it was designed by Chicago-trained architect Roy Lippincott. Considering the rest of the building, the external lights are really very restrained but the internal light (left) has a little more flair.

Grey Lynn Library, Grey Lynn
To another library building now, and this one still functions as a library and is very much the central hub of the Grey Lynn community. Designed by notable Auckland architect William Henry Gummer (1885-1966), the library opened on 13 December 1924, it cost £8,534 to construct and included a reading room, a lending department, a lecture hall and a committee room. Although the building itself is described as Georgian-style, those lamps look very Art Deco to me.

Ports of Auckland Red Fence, Auckland central
And we finish with that red herring I mentioned: one of the lamps from the magnificent red-painted wrought iron fence that separates Auckland’s wharves from neighbouring Quay Street. The Red Fence, its wonderfully ornamental gates and lamp stands were constructed in stages between 1913 and 1923, partly by Manchester-based company G. Wragge Ltd, and partly by James Allen Sen & Son Ltd, of Elmbank Foundry, in Glasgow. There were originally 25 of these wonderful lamps – I haven’t counted to see if they all still remain, as some parts of the original fence were removed when modern buildings were constructed on Princes Wharf. 

These lamps may be a little early to count as Art Deco but, with those splendid lions and heads (of Neptune / Poseidon?), they are such impressive statements of power, strength and authority that I just had to include them.

03 July 2015

Auckland walks: Discovering lichen in Cornwall Park

One of the recent free guided walks around Cornwall Park covered the fascinating topic of lichen, a subject I knew next to nothing about – and still don’t! But I did learn a few interesting snippets from our most knowledgeable guide, Dr Dan Blanchon, a lecturer at Unitec and New Zealand’s only lichenologist.  

The basalt rock of Cornwall Park’s ancient lava flows provides a good environment for lichen so the park is rich in species and plentiful in examples. Lichens actually help to erode the rock they live on but this happens so very slowly that any change to the rock would only be noticeable over hundreds, if not thousands of years. Also, for those of you who have lichen living on their garden trees, the lichen won’t kill the trees – they are, apparently, a sign of the tree’s decline.

Some lichens also live on metal, as you can see on this drainage grate. I thought Dan said this was called the ‘sexy path’ lichen, but perhaps I mis-heard (imagined?) that as I can’t find that name anywhere. I do recall though that he said this particular lichen has a chemical in it that has Viagra-like properties.

Lichens seem to contain quite a diverse range of chemicals, which is one excellent reason for studying them. The lichens themselves use chemicals (and smothering) to try to kill each other – lichen warfare, who knew? Many lichens contains chemicals that are used in dyes – there is, for example, one particular lichen in Thailand that is cultivated specifically for the pretty pinkish purple dye it produces. Some lichens are used in the manufacture of sunscreens as they contain chemicals that protect against UV-B irradiation, and others have anti-fungal and anti-biotic properties. One example of this was the Old Man’s Beard we saw growing on a kauri tree. Several of the different varieties of Old Man’s Beard (Usnea) contain antibiotics, something recognised by indigenous cultures around the world – American Indians used a local variety to bind wounds and, here in New Zealand, Maori also realised the lichen’s special properties, naming it angiangi. (It is still used in a herbal dietary supplement, according to the Kiwi Herbs website.)

Don’t go nibbling on the next lichen you see though. Lichens are mostly indigestible, though reindeer and caribou are known to eat some lichens in the harsh conditions of a northern winter when there is little other food available.

A lichen is a complicated beastie – it is not actually one single organism but rather a fungus living in a symbiotic relationship with a photosynthetic partner, which might be a green alga or a cyanobacterium or both. The fungus is the farmer and the alga and/or bacterium produce/s the food it survives on.

Lichens don’t grow near soil – the nutrients in the soil are too rich and kill the lichen, which is why you don’t usually see lichens growing on the lower parts of walls, as soil nutrients get splashed up on to the wall surface during rainfall. Some lichens are sensitive to the nutrients in urine, so are killed by dogs peeing on walls and the bases of trees. Lichens are also highly sensitive to air pollution so will not grow in polluted places. If you see lots of lichens growing on the trees, rocks, etc., in your area, take it as a sign of clean air.

As you see, no lichens are growing on the lower portion of this wall

If you get the opportunity to look at lichens under a microscope, you’ll be amazed to find they are teeming with life: tiny mites, snails, and weevils are just some of the little creatures you’ll see. And, because of these micro-organisms, lichens are also beneficial to other creatures, like the birds that eat all those little bugs, so try to resist the temptation to kill the lichen you find growing on the rocks and trees around your home and garden.

Although we were told the names of many of the lichens we discovered during our two-hour wander around Cornwall Park, I’m not going to include the names here for fear of wrongly identifying the lichens in my photos. Suffice to say, New Zealand has an exceptionally rich lichen flora, with over 2000 species already named and probably twice that number still to be discovered, categorised and named. Considering the potential benefits to humankind of the chemicals in lichens, I think this country needs more than one lichenologist!

If you want to discover more about these incredible organisms, our guide recommended Allison Knight’s Lichens of New Zealand: An Introductory Illustrated Guide, published by the Botanical Society of Otago and available as a pdf download.  

01 July 2015

A celebration of trees: June: A few Auckland notables

As my regular readers know, one of my photography projects this year is a celebration of trees. To honour both the beauty and benefits of trees I have been posting a photo each day of a tree or trees (you can see these photographs in my Picasa album here). And, each month, I’ve been blogging about my favourite or special trees. For my June celebration, I’m sharing photos and a little detail of a few of the more notable exotic trees in Auckland.

Mirbecks or Algerian Oak (Quercus canariensis fagaceae), Cornwall Park
This magnificent tree was planted in the early 1920s and is recognised as being the finest of all the old oaks growing in Auckland’s Cornwall Park. Natives of Spain, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, Algerian Oaks can grow as tall as 30 to 40 metres and are semi-evergreen trees with rather rough, thick bark. You can perhaps tell from the cherry trees on the right in my photo how huge the oak is in comparison. Apparently, this oak is able to grow two forms of glossy dark green leaves at the same time – one sort is wedge-shaped, the other is oval-shaped and has lobes.

Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla moraceae), Cornwall Park
Though native to the mountain and coastal forests of eastern Australia, the Moreton Bay fig has made itself very much at home in Auckland and the city boasts many enormous old specimens like this one, which was planted in the early 1900s. Both the Moreton Bay fig and the Port Jackson fig (Ficus rubiginosa) were planted extensively by Auckland’s early settlers.

These figs can grow to a height of 30 metres, and spread equally wide when space allows. They frequently have buttressed roots, which sometimes grow completely above the ground and, when young, the Moreton Bay fig grows as an epiphyte and a strangler. It has very odd flowers – they’re contained inside the fruit and pollination is performed by a gall wasp that loses its wings after it enters the fruit. Though initially orange coloured, the fruit turns purple as it ripens.

Dragon tree (Dracaena draco), St Stephen’s Ave, Parnell
I love the shape of this Dragon tree and I’ve never seen one as tall as this one, which is believed to have been planted in 1898. Native to the Canary Islands, where they are cultivated for their resin, dragon trees are long lived and slow growing.

I found a fascinating snippet about dragon trees in an old newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, 5 September 1906, page 3:

The oldest tree in the world is said to be the famous Dragon-tree (Dracaena draco) of Teneriffe, which is estimated to be from 4000 to 6000 years of age. This wonder of the plant world was 70ft or more in height until the year 1819, when, during a terrific storm, one of the large branches was broken off. A similar storm in 1867 stripped the trunk of its remaining branches, and left it standing alone. A plant from one of the branches of this famous tree is growing in Kew Gardens.

Another newspaper report (in the Star, 10 November 1902, page 3) says the ‘tree was totally destroyed in a hurricane which occurred in 1876.’ It would certainly have been an amazing sight to see.

Cook’s Pine (Auraucaria columnaris), Western Park, Ponsonby
Western Park was founded in 1875 and contains some wonderful and highly unusual trees, of which this Cook’s pine is definitely the tallest. According to Elizabeth Francke’s Notable Trees of Auckland (The Tree Council, Auckland, published in 2003), the tree was then 27 metres tall but I imagine it’s grown a few metres since. It may not have been planted as early as 1875 but it is certainly one of Auckland’s oldest imported trees and is quite rare in this country. The Cook’s pine is a native of French New Caledonia and nearby islands and, like the better-known Norfolk Island pine, belongs to a southern hemisphere family of salt-tolerant conifers.

Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), Cheltenham Beach
Another tree that is tolerant of salt-laden winds is the Monterey Cypress, a native of the central coast of California. The many large specimens growing around Auckland city date from the earliest days of European settlement when this species was widely planted for farm shelter. Balmain Reserve, which borders Cheltenham Beach on Auckland’s North Shore, is a tiny park, just 0.4ha in extent – that, and the size of the person and the park bench in my photo, help to give an idea of how large this wonderful old cypress is.

Ombu (Phytolacca dioica), Albert Park, Auckland city
This incredible tree is one of Auckland’s most unusual exotic trees and is quite a rare tree in New Zealand, though there are other notable examples in Auckland’s Three Kings Park and Myers Park. In her Notable Trees of Auckland, Elizabeth Francke has this to say about the ombu:

[It] is native to Central and South America, where its hardihood and strange appearance have made it the subject of myth and folktale. The huge surface root-plate protects a shallow root system and makes the ombu fairly resistant to drought and storm. However, this tree did succumb to storm damage in 1971 – it is now hollow and shows secondary growth. Ombu wood is spongy, brittle and light; in dry weather the branches sometime snap and fall without warning. Nevertheless, the semi-deciduous ombu is often planted as a shade tree and one of its names is bella sombra, meaning pleasant shade. It bears 10cm flowers like bottle-brush in late summer.

As you can imagine, this particular ombu is a favourite with the younger visitors to Albert Park, as an especially good place to play hide and seek.

If you’re a tree lover like me, you might enjoy my previous month’s celebrations of trees which can be viewed by clicking on the following links: January (one particular favourite), February (about lime avenues), March (on the subject of forests), April (about the greening of the trees in the British springtime), and May (on the New Zealand pohutukawa).