Until two years ago, the City Works Depot was a near-derelict collection of rusting sheds that Auckland had almost forgotten existed. The sheds, originally built by the city council, had been abandoned for close to 20 years – and yet the city’s commercial hub is just a few short blocks away. “It had been invisible for so long that it just wasn’t on people’s radar,” says Nat Cheshire of Cheshire Architects.
In a little over a year, the place has become a thriving hub for the city’s creative classes. Design studios, advertising agencies, architects and production companies have made the place their home, attracted by the lofty, metal-framed buildings with their soaring ceilings, generous spaces, filtered light and classic mid-century modernist touches. Their utilitarian studios have walls of corrugated steel and partitions lined with simple plywood.
It is deeply industrial and brilliantly resolved – every space has plenty of natural light. “I never wanted to see these buildings go,” says Leon Kirkbeck, co-owner of Augusto, a production and marketing company and design studio that straddles the disciplines of television production, web content and design.
Augusto was the building’s first tenant two years ago, moving into a former laboratory that tested water quality around the city. Traces of the space’s former usage can still be found in now-defunct 1960s control boards that look like something out of Dr Who. “It was an anomaly,” says Kirkbeck. “It’s spaces like this that make a city feel special.”
“It was pretty rough and ready and raw,” says architect Matt Godward. He and business partner Julian Guthrie shifted their practice to the depot a year ago into a high-ceilinged bunker in the centre of the building, lined with ply and lit from above by a long line of elegant windows. Godward designs commercial spaces including restaurants and cafés, while Guthrie designs beautifully executed timber houses; both are united by a love of honest materials and rational buildings. “It’s perfect for us, the way we work and how we operate – it feels like a proper studio,” says Godward.
Jewellery designer Zoe Williams of Zoe & Morgan, meanwhile, moved her office out of her inner-city home last year into a space tucked just behind a coffee roaster. It has soaring ceilings, a green wall and Victorian jewellery cabinets. Part office and part showroom, the fact that it’s tucked away hasn’t affected business – and nor has the lack of insulation. “It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” she says. “But it feels really creative. It’s the best space I’ve ever worked in.”
By day, the place hums with the young and the fashionable drinking single-origin coffee and eating hand-rolled bagels in their lunch breaks; by night they stand outside Brothers Beer drinking craft beer. It’s emblematic of the city’s resurgence. “One of the critical things the city has learned is that its ruins are treasures,” says Cheshire. “And the City Works Depot was probably one of the greatest ruins of them all.”
The depot opened in 1968, designed by the Auckland City Council’s chief architect Ewen Wainscott. Few Aucklanders have heard of him and yet his legacy is an enduring one: rigorous, elegant modernist buildings, often for the most prosaic of purposes. The site was huge: 2.9 hectares on the city fringe. The depot steps down a steep slope with multiple layers of perfectly laid concrete creating vast parking garages for trucks. It is topped with a long, elegant shed built from glass and prefabricated steel for workshops running north to south. Half a century on, there is not a single crack in the concrete.
But the depot was more than a city amenity. Auckland was in the midst of demolishing vast swathes of Edwardian and Victorian slums, building motorways and buildings and spreading outwards to new suburbs on the city’s fringe. The City Workshops, as they were known, were at the heart of this great new ambition. From here, bulldozers and trucks went all over the city, confident in modernism’s ability to radically change the city.
In the following decades, Auckland lost its way, committing to motorways and suburbs even as other cities rethought their approach. The council moved out of the depot in 1991, by which point decades of mismanagement and political infighting had hollowed out the city’s centre. Its citizens lost hope and most bright young things yearned to get away.
The depot passed through various developers’ hands until, in 2012, two unlikely saviours emerged: Simon Rowntree and James Brown, owners of one of the city’s largest car-parking companies, Tournament. The partners saw an opportunity and leased the site in 2000. When it came up for sale again they jumped. “A lot of people tendered on it but not one person walked through the buildings and understood the architectural merit of the place,” says Rowntree.
He and Brown brought in Cheshire early on. “I couldn’t believe the opportunity,” Cheshire says. Three hectares on the city fringe: he saw it as the chance to redefine Auckland’s identity. He knew the sheds would appeal to the city’s creatives who were spread around the city in places with no collective spirit – nowhere to get a drink, much less a gourmet pork-belly pie (Scratch Bakers: highly recommended). He also knew they would put up with a few impracticalities if they were beautiful and fun.
After cleaning out decades of junk, contractors sandblasted concrete and steel, removed rust and then set about repurposing as much of the old building as possible. Meanwhile, Cheshire created gentle, almost-invisible additions out of blackened steel I-beams, concrete and grey brick. It was an intuitive, hands-on design process. “The spaces were massive, tall, cold, a millimetre thick and leaky as all hell. And that is very challenging,” he says. “What I was really interested in was reading what was around me and in front of me – and dripping on my head.”
Put simply: the project has worked. The building was fully leased within a year; competition for new space is stiff. Louise Lawton moved her recruitment agency, The Creative Store, into the depot a year ago vacating a shared space in Auckland City. “This building is very much who we are. It’s based on trust and honesty,” she says. “We feel like we’re all part of the same thing.”
Kirkbeck over at Augusto, meanwhile, reckons the place is a key reason his business has grown from 10 people to 30 in 18 months. As he shows us around, he hails people from other studios: his company has also worked with celebrity chef Al Brown, whose bagel shop is at the other end of the building. The day monocle visits, co-owner and wife Michelle Walshe is meeting with Y&R to discuss an upcoming campaign. He admits: “There’s no way we’d be working with them if they weren’t at the other end of the hall.”
Three more hubs for Auckland’s creative classes
1 Britomart: Formerly the city’s downtown bus station, these 100-year-old brick warehouses have been repurposed into creative spaces for the likes of local heroes Inhouse Design and ad agency Shine, with bars and restaurants located downstairs. In the middle of the quarter, Nat Cheshire has designed low-rise, sleek additions for retail and hospitality.
2 Imperial Lane: Smaller but no less effective is the Fearon Hay-designed Imperial Lane, which connects a disused alley with the city’s main drag, Queen Street. The project has put life back into two abandoned 1930s cinemas. It’s home to restaurants and a series of commercial tenants, including design agency DNA. theimperial.co.nz
3 Wynyard Quarter: It took Auckland 20 years to work out what to do with what used to be known as the Tank Farm, a massive reclamation formerly covered with concrete storage silos. North Wharf came first, a waterfront dining precinct reusing a 1930s harbour board shed. Now corporate tenants are moving in, while an “innovation precinct” is pitched at the city’s start-ups. wynyard-quarter.co.nz