People Mover

One of the world’s largest installations of the revolutionary Activ® self-cleaning glass, also happens to be one of the best. Auckland’s Britomart railway and transport interchange is the star recipient. It combines extraordinary science and exceptional architecture. Despite its success as a local backdrop to advertise many NZ products and launches, the project’s sparkling glass bonnet has failed to receive the recognition it deserves.

Three years since completion, the station’s real signature, successfully embedded in Auckland’s consciousness, has failed to travel as well internationally. This is a loss. Put aside its level of recognition by rail/bus users and agency location scouts and Britomart remains relatively unknown. Had the project been built in Barcelona, Prague or New York, another level of awareness would have quite likely ensued as star billing.

Initial publicity centred on the subterranean and lower level engineering aspects. The station provides Auckland with a far smoother public transport alternative to traffic snarled freeways. Yet the great un-told story of Britomart is the glasshouse enclosure that combines elements of New York’s Grand Central Station, I.M.Pei’s glass pyramid entrance to The Louvre and Apple Computer’s ice-cubed shaped glass box that sits atop its new 5th Avenue store. Apart from being larger and technically more advanced, Britomart pre-dates Apple’s high profile project and contains a far greater level of technical sophistication.

The glass cube represents one of the key elements in the re-development of Britomart in the the historic Central Post Office(CPO) building. In doing so it has moved from shabby, derelict, shell to vibrant commuter interchange. The great relevance of such architecture is that the money is so well spent. No point doing a half-baked job that invites neglect or that anyone cares to visit. Good architecture is inviting. It contributes to the pleasant, efficient, experience. So many public buildings, the public transport variety especially, fail miserably to rise above a miserly minimum where the only cathartic moment is the quick exodus.

“The glass house began life on a humble, much smaller scale – probably 6-7m high but grew to 3 or 4 stories and developed a much better relationship with the original,” says Greg Boyden of Jasmax, project architects in association with Mario Madayag. “It just grew in stature.”

Subject of an architectural competition, the interchange is a hub of activity at the intersection of Queen and Quay Streets, one of Auckland’s busiest. It forms the new rail terminus, suburban and national inter-city rail system on the site behind the CPO - itself the site of the original terminus until the 1920s - which has been renovated for new commercial uses related to a rail, ferry and bus movements.

The idea of counterpoint and contrast between historic and contemporary is hardly novel, but the architects did much more than merely juxtapose old and new. The glass cube occupies the eastern end of the old building and makes the lightest of connections with the old. Because the glass shell sits above the only diesel railway system in the world – it is effectively the mouth through which fresh air is inhaled for circulation throughout most of the terminus. A set of stainless steel extraction towers located on the main eastern concourse draw air down, through and up. For ventilation efficiency, some of the glass louvres remain permanently open.

The 30m wide x 20m deep x16m high structure is a triumph of economical form. Its slenderness represents he combined efforts of a team that was driven to achieve a wholly refined elegance rather than heavyweight box. In this respect the design achieves everything it set out to.

The monocoque steel frame is a thing of beauty. It comprises a jeweller’s eye for detail with a range of proprietary components, sloped elliptical girts, stainless steel suspension rods, super fine tolerances and a complete absence of cross bracing. The result is architecture’s answer to the Formula One racing car. A system of orthogonal steel frames were fabricated off site as was the roof which was craned and bolted into place.

A simple series of aluminium extrusions and neoprene blades prevent water entering the building. A special test rig was used to test the integrity of the louvers against prolonged use of high-pressure water jets. A special elliptical steel section from France in combination with neoprene seals provide the necessary sealing properties and structural flexibility between glass louvres and structural framing.

Auckland can hardly be said to be awash with grand civic design. Such projects allow cities to retain the fabric of a past era and bring it back from the dead which is precisely what has occurred. Boyden agrees:” It is pretty bereft of really good public buildings. There’s not a lot of grand public interior spaces. Some cities have a variety of railway and bus stations and civic halls but once you go past our modest Town Hall there isn’t much here.

He says that the vertical rise and internal volumes of the glass-house are a big part of it’s success. The use of aluminium wrapped poles form sculptural elements and are totemic. These contribute to the forest-like environment of towering forms under a canopy that radiate and splinter light-waves throughout the forest floor.

Located to the rear at the east elevation and fronted by a large piazza like space, the ACTIV® glass house encloses circulation routes including escalators, stairs and two elevators to and from underground platforms as well as ground floor ticketing interchange at street level. The effect of the relationship between masonry and glass is compelling and fulfils the original brief building to touch the old CPO building lightly in order to preserve its character.

Joint project architects Jasmax,/Mario Madayag, façade engineers Ove Arup, façade contractors and Pilkington, provided a solution that merged high technical specifications with a seamless, crystalline aesthetic. “Material reduction, refinement and pared form was a shared objctive,” observes Boyden.

Boyden says glass-houses are especially effective as transitional spaces. “But,” he warns, “in summer they can easily become uncomfortable if not unbearable unless they have been well planned. The difference here is excellent air-flow and a saw-tooth roof that contains adequate solid surface. While morning sun rakes into the structure, by the hottest part of the day the roof acts as an efficient shading device.

“Apart from the functional requirement for fresh air-flow, we wanted the space filled with light. Of an evening, light is provided by a series of high output lamps mounted on lift towers that shine directly upwards onto mirrors that then reflect to the floor below bounces light around in keeping with a structure as light and minimal as possible.”

The other essential, being glass, was that it shouldn’t require on-going maintenance to stay looking good. Pilkington’s Activ™-self cleaning glass provided the architects with an enduring lustre. The glass uses a permanent coating that has a dual cleaning action. Activ’s coating uses the UV in natural light to break down organic dirt such as tree sap, debris and bird droppings. Secondly, the coating is hydrophilic so water simply sheds off the glass surface leaving it streak free. Any dirt that the coating cannot dissolve such as salt spray does not adhere to the glass and is simply washed away by rain. The coating is part of the glass surface and therefore will not wear out. It lasts for the life of the window.

The problem for many architects on such projects is that the client isn’t the building user but the public. To what extent does it value the aim of the architect to deliver much more than the bog standard form and space?

The CPO’s imposing Victorian façade is preserved, along with the grand proportions of the middle and rear. The main insertions of fully glazed lifts and some opening of volumes for improved daylight and air movement provide generous volumes and ventilation. The bigger point of the re-development a project that remains relatively free of the retail and commercial concessions clutter.

Architecture can easily lose its lustre in a relatively short time. Even award-winning work can appear drab within the space of a few years once grime, neglect or a new fashion takes hold. Three years after completion and despite the proximity of sea, diesel fumes, city grime and heavy duty public usage, this lantern of a building still glitters

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2006


Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.