Growing up in provincial New Zealand, I was nurtured to hate Auckland. Full of JAFA’s it was – Just Another F##### Aucklander, for the uninitiated. I haven’t heard this not-so-affectionate term in a while. Precisely four years to be exact. It was when I was telling my grandad I was leaving the boondocks, the City of Sails for booming Sydney, another city of much bigger sails.
Four years ago New Zealand was at its knees, in full brace position headed into a recessionary storm. Many thought the country wouldn’t come out the other side. Including me. I jumped ship the first chance I got. A handful of <30’s stayed and one of those was Nat Cheshire. Thank the gods. I hadn’t heard of Nat before Thursday. He came up in conversation over lunch when I was trying to make sense of all the retail progression since I’d been away. I had heard of The Hip Group, but Nat and his band of architects was an entirely new beast.
Two days later he turned up as a speaker at a design conference I was at. Billed just after Nicki Caro, it was a tough act to follow. Whale Rider never ceases to bring a tear to the eye and Caro’s humility and fierceness was rousing. Nat quietly walked on stage with no fanfare and started to read his speech from a plinth positioned at stage right. The tone wasn’t preachy by any means, but it did feel like he was a leader addressing his disciples. We were hanging on his every word. More please.
The change Nat talks about began just as I left for Sydney. He spoke about the city once being a “city without hope” and a “city by title only”. One that was “bloated on banality” and had built up “a hundred years of cumulated beige”. Nat and his studio had taken it on as a personal project to take back their city. To affect change in their corner of the world and to not rest until they had succeeded – but not without hard graft. He gets up at dawn and speaks about times he sacrifices everything just to keep up.
It’s rare for someone at the coal face of change or anything for that matter to have clarity of thought and an objective opinion. If you’re living it daily it’s easy to get lost and for some, lost in your own bulls###. But not Nat. It was almost like the speech was material for a memoir written decades after the fact. Written with a lot of space in between his efforts and his output.
Perhaps the most interesting observation was the ‘perfect storm’ of factors, he argues simultaneously lead to the change. The flock of new residents to the city who “brought with them an appetite for what they left behind”, the emergence of the Super City and the Western world, the world over craving a counterbalance to the slick and machine like – favouring the human and the organic. Smallness used to be a limiting factor, a constraint and an excuse for failure. Now, it’s mandatory. Without the ability to be agile, you die. Modern business not only favours it, it demands it. Nat fondly recalled, “we made City Works Depot in less time it took to get a corporate client to approve a chair.”
Auckland, over the last four days doesn’t feel like the Auckland I once knew. It feels hungry. It feels alive. It feels there for the taking. I don’t want to be anywhere else right now.