Auckland’s Downtown Revival

Architect Nat Cheshire shares his favorite places to eat and things to do in Auckland’s Britomart neighborhood.

Auckland’s Downtown Revival

Photo by Kieran Scott

Kieran Scott

NAME: Nat Cheshire
AGE: 32
OCCUPATION: Nat runs an architecture firm with his father. Cheshire Architects is responsible for refurbishing many of the historic buildings in Auckland’s inner city.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand

I’ve abandoned the idea of architecture as a profession. The skills needed for my job massively transgress the boundaries of traditional architecture. We design the buildings and then recruit the builders and interior designers. We talk about table settings with the restaurant owners who move in. We find a florist for the client who needs to decorate his space. What I do is total architecture. It’s about building a neighborhood and bringing people back to the city.

My father and I moved to Britomart and started the design studio in 2005, when I was 24. At that time, Britomart—a 16-acre former mercantile center—was the badlands of downtown Auckland. The grand merchant houses built a century ago were filled with pigeons and prostitutes and the odd intrepid artist. There was an empty square in the middle.

My father took on master planning the entire precinct, to envision how nine city blocks of derelict shipping warehouses, buildings, and gravel-covered wasteland might be transformed into the new core of Auckland. We knew Britomart needed to grow organically. At the outset, we set up a sort of conceptual infrastructure for how this place would operate: We would refurbish 18 heritage buildings and construct seven environmentally friendly new ones.

We began restoring the old buildings in 2004, and six years later two of the projects we designed were opened: the Café Hanoi and a bar called 1885. They were followed by the Britomart Country Club, New Zealand’s largest courtyard bar, on one side of what used to be the empty central square. At the same time, a trio of great restaurants, a bar, and a café opened on the opposite side of the square. Collectively they tipped the balance. Friday nights became a maelstrom of action, and Auckland felt like a city in a way I’d never experienced before.

About a dozen more of our projects opened in anticipation of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and by then the place was up and running. We went from hunting for great tenants to fending them off.

Recently I developed a new stretch of retail in the middle of Britomart called the Pavilions. It is an open sanctuary that cuts across the area’s predominant traffic at right angles. In our master plan we wanted to incorporate a real break in Britomart’s original grid system. We’ve curated eight tiny retail pavilions around a central garden and put the bistro Ortolana at its heart. A huge canopy floats high above the site, taking its form from the old roof trusses of the buildings that surround it. The canopy shields an all-weather winter garden where Auckland’s denizens can shop, dine, and be entertained. It’s incredible how architecture and urban planning has brought this place to life.

>> Next: 7 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Went to New Zealand

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