Freyberg Place and the Ellen Melville Centre

One hundred and eighty nine steps

In the heart of Auckland’s retail and business district, at a knuckle in the street pattern of the central city lie Freyberg Place and the Ellen Melville Centre. Located in proximity to a freshwater spring where the volcanic lava flow from Albert Park came to rest at the base of the slope, it was here the city built its first court, the Mechanics Institute, and a church. In the 1960s, the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall was established to provide a facility focused on the welfare of women and children within the city. It was a modest, modernist building, with crèche, meeting rooms and public toilets on the ground floor and a community hall above, opening onto a sheltered public space extending out from beneath the building. The 1990’s saw the building and square undergo a series of upgrades, extensions and change in use of the public ground floor of the building to a restaurant then later to retail. While still loved by the inner-city community both building and public space fell into varying states of disrepair, eventually prompting the reconsideration of both.

The project is not about the square or the hall, it is about the dialogue between them. It is about creating a powerful public space in the centre of the city that celebrates its unique place, and its history, while pointing towards the future. It is about creating a democratic space, a place for people. It was with this ideal that Isthmus assembled a design team with collaborators Stephens Lawson Architects and artist John Reynolds. The team worked seamlessly between building, public space, art and management.

The design of the Freyberg Place is based on artist John Reynolds’ narrative ‘One hundred and eighty-nine steps’ – a design that sees myriad and intersecting flights of steps and terraces applied to the square’s banked edge. Here, the ubiquitous flights of steps often found throughout the city are amplified and magnified into ‘flows’ that might have cascaded down the slopes of nearby Albert Park, creating a dynamic space for people to sit, rest, talk or watch. The horizontality of the step modules is balanced with strong vertical elements, nīkau and light poles, uplifting notes that tie back to the building piloti. Within the rhythm of elements, the stairs ebb and flow, protruding pointedly out of the landscape from some angles; nestling in from others. From above, light diffused by groves of pōhutukawa and nīkau adds to the drama by drawing intricate and dramatic shadows across the steps. Referencing a stream that once flowed near the site, a water feature descends from the upper reaches of the steps to the level plaza area. Within the water feature is a carved artwork by Ngati Whatua artist Graeme Tipene, across which the water flows. Freyberg Place flows into the ground floor of the hall, animating the relationship between square and building. Conceived of as an ‘urban living room’ the renovation sensitively reveals the original architecture and uses – its butterfly roof, elegant elevating pilotis, expressed concrete frame and crushed quartz and marble chip render finish – are brought to the fore. A new bronze artwork by Lisa Reihana occupies the building’s O’Connell Street exterior. Upstairs, the original Ellen Melville Hall and stage have been restored, along with the woven tukutuku panels that line the back wall under an elegant undulating slatted timber ceiling, delivering contemporary community spaces for the people of the city. Freyberg Place, put simply, is a public space that explores the overlaps between public art and architecture; it offers an open invitation for Aucklanders to inhabit, occupy and claim for themselves. Set within a network of laneways, it is a popular lunchtime destination – a breathing spot in faster-paced surrounding streets – and, now, a flexible space suitable for performances, markets and other activities. In a towered inner city, Freyberg’s due-north orientation allows for much-needed, sunny and sheltered space in the city.

The upgrade of Freyberg Place (hand-in-hand with the transformation of the adjacent Ellen Melville Centre) delivers on aspirations for a vibrant, accessible and liveable city for the people of Auckland. The integration of the building with open space elevates a potentially great inner-city space into a premier square infused with art, landscape and building.


Entrant office name: Isthmus Group Ltd
Role of the entrant in the project: Urban Design Landscape Architecture lead
Other design firms involved:
Architecture lead: Stevens Lawson
Artist: John Reynolds
Waterfeature artwork: Graeme Tipene Ngati Whatua Orakei
East wall artwork: Lisa Reihana
Project location: Auckland; New Zealand
Design year: 2015
Year Built: 2017

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