City Works Depot, Auckland

In recent years, the site of Auckland Council’s former works depot has been gradually reinvented into a precinct of cafes, restaurants and offices. At an early stage of this process, we began our involvement with City Works Depot, which has been led in a number of phases by Cheshire Architects (who introduced us to the project). Adaptive reuse is an area of design that interests us greatly, and as one of the pre-eminent examples of this approach within Auckland, City Works Depot is a particularly compelling project for us.

The ‘raw’ character of the impressive sheds (which won national architectural awards at the end of the 1960s) set the tone for being able to explore planting compositions that are markedly different in character to other retail and hospitality precincts around the city. Due to their naturally compact scale (which is desirable within restricted root environments such as pots in the city) and tolerance of dry, exposed conditions, many native, small-leaved shrubs are employed throughout the site – notably Coprosma crassifolia (the red-stemmed shrub in the photo, above left) and Corokia cotoneaster.

Melicope simplex (pictured, above right) is planted in several parts of City Works Depot, where its dark, claret-coloured stems and interlacing branching structure contrasts with more verdant neighbours to provide an enhanced sense of depth. With its ability to tolerate a variety of conditions (including low light and open, windy situations), this native shrub is a species that deserves to be seen more often in gardens and public plantings.

In line with our interest in the sensitive integration of native species and selected flowering exotics,a wide range of flowering details are incorporated amongst the predominantly native structure, appearing over the course of the year. Many of these have a distinctly ‘masculine’ quality in keeping with the industrial nature of the site, such as the red flowerheads of Nerine fothergillii var. major, the tall coral-red stems of an American Penstemon species (P. barbatus), or the red-and-yellow flowers of an American species of columbine, Aquilegia skinneri (pictured, below right). At certain times of year, the remarkable cobalt-blue flowers of a trailing exotic groundcover, Parochetus communis, hover above the surface of its clover-like foliage.

Concrete walls and mesh are softened by native climbers, such as Parsonsia capsularis var. grandiflora, which scales the Cheshire Architects-designed entry frame on Wellesley St, and Clematis forsteri and Passiflora tetrandra, both of which grow within the adjacent courtyard. The use of plants of local or regional significance is an important design driver at City Works Depot. A critically-endangered, white-flowered groundcover from Auckland’s West Coast, Lobelia ‘Woodhill’, is planted in large numbers, whilst a recently-described species of ‘native daphne’ which was historically recorded from Central Auckland, called Pimelea orthia, is thriving in several pots. Shrubs of Corokia cotoneaster, which is considered rare in the Auckland region, come from stock propagated from Auckland’s Waitakere coastline – to a large degree because locally-occurring forms have characteristics that make them desirable from an aesthetic standpoint.

Our ‘native daphnes’ are well represented at City Works Depot, for two locally-occurring species (Pimelea urvilleana ssp. nesica, sourced from the Hauraki Gulf, and a Waitakere form of Pimelea prostrata) trail long stems of bluish-grey foliage over the side of pots in several areas. In more sheltered spots, the function of softening the sides of the predominantly concrete pots is performed by a native fuchsia, F. procumbens, which takes to its task with considerable enthusiasm, whilst the leafless, almost metallic stems of Muehlenbeckia ephedroides introduce an eccentric note to more exposed pots.

The main tree species planted at City Works Depot, Nestegis apetala (or coastal maire), was planted for its ability to withstand dry, exposed conditions (as a native of coastal cliffs) and its deep green, relatively lush foliage. A compact shrub from equally challenging environments, Melicytus aff. obovatus (Titahi Bay), delivers a similar shade of green to lower tiers of the plantings. This native of Wellington’s coastline (which can be seen below, right, as the taller shrub within the troughs) is an important plant for creating informal structure, in a similar manner to how it assumes rounded forms within nature.

The establishment of informal structure is a matter that we explore across a range of projects, and it is an important aspect of plantings at City Works Depot. As these develop further (whether in pots or inground plantings), this is investigated in different ways through the use of a diverse range of species; from the light green columns of a dwarf scented Pittosporum (P. pimeleoides) to the much larger, rounded form of Hebe parviflora, which has been recently planted at one of the major entry points to the site.

One of the most recent layers to have been planted at City Works Depot is a substantial grove of kōwhai on the Nelson St frontage, to accompany the spiral stair that provides access into the site. At the end of this upper lawn, one specimen of matai has been planted in association with an elegant native tree that figures regularly in our week, orooro (Nestegis montana).

Another recent stage of development has entailed planting within alcoves in the lowermost part of the site, as well as around a spiral staircase that leads to this area of City Works Depot. These alcoves (one of which is pictured below, left) contain large specimens of a beautiful Asian tree species, Dizygotheca elegantissima (whose relationship to our native lancewoods is readily apparent in the foliage), as well as the highly-scented Three Kings Islands hangehange (Geniostoma rupestre var. majus) and a range of smaller growing species that trail over the sides of the pots.

All photographs of the project described above are by David Straight. They may not be reproduced without permission from O2 Landscapes and the photographer.