Monday, 9 May 2011

Along the Great South Road

If Ed Hillary had stuck with beekeeping in Papakura, would he have made an impression in what was then a southern outpost of Auckland? Who knows? As it happens he went on to bigger things, such as Mount Everest, and in Papakura they think the world of him. He’s esteemed elsewhere, but this town-meets-country district claims him and names things after him, because it’s where he spent the childhood years that people describe as formative. 

“Seek the Highest”,
says Summa Pete.
Hillary didn’t attend Papakura High School — it opened in 1954, after he was first up the mountain — but it gives a nod to his conquests. The crest has pointy protuberances approximating snowy peaks, and the motto exhorts all to “SEEK THE HIGHEST”... in Latin, which provides the vocabulary essential for pedagogical pomp, GPs’ prescriptions and ecclesiastical accessories. That nearly dead language can bring a sense of gravitas, though to me Papakura’s “SUMMA PETE” brings to mind a sun-loving, bejandalled, txting teen who can’t wait to get out of Hicksville.

It isn’t fair. Papakura isn’t Hicksville. All the same, I wonder if summa Pete, that restless fella, can be found in the genetic or psychological make-up of famous Kiwis who hail from there (the four I could identify, anyway). And it seems unlikely any would have stood out when they started... except that Hillary was tall.

The price of happiness:
pies for sale in Great South
Road, Papakura.
Justine Troy and Geoff Ross, now known for the international vodka brand 42 Below, were a prefect and a deputy head boy at Papakura High. Did their mums, both foundation pupils, have an inkling where they’d go and what they’d do? And who had heard of Keisha Castle-Hughes before she starred in Whale Rider? (It’s cheating just a little to include her: her student days at Rosehill College came later.)

Leaving a Legacy
Papakura is quite small. (The district, pre-Supercity, covered 126 square kilometres. Franklin, to the south, covered 2109.) But its council seems to have spent up large in its last months. The public library has been open at its current location since October 2010, just before amalgamation, and its move there was among the council’s “legacy” projects, notes the Papakura District News (Sept 2010).

It appears that while some other councils marked the end of their tenure by holding big parties, or by commissioning and publishing big books about themselves, Papakura District was investing in its library, museum, theatre and art gallery. It could have done worse.

The way in: library and museum
entrance in Great South Road.
The Sir Edmund Hillary Library (there he is: you see?) is in the same building as before, but together with the museum it’s descended one storey — to street level. So between shops in Great South Road, a glass-fronted entrance announces the library and museum at 209, and that’s where Carol and I went in. That day, a sandwich board advertised the café inside, bringing to a happy conclusion our negotiations about whether to recaffeinate before or after the library visit.

Light and Air
There’s a pleasant walk up, on a manageable slope (there’s also a lift straight up from the undercover carpark that’s entered from East Street). Here the design, including stunning murals by Desna Whaanga-Schollum, is “inspired by the natural environment and important geographical sites of Papakura — Pukekiwiriki Pa [Red Hill] in the east and the Pahurehure Inlet and the Manukau Harbour in the west”, says the sign. In this entrance area and plaza, and the library itself, detailing in unstained pine accentuates a sense of light and air, as do wall-length windows.

The Esquires Coffee House in the plaza has limited hours, according to my fellow library tourist. It was open the Saturday that Carol and I bowled up, and offered great views of comings and goings. As we sipped our ginormous lattes, numerous people went in and out of the library, many of them parents and children. This tallied with the former council’s description of its community as having proportionately more young families than other parts of New Zealand. Fewer people entered the museum — a shame, as from the outside it looked well set up. 

The book-return slot at the Sir Edmund
Hillary Library, and an important family ritual.

The library feels spacious. Just inside is a semi-enclosed magazine area whose tables offer space for spreading out, and after that on the left is a large children’s and young adult section. It’s great to have this so visible and accessible, rather than at the far end of the library, and when we strolled by, a couple of Maori mums were reading with their toddlers.

Walk straight towards the back wall, and you’ll find the reference and Maori sections in another semi-enclosed space. I had a little difficulty telling what was where, eventually realising that the timber framework over part of the area embraces the Maori books and suggests a wharenui, the meeting house at a marae.

Space to spread out, as seen
through a wall-high window.
Help: I Need Somebody
Back near the entrance, at a small cluster of one-person ‘stations’ (and a staff desk large enough for one to work at), we can look for someone to help us or to answer a question. The smallness and subtlety of this compared with the rest of the facilities encourages the feeling that the library is for us to use rather than something to which only librarians can give access.

By design, this library gives the impression of delivering everything directly to the public. But did the designers go too far? That area for interaction with the professionals is unsignposted, looks like a self-service space. Lack of an obvious help desk can reinforce an illusion that the library is meant to run itself, making things harder for people who don’t have the knowledge they need or want.

Those funky little ‘stations’ remind me of a similar feature at the East Coast Bays library. There, it seems that designers attempting to create non-intimidatory ‘interfaces’ for staff and patrons have imported white elephants
instead. People wanting help gravitate towards a large, clearly delineated counter.

A street-side mural contrasts old Papakura with the new.

The Bishop, Bullock Wagons and Broadway 
The town around the Papakura library and museum is worth a wander, and I was surprised to discover the old parts. One of the best is on the corner of Great South Road and Queen Street. “That’s a Selwyn church,” I exclaimed, as we drove past and my long-dormant architectural memory stirred.

Yes, it is: one of many commissioned and inspired by George Augustus Selwyn, “the missionary bishop par excellence who travelled New Zealand from the 1840s to the 1860s, frequently on foot. Opened in 1863 and with sympathetic additions since, Christ Church in Papakura retains the steep gables that are a Selwyn signature, though often architect Frederick Thatcher was the designer.

 The Selwyn Churches of Auckland lists this as one of the “Late Examples” of Selwyn churches “in the Frontier Towns”. Initially the journey from Auckland to Papakura could take two days’ hard slog by bullock wagon, author CR Knight reminds us, though the road was upgraded for military transit during the land wars.

Downtown Papakura seems to have had mixed fortunes. There’s more than one shopping street, and one called Broadway — complete with Broadway Buildings (1922 ) — marks this as a town with ambitions, possibly theatrical. Given its distance from New York, this is as Off Broadway as can be. The Papakura Theatre Company gets the joke; its nearby HQ is “the Off Broadway Theatre”.

Two-dollar-shop flowers,
adding splashes of colour.
Some premises are empty, with “To Lease” signs in the windows. As with many hard-up suburban centres, two-dollar shops have found a niche. One business that’s booming is the Red Cross Shop, with colour-coordinated racks of good-quality clothing in the window. This is in prime position on the corner of Great South and Queen, opposite the church.

A Local Living Treasure
No weekend excursion is complete without a walk in the park, and The Field Guide to Auckland recommends the 5.5 hectare Kirks Bush as “Papakura’s Living Treasure”. It’s just south of the town centre, and even viewed from the outside, this forest remnant is impressive. I hadn’t previously been aware of taraire and pukatea trees, two of the park’s mainstays, and walking between their 20-metre trunks I found them majestic, somewhat primaeval.

Some people have expressed their appreciation by tagging the trees and defacing the signs that identify them. This place has been a park since 1926, maintained at various times by a paid custodian and teams of volunteers. The destruction must have broken their hearts more than once.

Still, we loved Kirk’s Bush. I like to think that if more people spend ‘quality time’ in our public places, be they libraries or reserves, vandalism will be vanquished and our community enhanced.

Many happy returns: In a mural by Desna Whaanga-Schollum,
local resident John Dory makes for the library’s returns slot.

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget there is Papakura Education Services inside the building too- a perfect compliment to the library :)