Images of the beautifully-lit exterior of Auckland’s museum have featured online and in traditional media outlets in recent months. For a select number of significant global, national or community events each year we offer up something special – to reflect the interests of Aucklanders.
We have customarily lit the building a somber red for ANZAC Day to pay respect to those who gave their lives. In recent months we’ve provided customised lighting for events such as the return of Team New Zealand, Matariki, the Auckland Pride Festival, the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation and the birth of William and Kate’s first child.
On the evening of Saturday 12 October however, as part of our Passchendaele commemorations, the exterior of the museum will intentionally not be lit. In just two days in October 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele saw New Zealand suffer its greatest ever military losses. More than 840 New Zealanders died and some 3000 casualties were recorded. To mark this extraordinary sacrifice, the museum exterior will “go dark” on Saturday night.
Prompted by media coverage about the lighting of the building of late, I penned the following tribute which I hope you will enjoy. It’s entitled “My Favourite Building”.
New Zealand’s contribution to the First World War was literally second to none. From a population of fewer than a million people, 1 in 5 travelled 12,000 miles to fight – and in so many tragic cases to die – in a war triggered by politics in far-away Europe.
After the end of WWI, our forefathers hatched a plan for a memorial on a scale to match the sacrifices, both – obviously – in the trenches and less obviously, but in many ways more deeply etched, on the home front. They conceived a building of classical Greco-Roman design, with a commanding north elevation that speaks clearly of commemoration and remembrance. It stands with serene authority on the very edge of one of Auckland’s more than 50 long-extinct volcanic cones, facing the Waitemata and prominent from the waters of the harbour and the Hauraki Gulf beyond; visible to generations of travellers by sea and a landmark for the people of the extended province of Auckland.
Back in 1929 when construction was completed, the views were unobstructed from right around the compass. More recently, the skyline of the bustling city to the west of The Domain distracts the eye, while a variety of trees and notably many beautiful Pohutukawa have softened the surrounding landscape. The vegetation, the bush and the grassy slopes provide a mature and soothing natural environment. The building seems at times to nestle, but it loses none of its distinctiveness; and our forefathers’ intention is a clear as ever.
The soaring columns of the memorial, fashioned by skilled craftsmen from stone brought by sea from England, convey with undiminished and eloquent determination the complex twin messages: “we will remember them” and “a war to end all wars”. The first remains the abiding purpose, day by day, year on year; lasting and in perpetuity. The second is a resonant plea, handed down from that generation of the post-Great War families; it remains our ideal, an elusive goal in our supposedly civilized society. Inside, through the Grand Foyer with its sense of the invincibility of the human spirit, the visitor ascends to a sanctuary that bears the names and records the terrible impact of war.
After the awful loss of more than 4,000 Aucklanders in the Second World War, the people of this Pacific city once again raised a massive subscription to extend the memorial. By the 1960s the building had almost doubled in size, extending southwards to a graceful curving counterpoint. Meanwhile, within, the design incorporated a ‘Hall of Memories’ – more names, more emblems – and a single marble section bearing the hopeful echo of our long-lived ideal: “let these panels never be filled”.
During a stroll around the perimeter of the building – north, south, east and west – each battle comes to the eye through the stonemasons’ inscriptions above the windows. New Zealand has more than done her bit and the stories are told all-too clearly; the military and social histories are not locked in archives, they are hand-crafted in stone and available to the busiest readers as they hurry by. This is indeed a building that speaks for itself; that offers pause for thought; that reaches towards us from the courageous people of our past.
By virtue of its inspiring position, near the sky, and through its engaging proportions and surprising gracefulness for its scale, it offers reassurance. It is a constant in a changing world. Sometimes lit at night to reflect important causes; always available as a place for Aucklanders to connect with their history and ponder the future; a whare taonga; a soft place for the exchange of hard ideas, with space for story-telling; and above all – ‘we will remember them’ – an abiding reminder that we must all try harder to fight for peace.
Based on an article published in Heritage New Zealand magazine.