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TWO YOUNG AUCKLAND ARCHITECTS TELL ALICE NEVILLE WHY FOOD IS THE KEY TO A THRIVING CITY.
Alice Neville meets the architects trying to make Auckland a better place
FIVE YEARS AGO, Nat Cheshire was sitting outside in the sun, reading the paper and drinking a Bloody Mary, at the newly opened Britomart Country Club, a bar his architecture firm had designed and project-managed. “I just stayed there all day and all night because it was only the second thing we’d made, and it was magic,” he says.
About 11am an “incredibly cool young Korean couple” walked past the door and looked in, then kept walking. Two minutes later they walked past the other way, looked in and paused, then walked on. Thirty seconds later they were back, stood outside the gate, had a quick conversation, then hurried on.
“They couldn’t cross the threshold,” Cheshire recalls. “It suggested to me that there was a doorway I couldn’t see, a doorway invisible to people like me but that was highly visible to them. I mean, these kids were way cooler than I was – they deserved to be in there more than I did – but they weren’t comfortable crossing the threshold.”
With his father, renowned architect Pip Cheshire, 35-year-old Nat heads Cheshire Architects, a company that has played a key role in the development of Britomart and the accompanying renaissance of inner-city Auckland – the rapid transformation of the heart of New Zealand’s biggest city from an embarrassment to a drawcard. Britomart Country Club (BCC) was an early case in point. It was fun – a garden bar made from repurposed shipping containers, featuring a putting green and a petanque court, a crimson marble bar, brick walls and slatted timber decks.
So what was it that turned off the Korean couple? Cheshire raised the episode with his Chinese-born colleague Dajiang (DJ) Tai, with whom he worked closely on BCC, and this invisible doorway sparked a new focus for the pair.
It’s no secret that Auckland has a large, thriving Asian population – according to the 2013 census, 307,233 Aucklanders (almost one in four) identified with one or more Asian ethnic groups, with 200,000 of those Asia-born. But Cheshire and Tai believe there’s not a lot of integration going on, particularly on a social level.
“We’re completely socially segregated,” says Cheshire. “Come dinner time we go to different parts of the city. Come 11pm we go out drinking, they go out eating.
“In this very new city with such a shallow history, there is enormous opportunity to collide these cultures in a way that’s more profitable. The one roadblock is that the two [cultures] don’t talk to each other.”
The tipping point came when Cheshire Architects took on the Milse project. The Hip Groupowned dessert restaurant opened in Britomart in 2013, and the city had never seen anything like it.
“That place just got stormed day and night for months on end,” recalls Cheshire. “And it got stormed by people we otherwise never saw in
“In this very new city with such a shallow history, there is enormous opportunity to collide these cultures in a way that’s more profitable. The one roadblock is that the two cultures don’t talk to each other.”
Britomart. That was like taking those two Korean kids outside BCC and throwing them at us by the hundreds.”
Milse had originally been planned as a rubbish-holding room for the Britomart precinct. It’s a small, awkward space, but the Cheshire team decided to emphasise its cave-like intensity with carved wooden Moorish panels that cover the entire space. A foreign concept to New Zealand perhaps, but Tai says it was very familiar for Asian immigrants.
“Narrow, intense, people waiting in a queue, shouting out... people hadn’t seen that before here. You feel like you’re in the urban environment, which is very important for our culture. We grew up amongst concrete jungles, so being there, seeing a lot of people around you in a little alleyway, it was very different in Auckland but familiar to us.”
The food offering was also crucial – rows of beautiful dessert items laid out in a glass cabinet – with options from gelato-on-a-stick takeaway to sit-down full dessert degustation.
“When you go in there you can understand everything you see – you don’t get offered a menu with things you can’t understand and have to secretly Google,” says Tai. “It’s very direct. I can take my grandma to it, I can take my little niece to it – it’s for everyone.”
Cheshire has never been shy about the fact that his firm has lofty goals – they’re not just designing buildings, they’re trying to create a better city. To that end, the company manages projects from go to whoa, taking charge of everything from apron buttons to web design to light fittings.
The Milse experience made Cheshire and Tai realise that food was fertile territory for building a common ground, somewhere where Asian and non-Asian cultures could collide. This idea was the basis of their recent talk at the NZ Symposium of Gastronomy, titled “Uncommon Space, Common Ground”.
The pair first collaborated on Cafe Hanoi, which served as a flag-bearer for Britomart’s renaissance when it opened in 2010. With its bright
red mismatched chairs, bare concrete walls and paper lanterns, it was cool and exciting, but it wasn’t easy, says Cheshire.
“How do you do a Vietnamese restaurant, never having been to Vietnam, on the other side of the world in a 130-year-old British bank building?”
It was, he says, about “tunnelling into the food, tunnelling into the way that people ate, tunnelling into the way the city [Hanoi] operated, and then mixing that with contemporary Auckland culture in a way that would make it digestible”.
Tai, 32, who moved to New Zealand from Liaoning in northern China when he was 15, says when he first began working on hospitality projects like Cafe Hanoi, “I realised my background, where I come from, [meant] I can’t really offer much because I just don’t understand.”
But he soon discovered that by digging deep within himself, he could conjure up memories that he could inject into projects. This came in particularly handy with Xuxu, Cafe Hanoi’s sister bar that opened in 2012.
“Xuxu was trying to be a grownup bar – a bar where you can sit and have a conversation – in a city that didn’t really do grownup bars,” explains Cheshire.
“And at the same time it was trying to be the best dumpling bar in the city, and it was trying to do both those things in the same space.”
They talked a lot about how by giving Xuxu an “Asian” theme, “that meant essentially we were involved in a world of Orientalism – not necessarily all that far removed from the barely disguised oriental erotica of 19th-century colonialism.
“There is this collision between the European salon-type spaces – high ceilings, wainscoting, marble bars – with subtle ink paintings of bamboo groves in the mist. It’s a strangely exoticised or eroticised white person’s version of an Asian space in downtown Auckland.”
And then came Saan. Opened last year by Krishna Botica and Tony McGeorge, the owners of Cafe Hanoi and Xuxu, the Ponsonby restaurant is a vehicle for the passion of Thai chef Wichian “Lek” Trirattanavatin, previously of Cafe Hanoi, to bring Isaan and Lanna cuisine from the north of Thailand to Auckland.
The approach to designing the restaurant, says Tai, was: “OK, if we forget about everything we’ve seen about Thai restaurants, how do we start from the very beginning of what the chef thinks about his food.”
They started with childhood photos, stories Trirattanavatin’s grandma told him, and memories such as the dusty little courtyard he’d squat in to eat as a child.
Explaining the bond he forged with Trirattanavatin, Tai says: “We come from similar parts of the world. His English is not that great, but there were things he didn’t have to explain to me – I’d just go yeah, yeah, I understand what you’re trying to say.”
“All the cabinetry is designed very small scale to reflect that domestic quality – it’s like going to Lek’s house instead of visiting a big commercial restaurant. Everything is handmade, just like he makes his food.”
Tai shares the story of an elderly Singaporean lady who was at Saan one night. “She went to the bathroom and on the way she passed the open kitchen. And she stopped and looked, and then kept going, then later on came back to say to Krish [Botica] that ‘Oh, this scene reminds me of my old grandma’s house’. It’s those moments that go deep into people’s memories.”
Tai would love to see a Chinese restaurant with a similar aesthetic come to Auckland. While both Tai and Cheshire love Dominion Road, the sprawling Auckland street that boasts a plethora of cheap and cheerful eateries serving up some of the city’s best dumplings and noodles, it’s hardly sophisticated. That, of course, is why
it is so loved – many Aucklanders have a huge soft spot for the place. They like that it’s rough around the edges, that it doesn’t try too hard. Plenty of them would turn up their noses at the thought of eating Chinese food in more salubrious surroundings. Why would you go to Xuxu when you can go to bustling, brightly lit, plastic-table-clothed Barilla?
That question was much discussed leading up to the pair’s talk at the Symposium of Gastronomy, they say.
“We love the food on Dominion Road, we’ve got no issue with the food. We love that it’s cheap, we’ve got no issue with the price,” says Cheshire. “Why should it aspire to do anything more?”
One of the key things, they decided, was that Dominion Road restaurants weren’t really a place where you could linger and spend a great night out.
“Can you imagine spending four hours in Barilla under the fluoro lights, with the grumpy waitress spilling tea all over you?”
As Tai points out, “a Dominion Road restaurant doesn’t represent what a Chinese restaurant should be like. If my friends have just arrived from Beijing, and they say take me to the best Chinese restaurant in Auckland, I can’t – I have to take them to Blue Breeze Inn or something. I can’t take them to Dominion Road. That’s the embarrassing thing.”
Tai recently wrote an article in Auckland’s Chinese language newspaper the Chinese Herald about the “expensive bad taste”, as he puts it, of many Chinese Aucklanders. “In the eastern suburbs there’s all these wealthy people with their entire family living in a mansion with two Roman columns at the front, and the neighbour looks exactly the same”, he explains. The same article he touched on his frustration with Dominion Road – “if the food is this good, and the customer base is this solid, why can’t it be upgraded? Why can’t it be something else?”
A reader saw the article and got in touch with Tai to share his thoughts. It wasn’t an offended Howick mansion owner, thankfully, but the proprietor of the legendary Eden Noodles Cafe, the pint-sized, far-from-fancy Dominion Road eatery that regularly has queues snaking out the door for its incredible Sichuan food.
Ji Zou, who runs Eden Noodles with his wife Tina Xiao, told Tai he’d recently acquired a large space on Dominion Road and was interested in opening a new joint that aimed a little higher than Eden Noodles. Tai and Cheshire jumped at the chance to be involved.
Initial plans are to create a mixedvenue destination with both Chinese and non-Chinese food and beverage outlets feeding off each other. “The current idea is that we take the site and we don’t just say this is one big Eden Noodles factory, but there’s Eden Noodles and there’s Barilla Dumplings and whatever – but there might also be Coffee Supreme,” says Cheshire.
“I like to think that one day,” adds Tai, “the best Chinese restaurant is in Auckland, not in China.”
So perhaps Eden Noodles has opened an invisible door for these multi-disciplinary young architects, with their ideas of colliding cultures, to go charging through.
An early sketch of Saan
Dajiang Tai’s first sketch of Xuxu