She waved her wand and created magic
When Megan Wraight first started dabbling in gardening in the 1980s, she put an ad in The Press: ‘‘Garden getting out of hand? I’d love to help you with it!’’
She explained at the time to her friend, artist Maryrose Crook, that it was nonthreatening, so people wouldn’t expect an expert, but would instead feel a friend was coming to help out.
That playful disarming, which Crook described as one of the secrets to Wraight’s genius, drew like-minded people towards her. A collaborator at heart, when people speak about Wraight, they mention her desire to create, and love of people.
Talking to The Dominion Post in 2006 about one of her landmark projects, Wellington’s Waitangi Park redevelopment, the pioneering landscape architect was fielding complaints from those who reckoned there was too much concrete involved.
‘‘People will have to be patient,’’ she said, referring to the end product.
When Crook imagines the site now, with its shaggy grasses and open spaces, and its sense of a journey, she pictures Wraight’s own spirit.
The site, which became one of her most celebrated and iconic works, was on reclaimed land near the historic Waitangi Lagoon, fed by the Waitangi Stream.
According to Wellington City Council, the stream once fed a more extensive wetland used by Ma¯ori for gathering kai, launching waka, and as a source of freshwater.
The Wairarapa earthquake in 1855, which lifted the land by 1.5 metres, forced the stream underground, and it became part of the city’s stormwater network.
Working through Wraight Athfield Landscape Architecture, with co-project leader John Hardwick-Smith, Wraight helped re-divert the piped stream into the park’s wetlands, which were designed to naturally filter out heavy pollutants via a system of densely planted native sedges and reeds.
As the water moves towards the harbour, planted sloped terraces were designed for further filtering. Wraight also installed an open-air pond, and a rain garden to collect and filter storm water run-off.
The finished park ended up covering 30 per cent of the city’s waterfront, amounting to six hectares and a cost of $22 million. It won several awards, including prizes from the New Zealand Institute of Architects and New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects.
Di Lucas, director of Lucas Associates, says Waitangi Park is an example of Wraight’s recognising elements of the past within the present, to move into the future.
Wraight worked to thread together whakapapa of Aotearoa’s natures and cultures, Lucas says, and was skilled at every step of the weaving process.
Hardwick-Smith says Wraight’s designs drew strongly on a site’s personality – ecologies, layers of culture, previous interventions and use. She had a
healthy disrespect for boundaries.
As well as a skilled practitioner, Wraight has been described as caring and determined, with unerring instincts. She was able to work with the public and authorities to understand and transform a space. She respected natural landscapes, and always thought about sustainability.
Born in 1961 in Rangiora, Wraight grew up there, and later in rural Havelock North, then in Motueka. As a child, the middle of five, she was interested in horse riding, and had no fear even of difficult, fiery horses. Her bedroom wall was covered in prize ribbons.
Her mother Anna, an artist, bred ponies, while her father Michael was a plant scientist. Tim Wraight, her elder brother, describes her as having inherited both of their qualities.
They were outdoors children, and had a free-range lifestyle. Anna and Michael trusted them to look after themselves. There was time on the farm, building forts, sliding down hills, exploring.
They would walk a couple of miles to school each day. Anna would always tell her children that if they were going to do something, to do it properly or not bother at all.
Wraight was always a good organiser, and threw the best birthday parties. She would make them as memorable as possible, and invite many people. She was loyal to the family.
Leaving home at 16, Wraight travelled to the United Kingdom in her early 20s, where her brother Tim was already living. She got into landscaping around London, but returned home when her mother fell sick.
Working in New Zealand as a landscaper, she decided to take it further and left again to study landscape architecture at RMIT University in Melbourne.
Returning again to New Zealand, Wraight worked for well-known firm Boffa Miskell, before founding her own practice based in Wellington, Wraight + Associates.
She was lead landscape architect on several of the country’s large-scale urban projects, including Wellington’s Pukeahu National War Memorial Park and the
waterfront redevelopment, Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter, Taranaki Wharf, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre and Christchurch’s Te Ara Ihutai Coastal Pathway.
An advocate for education, Wraight contributed to Victoria University of Wellington’s landscape architecture programme. Dr Hannah Hopewell, from the university, says Wraight made a tremendous impact on the professional practice of landscape architecture, especially as a role model for young women.
She had extraordinary intelligence about landscapes, botanical knowledge, a design eye, and a good hand, says her friend and collaborator Hugh Tennent, director of Tennent Brown Architects.
She was passionate about conservation, and worked to achieve synergy. ‘‘She was a pretty extraordinary person . . . For me, the greatest collaborator I’ve ever had.’’
While her architectural voice was particularly New Zealand, her sense of how space was used by people was especially international.
Her work wasn’t about being on show, but rather about creating spaces that felt natural and that accommodated and were animated by people.
But while Wraight never sought to impose a sense of the maker’s hand, her focus on regeneration ended up being, somewhat ironically, a signature.
She had the ability to design for 50 years in the future, down to the last tree or Meuhlenbeckia. She also had a sound ideas base.
One idea of hers that Tennent wanted to see realised was Te Matau a Ma¯ui – Maui’s fish hook – towering up from both sides of Wellington’s northern motorway – but it ended up being put on ice.
In 2013, she was the first landscape architect to receive the Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award. It was a fitting recognition, says Mark Amery, arts commentator, curator and advocate.
‘‘It’s a mark of Megan’s distinctive, innovative style and impact on our culture that this landscape architect and public space creator was made a laureate . . . the first New Zealand landscape architect to be awarded a notable arts prize.
‘‘Wraight was a pioneer in the creation of dynamic public space: designing spaces that boldly balance the restoration of environment and heritage with the need for people of all ages and backgrounds to explore and creatively play.’’
Her receiving the laureate was a significant moment for the architectural world, as it was recognition of architects
being artists, says Simon Bowden, the foundation’s former executive director.
Wraight once told Bowden she would go on secret night missions to tend to Waitangi Park, and to do plantings.
‘‘I think she did this without permission, but out of love,’’ he says. ‘‘It
. . . speaks to her cheeky nature, always prepared to go the whole way for her work. Like a painter, dropping into the gallery to fix up a painting.’’
Lucas still laughs at one memory from years ago listening to Radio New Zealand, hearing Wraight discuss the integration of green space into an urban area.
Wraight’s daughter Wawe, then a baby, called out in the background emphatically during her mother’s interview, in an endorsing manner.
‘‘People don’t necessarily think about who designed a . . . public space like they do with a building,’’ Lucas says. ‘‘They say a sign of success with urban spaces is if no-one knew you’d been there.
‘‘But Megan waved her wand and created magic.’’ – By Andre Chumko
She would go on secret night missions to tend to Waitangi Park, and to do plantings ... ‘‘Like a painter, dropping into the gallery to fix up a painting.’’
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Megan Wraight created, among many other projects, Wellington’s Waitangi Park, right, on the site of the former Waitangi Lagoon. She planted the extensive area with native sedges and reeds to filter out heavy pollutants.