A park situated on a hill, that is a memorial to war, and that needs paved areas capable of holding thousands of people for ceremonial occasions, could easily feel bleak, windswept, grim, and uninviting.
But the new Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington, which opened in April, is a terrific example of landscape architecture. The designers have taken a difficult site and complicated brief, and created a place of meaning, amenity, and beauty.
Landscape architect Megan Wraight and architect John Hardwick-Smith are to be saluted for their response to the key principle of the design brief, which was ‘to create a landscape for memorial that evokes, supports and hosts commemoration’.
Pukeahu (the name translates as sacred hill) feels both contemporary and historical. Sombre and respectful, yet welcoming and highly useable. It is a thoroughfare yet also feels like a discrete space. It encourages reflection without feeling oppressive. It is also quiet, despite State Highway 1 passing directly underneath through the beautiful new Arras Tunnel.
Prior to the new park being built, the 1932 Carillon and War Memorial were sadly marooned on the hill, presiding over a roundabout, 3 lanes of highway, and a general wasteland. Finally there is now an area that dignifies and anchors these buildings, that makes sense, and that draws people to the site.
This is a successful balancing act in so many ways. The ratio of hard to soft surface feels just right, the proportions of Anzac Square feel perfect in relation to the Carillon tower, there is plenty of detail and interest, it feels neither cluttered nor bare.
Symbolism abounds at the foot of the Carillon tower. A haunting bronze sculpture of Hinerangi by artist Darcy Nicholas stands facing the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and towards Aoraki Mt Cook far off in the South Island. The tassels on her cloak are tears for those lost in war, and the poutama designs are the pathways soldiers took in their journey to the spirit world. You can also see the poutama pattern in the adjacent pavers, symbolising the stairway to the spirit world.
Three magnificent boulders, sourced from Mounts Taranaki, Ruapehu, and Tongariro, are engraved with images that take us far back into the mythological past.
The planting is a pleasant surprise, with a nice range of both natives and exotics. Rather than being a strictly NZ native zone, the plan is for other countries to use their own indigenous plants as they contribute their memorials to the site. Hence the gum trees and grevilleas around the Australian memorial.
Plants are used in symbolic ways (olive trees for peace, pohutukawa, rata, and kowhai as the quintessential New Zealand trees), and also for their flowering times. The red carpet roses and white hebes will be in flower for Anzac celebrations, whilst Flanders poppies and renga-rengas will be out for Armistice Day in the spring.
I particularly like the way the trees are staked – using large lengths of manuka, which are beautiful in their own right. What a good idea to make a feature out of a necessity.
The Australian Memorial stands at the opposite side of the square from the Carillon, and its height is a nice counterpoint to the Carillon tower. The fifteen red columns represent the red centre of Australia. As visitors wander amongst them they find black granite panels engraved with Maori and Aboriginal art, and the names of parts of the world where New Zealanders and Australians have jointly served in war or peacekeeping.
The mingling of the red paving with the grey represents the two countries and their intertwined history. This memorial will only get better as the eucalypts grow up and over the columns – lets hope they withstand the Wellington wind.
What I love about this park is that it is not only a pleasant space to stroll about, but that it contains many layers of meanings and symbols which reward your closer attention. The history of the site is acknowledged and incorporated into the design. For instance, the pleasant grass terraces that, on a practical level deal with the rise of the hill on either side of the main square, also refer to a time when Maori developed gardens here in pre-colonial times.
A child on a scooter, a student cutting across to get to campus, a family with a picnic. People can use this park in a recreational way without feeling like they are being disrespectful. But on my visits I have also seen many people wandering through the Australian Memorial, reading the inscriptions, climbing the steps to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, coming away perhaps having learnt something new. There is a special atmosphere at this sacred hill. It does ‘evoke commemoration’. The designers have indeed achieved their objective.
For information in this post I have relied upon the booklet that was published for the official opening on April 18th 2015, and I thank Wellington City Council and the Ministry for Culture & Heritage for this. More information is available at the website: http://www.mch.govt.nz/pukeahu-national-war-memorial-park