Prime Minister Chris Hipkins officially opened the new building – "a pandemic project". Photo: Supplied

Ever wondered what happened to all those shovel-ready construction projects identified and funded with some urgency at the peak of the pandemic to help the building industry keep its workers employed?

One, a remarkable combination of a refurbished, “brutalist 50-year-old building” and a spectacular, light-filled new structure has just opened at the University of Auckland to house its education, social work and creative industries schools.

The new wing covers what used to be a concrete courtyard on Symonds St and the finished complex is not only a hero of the Covid Recovery Fund but six Green Star certified, recognising it as a world leading building. It was funded in part by a $200m, 10-year loan through the public agency the Crown Infrastructure Partners and Infrastructure Reference Group.

The university’s vice-chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater said “Covid-19 is woven into the fabric of this amazing and spectacular building that we have here.” When the government called for shovel-ready projects to be submitted for funding, the early work had been done. It became the biggest of the shovel-ready projects approved, she noted, but would not have happened without that urgent recovery funding.

Photo: Supplied

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins officially opened the prosaically named Building B201 on Tuesday. Covid, the pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions are not topics commonly raised by government ministers or MPs with a sceptical public, who some might say have a short and unforgiving memory of that time. 

“I think by and large New Zealanders have moved on from the pandemic period, and for a whole lot of very understandable reasons, and they don’t even want to think about it or talk about it now. But I think we should all be very proud as a country of what we were able to achieve.”

He said he would speak of the pandemic response if it was appropriate to do so. “This building was a pandemic project and now you can see the benefits of it.”

He used the opening ceremony to recall the early economic support decisions of the pandemic years, and his last visit to the project in 2021.

He was to tour the site on August 17 but as he arrived he received a call, as Covid Recovery Minister, from then Director-General of health Ashley Bloomfield alerting him to the outbreak of the Delta variant of the virus. He flew back to Wellington and soon after became what was the longest of the country’s Level 4 lockdowns.

With hindsight, he is able now to refer to that decision as “the beginning of the end of our elimination of Covid. We then went through the bumpy process of seeing Covid-19 in the community and getting our vaccination rates up.”

The PM took the chance to acknowledge Aucklanders having taken the lion’s share of the burden during the August to November lockdown. “We kept people alive and kept the health system operating and saved the lives of our health workers and exited that part of the pandemic with one of the lowest death rates anywhere in the world,” he said.

“Thank you to Auckland.”

During the most difficult periods of the pandemic, the economic slowdown was front of mind “for all of us. We knew building and construction would be one of the sectors that would be disrupted.”

Hipkins: “This building is one of our legacies. It was shovel-ready, it was a good investment for the university, it was a good example of what we can do when we rethink how we construct buildings and re-purpose buildings. One of the things we are proud of is that this is a repurposed building.

“It’s one of the most environmental buildings in the country and that’s a legacy of the decisions that we took in 2020 to back projects like this. We can look back and say there were some really good things that came out of that.

“What’s more amazing is what’s going to happen in this space now. It’s a huge milestone on many levels.”

Hipkins said his time as Prime Minister had coincided with shovel-ready projects started during the pandemic being completed, including the University of Otago’s trades training centre, an airport building at Taupō and a sports campus in Upper Hutt.

The university will bring its education and social work faculty to B201 from its Epsom location at the start of the 2024 year. 

Freshwater said the decision not to demolish a former science building on the site but instead to refurbish and save on embedded carbon showed the university’s commitment to sustainable processes and action. “It’s our hope B201 inspires others to see what can and should be done.”

Poet and university professor Selina Tusitala Marsh read a specially-written new poem about the building, its heritage and its future promise to the opening ceremony.

Poet and university professor Selina Tusitala Marsh. Photo: Supplied


By Selina Tusitala Marsh

For the Opening of the University of Auckland’s Social Sciences Building

(Thanks to Jasmax and Haumi)

It’s really, really hard to write
A poem about a building
Its rhymes are all square-cornered
Its rhythms are unyielding

But this six starred green beauty
This is another story
Waipapa Taumata Rau
Is building upon history

Waipapa, the way of water
Runs through B201
Taumata, achievement and excellence
Of Rau, of everyone

Activates this space
Where generations are regenerated
The adaptive reuse of what was before
Form the bones of story translated:

Apihai’s gift, Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei,
A building here half a century
Six stars makes us world leaders
In low carbon design sustainability

Waipapa’s history of rich industry
Where waka ramps bind land to sea
In 1838 reciprocal exchange
Between Pākehā and Māori

185 years on
Reciprocal exchange remains:
Knowledge, story, innovation, ideas
Runs through our now global veins

Our B201 landing ramp
Forged in Waipapa’s backyard
Flows to our Marae and our Fale
Linking Symonds Street to Wynyard

This is intuitive wayfinding
Conceived from panels of tukutuku
Crossing, weaving, exchanging, binding
Releasing korero, knowledge, old and new

He tukutuku korero, he tukutuku mātauranga
Green energy fastens hearts and minds
Rightly tensioned, forward-facing
Mirroring our global marae

Te Ara Tukutuku, the pathway
Between Tane Māhuta and Tangaroa
Tuku atu, tuku mai, hand over hand
Trading knowledge from sea to shore

Te Ara Moana’s bold, thick lines
Draws blue sky to green deep of land
Like ancestral search for new horizons
We question, create, understand

Shimmying through these panels
Ngāti Whātua’s favorite diamond pātiki
Flounder founder of manākitanga
Reciprocity, mana motuhake

Ranginui’s stairway steps in Walker’s truth:
To climb is to descend
To lead singularly is to serve the many
Seek excellence without end

Te Ātea o Hine, Aunty Hilda’s domain
Marks the restoration of campus mana
Hilkyard-Harawera’s unwavering stand —
Colonialism’s own belladonna

Currents of tukutuku steel-timber waves
Form a gateway above our heads
Valley floor and mountain peak
Synergising humanity’s threads

The crossed spines of two spatial axes
Run East to West and North to South
Connects all who shelter, to land and water
Links this space to ourselves

For here is where we land and learn
Here we challenge and yearn
Here we press and transgress
And here is where we never forget

That as knowledge moves
It always grows
Circulates, connects
Equips and embolds

So, welcome to Building 201
Our work, our play, has just begun.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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