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Green spaces: Auckland's Wintergarden

Every big city has a sanctuary of sorts, a place where people can escape from the madness around them. New York has its famous Central Park; in London you can take your pick of Hyde, Regent’s, Green or St James’ parks – all greening up large parts of some of the world’s most expensive real estate. At the other end of the world, Auckland, the largest city in the island nation of New Zealand, has the Auckland Domain, a generous 75-hectare park squeezed between some of the city’s busiest districts.

As the city’s oldest park, it serves multiple purposes, providing sports pitches, athletics tracks and concert venues, and playing host to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, a neoclassical mass of marble and stone that dominates the highest point in the park, perched atop the remains of a long-dormant volcano. The vast green space undulates, with the high points offering staggering views across the city and harbour, while more secluded corners welcome the city’s urban population to while away their lunch hour.

Just down the hill from the museum is the real jewel in the Domain’s crown: the Wintergarden. Designed by Auckland architectural firm Gummer and Ford, the combination of brick, glass and steel is reflective of a Victorian aesthetic familiar to anyone who has ever visited London’s Alexandra Palace. Constructed in the 1920s, the garden’s architectural style makes it appear older than it is, but this quiet corner of the park is one of its most-visited attractions – its small spaces attract visitor numbers that peak in their thousands on both days of weekends, while a steady flow of locals and tourists come through during the week.

“It is purely a pleasure garden,” explains Melanie James of City Parks Services, part of Auckland City Council. James has worked in and around the garden for more than 26 years, having first joined its team as an apprentice horticulturalist. She now manages the Wintergarden, the wider Auckland Domain and its supporting nursery. “The Wintergarden is a constant floral display, that is the brief we work to. We’re not a botanical garden. Things don’t all have to be labelled, but it has to be full of flowers the whole time.”

Original funding for the garden’s construction came from an agricultural exposition that took place in early 1914. With project plans curtailed by the onset of the First World War, it wasn’t until 1921 that the garden’s Temperate House was completed. Another eight years would pass before its twin Tropical House would join it on site, the two glass houses facing up to each other across a formal courtyard with a central sunken lily pond, quirky statuary and surrounding pergolas. The order and peace of the courtyard is complemented by the adjoining fernery, where native New Zealand plants spiral down the steep sides of what was once a quarry, and lead visitors down into a naturally cool and secluded spot to hide from the crowds above.

In the tight spaces of the glasshouses, the plants dominate. The Temperate House has ever-changing displays of flowers in bloom, which fill the space with an all-enveloping floral perfume and a cacophony of birdsong, as some of the winged locals flit in and out, chasing nectar and sometimes the insects that buzz in, too. Across the courtyard, the centre of the Tropical House is dominated by a pond, complete with giant lily pad, which James says can support the weight of a very still toddler, a party-trick that the garden’s team pull out on special occasions. A leafy alcove at one end provides a secluded spot for some quiet contemplation, although passing visitors are just a metre or so away. Flowering orchids add colour among the greenery of the notably warmer Tropical House, heated to an average of 28°C from the floor up by circulating hot water.

The garden may not have a botanical purpose, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t special plants for visitors to take in. “We’ve got some things that are pretty special, like the huge cycad in the Tropical House,” James explains. “We’ve thought about relocating it since it is so huge it is touching the glass, but there’s nowhere to take it; it has to be in a tropical environment and no one else has that sort of situation where they could keep it alive.”

Maintenance of the heritage-listed site and its flora is no easy task. For one, there’s no sprinkler system, so each and every one of the plants has to be watered by hand every day. Demand for a constant picture of blooming perfection in the Temperate House means that plants are swapped out every week, as they go out of flower, replaced with new, budding examples. Because the flowers are annuals, a crop may last a month if the team are lucky, so there’s constant demand for change, keeping the nearby nursery busy all year round. “We are open every single day of the year,” James says. “We don’t ever shut, so it’s constantly keeping the place maintained while having the public coming through pretty much all the time.”

When it comes to the buildings themselves, their heritage status creates a long list of dos and don’ts, all aimed at preserving the site for future generations, but there are distinct benefits, too. For one, the Wintergarden’s look earned it a cameo role in the 1983 David Bowie film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. For another, the location has an effect on the way the team that cares for it works. “It enhances the way we operate,” James explains. “It makes you always feel like you are somewhere pretty special, but there are some things we can’t do. So, for instance, the gutters are too small for the volume of water, but we can’t change them because they are heritage, so with things like that if any restorations are done they have to be done as they would have been originally.”

This is also getting tougher, because the range of tradespeople with the skills to work on glasshouses of this age and type has narrowed considerably over the years. Now, even cleaning can be a major endeavour. Despite these challenges, the venue remains a firm favourite among Aucklanders and the city’s international visitors, drawn by its combination of beauty, history and local feel.

“I think it’s the atmosphere,” James says. “It takes you back in time. It always looks the same, the plants might not be the same – some things will trend and others will drop off – but [a visit] is like looking back into a little bit of history. The Victorian look, the pond and that sound of running water make it a little oasis of quiet in the middle of the city. The whole park is, really.”

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