A couple of years ago, when the personal circumstances of his life changed, Al Brown – chef, restaurateur, author, TV presenter and all-round culinary entrepreneur – went looking for an apartment in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. You get the impression he approached the task with all the relish – excuse me – of the Kiwi male contemplating a shopping expedition. Thankfully, his search was brief. One of the first apartments he visited was a two-bedder on the first floor of the 13-storey tower in the SKHY apartment complex in Newton. That’ll do, was Brown’s reaction. “Found a place I liked,” he says. One job done.
The apartment was mocked up with home-staging furniture when he first saw it. Ignoring the set-dressing – Brown is not a fan of inauthenticity – he noted the west-facing apartment’s afternoon light, its high stud and generous balcony, cantilevered over the building entrance, and the solidity of SKHY’s construction. He didn’t just like the apartment, he also liked its city-edge location. Or, at least, he wasn’t fazed by it. SKHY is adjacent to one of Auckland’s epic intersections: the meeting point of Newton Road, Symonds Street and Khyber Pass. (It takes its name from the latter two roads.) If that’s not enough traffic to be getting on with, the intersection of Symonds Street, Mt Eden Road and New North Road is just a block away.
The local business association is gamely attempting to rebrand this congested but convenient neighbourhood as ‘Uptown’. For the moment, it’s a hard sell, but SKHY gives the marketing campaign some credibility. The SKHY development comprises the tower and several lower-rise apartment buildings. Together, the blocks frame a courtyard sheltered from automotive assault. SKHY, says its architect, Pip Cheshire, co-founder with son Nat of leading Tāmaki Makaurau practice Cheshire Architects, is a work of “urban acupuncture”, a healing intervention in a part of town that was long ago surrendered to the traffic engineers. It is other things as well: a benchmark for the revival of an historic precinct, and a significant and timely case study in the adaptive re-use of existing building stock.
SKHY’s tower was previously a commercial building, completed in the late 1970s as the head office of Winstone, manufacturer and supplier of construction materials. Concrete was one of Winstone’s products and the company didn’t stint on its use in its own building. The tower was intended to rise to 24 storeys but a planning decision, which set the precedent for the protection of view shafts to Auckland’s volcanic cones, reduced its height to preserve the view of Maungawhau Mount Eden from the Harbour Bridge. Thirty-five years later, the tower and its associated cluster of low-rise commercial tenancies – themselves resembling the pimples of a small volcanic field – had “fallen on hard times”, says Cheshire. Asked to scope the site’s possibilities, Cheshire Architects determined the tower was eminently suitable for conversion into apartments. It was, though, “too hard to keep the low-rise stuff”.
SKHY was one of those projects, says Cheshire, “where you throw a six on day one – the first move sticks”. So: keep the tower, gut the interior, and remove the bands of concrete brise soleil from the exterior. The sacrifice of these sunshades in favour of high-performance glass exposed the beam ends of the concrete structure. They protrude by more than 600 millimetres, giving the building its distinctive appearance as a giant Jenga tower. From the tower’s top floors the views are vast. These upper levels, “sold themselves”, says Cheshire, but other SKHY inhabitants enjoy the consolations of amenity – balconies for most apartments, and 90 square metres of space for lower-level studios overlooking the lane on the building’s north side.
Upmarket apartment buildings are naked expressions of social stratification (or just relative affluence). Higher is better, the penthouse is best. Brown, however, wasn’t worried his apartment was nearer the pavement. “I liked the ’hood,” he says. “I didn’t mind that it felt a bit ganglands.” Brown, who grew up on a Wairarapa farm, is energised by urban life. He even likes the sound of sirens. “They make me feel I’m in a city.” And the early morning racket of rubbish trucks? “It’s just living in the city – shit has to happen.”
Brown is a city apartment-dweller from way back. Seeking kitchen experience at the start of his career, he headed for the United States, where he lived in small apartments in New York’s Greenwich Village and New Orleans. He graduated from the well-regarded New England Culinary Institute in Vermont – the college, unfortunately, has recently closed, a casualty of Covid – before returning to New Zealand. In 1986, he co-founded Wellington’s Logan Brown, choosing to site the fine-dining restaurant on Cuba Street, then in the grungy infancy of its ascent to hipness.
A dozen years later, Brown moved to Auckland and took to the city with a convert’s zeal. He went so far as to confess some contrition in a newspaper column: “I apologised to Auckland for 40 years of sledging.” Brown enjoys the cultural mix of Auckland, the climate and the harbour, and is sufficiently confident about the city’s charms to know there are plenty to go around. His SKHY apartment was close to the ground, “but I didn’t need a view of Rangitoto,” he says. What Brown did appreciate was SKHY’s combination of privacy – “I do like a nest” – and community. Everyone on his floor had a dog, and therefore something in common. “And there was a delightful couple next door,” he says. SKHY was a place where “you could go over for a cup of sugar, if you needed it”.
This seems to have been a rather theoretical scenario in Brown’s time at SKHY. He didn’t spend a lot of time in his kitchen. “It doesn’t make sense cooking for one in an apartment – a quarter of a head of broccoli, one piece of fish.” Solitary dining is apostasy for the gregarious Brown. Cooking is a social act, and with his circumstances having changed once more, he is performing in his personal as well as professional life. He’s living “up north” now, but the city is still in his system. “I’ll probably be back,” he says. “I’d like a bolt hole.”