Google Street View is a wonderful thing. Take a look at 31 Galway Street in 2009 and, along with the rest of the area, it’s a tar-sealed carpark. Scroll to 2012 and it’s the Britomart Country Club, a bar designed by Cheshire Architects, made from containers and surrounded by a shiny steel fence. Come 2018, it’s a building site.
Turn up in person now and you’d be forgiven for being bewildered. “There is a rigour to Britomart,” says Cheshire’s Dajiang Tai, who has worked on the area for a decade, and The Hotel Britomart for three years. “Just when you think it’s done, something new pops up. The hotel is the signal for the second stage of Britomart – it’s a hint for what the future holds.”
The hotel occupies two buildings, one historic and one new, united by a ground-floor space around a laneway that blurs the divisions between public and private, old and new. On the Customs Street side is the Buckland Building – a 19th-century wedding cake on the outside, raw warehouse space on the inside – and on Galway, a new 10-storey brick tower.
There’s a serene lobby featuring a wall of cracked mud and a massive bluestone boulder set into the floor. There’s dark timber cabinetry, cobblestone floors. linen curtains, long banquettes and steel windows. The cobbled laneway winds around this new building and through the heritage building, punching into Customs Street with the original kauri columns and brick on display. “It’s Britomart intensified in its complexity,” says Tai.
At the ground-floor, Kingi – a restaurant from Tom Hishon and Josh Helm – spills into the laneway and an outdoor area with an open fire. There are 99 rooms in the new building: they’re deliberately small, contained, with fine touches including built-in cabinetry and window seats, and the perfect place to put your book by your bed. Above, there are three rooftop terraces with harbour views and expansive terraces.
In the original building, two more rooftop suites are set back behind the parapet of the Buckland Building, an invisible modern addition to a heritage structure. The results are all determinedly handmade and beautifully crafted. “Beauty is the manifestation of care,” says Nat Cheshire. “It’s care for who you are making things for, and what you’re making those things out of.”
With rooms featuring hand-made ceramics and books by New Zealand writers and photographers, it’s an exhaustive, detailed, uncompromising exercise in New Zealandness fractured and filtered through a new lens that shies away from overt luxury. “We didn’t want it to be lavish,” says Britomart’s development director Campbell Williamson. “We wanted it to be comfortable and serene and to have a relationship with The Landing, our property up north. That’s why it’s bricks and stone and earthy tones – it’s not plasticky or ostentatious.”
The idea for a hotel here isn’t new. Nat Cheshire designed the concept for the building almost a decade ago – a narrow tower with a constellation of small square windows sitting flat against the façade, a monolithic, abstracted building with a conscious heaviness sitting above an open lobby. “We wanted to make the façade quite abstract,” says Tai. “We wanted to blur things – there are two materials, windows and wall, and you can’t quite tell how many floors there are.”
Until three or four years ago, Britomart wasn’t ready for its latest addition. It needed shops, restaurants and cafes, many of which the Cheshire team has overseen. “Britomart wasn’t quite ready. And nor were we,” says Tai, who worked on the building with Nat and Pip Cheshire, along with colleagues Emily Priest, Tom Webster, Calum McNaught, Jin Young Jeong, Aiden Thornhill, Ellie Green, Simon McLean, Ian Scott and Ascinda Stark.
Come 2017, and Britomart was finally a precinct, with some of the city’s best retail and hospitality, which made a small hotel on a tiny site viable. “In a way, Britomart now has all the amenity of a hotel ground floor,” says Williamson. “We’ve got a gym, restaurants and cafes, and well-known retail brands. All we were missing was the rooms, and that was the crux of it – everything else had settled down nicely.”
The Cheshire team brought a multitude of experiences from various projects, both residential and hospitality. In the hotel, you can see everything from the restaurant Ortolana to award-winning houses on Waiheke and two small cabins at Kaiwaka: the DNA of craft and texture come together in one package. There’s a myriad of custom fittings, from cast bronze door handles to light fittings. “What it allowed us to do was converge all the vectors of our practice into one project,” says Nat Cheshire.
Brick is the common language that allows the new tower to talk with the heritage warehouse. The architects sought a fine-grained texture – from a distance, the building looks almost brutalist, but get closer and each brick is clearly made by hand, subtly different from the next. The material appears to wrap the bottom of the building to form the ceiling above the lobby. It looks like brick, but it’s actually pre-cast concrete panels, the handmade bricks set into a digitally printed rubber mould, then the concrete poured over the top. It’s the first time such a process has been used in New Zealand and it’s spectacular – both monolothic and detailed.
Such investment might put off other developers, but it speaks to the long-term approach at Britomart – the more so having opened a hotel during a pandemic, with closed borders. Not that they seem particularly worried. “We were careful and considered,” says Williamson. “Our company is a long-term owner and we’ve never held back on spending money that’s good for the long term.”
After its long gestation, Cheshire is proud of creating a place that people feel has “a soul of its own... It’s a big high-value commercial building with roughness and complexity and dirtiness and smokiness and smell and taste and emotion.”