Riddiford Gardens, the Hutt Valley’s first public park, has seen nearly a century of change. First founded in the 1920s, the Lower Hutt gardens had their heyday in the 1950s, when the modernist influences of a new Civic Precinct saw a library, community halls, theatre and Council Administration Building constructed within the gardens. Time, however, took its toll on the gardens and a comprehensive restoration and upgrade has been undertaken to bring public life back into the space.
When established in 1923, Riddiford Gardens housed a notable collection of trees and ornamental shrubs – a source of great pride for what was, at the time, largely a horticultural community. With the addition of Riddiford Baths (New Zealand’s largest outdoor pool, in its day) further cachet was brought to the area and it was subsequently a summer destination for generations of Hutt residents.
By the 1950s and 60s, however, the Hutt’s productive gardens had been paved over for state housing and other developing industries. The town had become a city. By the 1980s, the pool was gone, filled in, and the gardens began a slow decline, overgrown, cluttered, unloved and unsafe. It was the urgent need to address the earthquake-prone civic buildings that brought Riddiford Gardens into focus for renewal. Over five years, Isthmus’s strategic, staged Landscape Masterplan has repositioned Riddiford Gardens as a cultural landscape that sits at the heart of the community.
The masterplan reimagined Riddiford Gardens as a place that would celebrate heritage while enabling contemporary expressions of culture and community. It was tied into a wider ‘Making Places’ strategy, with the aim of long-term advancement of the Lower Hutt CBD. The project integrated the redevelopment of the Administration Building and Town Hall, and new Events Centre.
Early steps saw engagement workshops with a range of knowledge holders and stakeholders: HCC officers and councillors, mana whenua, businesses and community established a cohesive set of objectives for the project. Unsurprisingly given the Gardens’ heritage, the community espoused retention or reference to existing natural and cultural features, and defined the creation of a contemporary and accessible urban park for all as a priority.
Masterplanning began with the establishment of a clear movement structure through the gardens; a network of connections between different character areas, new and positive interfaces with surrounding buildings, and a hierarchy of primary, secondary and tertiary paths. A sequence of overlapping amenity spaces with new and restored attractions would welcome people of all ages into the Gardens.
The Opahu Stream, which flows through the Gardens, also became an important touchstone for the whole experience – one that would give the Gardens a locally distinctive sense of place. New boardwalks along secondary paths take people on a journey through the horticulturally diverse gardens and provide opportunities to connect with the stream.
The first stage of works focused on the space between the War Memorial Library and Queens Drive, with the cenotaph setting upgraded (and made fully accessible) and a design language established that could respond to the cleaner frontage applied to the Library and Little Theatre.
Relocating and removing trees opened the Anzac Lawn up for both everyday (picnics, games, and general gatherings) and ceremonial uses. The lawn is now integrated with a new paved space around the cenotaph, enabling Anzac Day gatherings that get larger, year upon year.
An elegant shelter marks the corner of the lawn and pulls the space right out to the urban edge. The shelter fulfils a dual brief as a busy bus stop (and does so with distinction; it is a Wellington Architecture Award winning project designed by long-term Isthmus collaborators HMOA). With a positive community response to the quality of stage one recognised, the platform was set for more ambitious stage two works.
Bringing people back
Three main components were delivered in stage two: the Civic Plaza, the Laings Road frontage of the refurbished Civic Administration Building (CAB), and the Stream Terraces to the rear of the CAB.
The design of Civic Plaza saw Riddiford Gardens’ wall of shrubbery transformed into an open and inviting space, allowing – for the first time in many years – the people of Lower Hutt to gather and enjoy the space, and not just move through it.
The new plaza specifically caters to young people, with skateable furniture and robust materials throughout and a new half basketball court that provides a popular hangout for Lower Hutt teenagers for the first time since Riddiford Baths closed in the ’80s.
Riddiford Pavilion (another New Zealand Architecture Award winner by HMOA) is a further invitation for the community to congregate. The generously sized shelter cloaks an old electricity substation, has two fully accessible public toilets, and cooking amenities that include a large ‘benchtop’ and coin-operated gas barbecues for whānau and family gatherings.
Throughout the space, richly detailed granite pavers, steps and garden surrounds set the scene for a programme of annual and perennial public planting (developed with the HCC parks team and Hutt Horticultural Society) that complements the texture and planting around the restored Civic Administration Building. The flowerbeds hark back to Lower Hutt’s horticultural traditions, putting a contemporary twist on ‘civic cheer’ with native plants combined with exotic, engaging hot colours mixed with cool.
The visually and physically permeable glazed edges of the restored Council Administration Building have been design to reconnect the architecture with their garden setting. A series of generous terraces and boardwalks enables better access to the Opahu Stream. Combined with the protection of significant trees and new planting along the water’s edge, this enables people to become fully immersed in the Hutt’s botanical and horticultural history.
Fountain for youth
Final phase landscape works were closely integrated with the earthquake strengthening of the Town Hall and the demolition, and subsequent rebuild, of the Horticultural Hall into the new Events Centre.
While popular with many residents, the old, circular Civic Fountain, gifted to the city in 1975 from Homewood Estate in Karori, was in poor condition and required an expensive maintenance upgrade. The project team’s course of action, decided with community consultation, was to demolish the fountain and replace it with a more interactive water feature in a more prominent location.
The new water feature within a purpose-built sunken plaza on the site of the old Riddiford Baths – a key movement node in the Gardens that connects with the existing playground via a new bridge across the stream. Jets of water animate the plaza, bringing the kids in on summer days to play on granite paving installed to a complex tessellated pattern that references the Gardens’ floral and horticultural history. Seating around the plaza edges offers a place for those who prefer to watch – rather than get wet.
Additional masterplan improvements include a reworking of the car park alongside the new event centre into an efficient layout that increases the size of the adjacent green space. A new lawn, opposite the Dowse Art Gallery, that can be combined with the paved car park to create a flexible space for markets, exhibitions and concerts, including the popular bi-annual Shapeshifter sculpture festival, an outdoor gallery for established and emerging New Zealand artists. Among the deliverables still to come is a new children’s playground.
In five years, the scale of change resulting from the masterplan vision – and the HCC’s commitment to investment – has delivered massive transformation. The convoluted and unsafe Gardens and city environment is gone, replaced with a vibrant, green oasis, a vibrant people-friendly space in the centre of Hutt City that restores civic pride.
Andrew Norriss, Wade Lipsham, Lisa Rimmer, Tessa Macphail, Nada Stanish, James Pattullo, Sophie Jacques,
Architecture+ / HMA—Architecture
Hutt City Council
2019 NZILA Award—Parks Category Winner