In certain circles they speak about Nat Cheshire in hushed tones. The boy genius.
And it’s true. That much is clear five minutes into a conversation with Nat, who breezes through his vast vocabulary with the cheeky sense of adventure you imagine he brings to every project.
Nat’s one of the owners of the new Morningside Precinct, comprising the Glasshouse, the Morningside Tavern, Kind, MorningCider, Bo’s Dumplings, Electric Chicken and Miann. He is also one of its chief designers.
You probably don’t know Nat, but you’ll know his work, and that of the studio, ‘Cheshire’, that he runs with his father, Pip (the ‘real’ architect, but that’s a different story). The City Works Depot, Dry & Tea, Cafe Hanoi, 1885, Milse, much of Britomart. Think of some of the most innovative design spaces that have emerged in Auckland city over the past 10 years and it’s more than possible Nat Cheshire has had a lot to do with it. And there’s a reason for that — again, that’s a different story.
But Nat is more than an architect. In fact, he says he’s not even that. It’s tough to pin down exactly what Nat is, and that’s not because he’s elusive—far from it. For someone so successful he’s also remarkably accessible. It’s just that he’s impossible to categorise or label. As The Spinoff (the online news site that just happens to be a tenant in the Morningside Precinct) recently described Nat, he’s a ‘wonderful writer, speaker, self-described “fake architect”, product designer, branding practitioner, and optimist’. Depending on your particular engagement with Nat, that’s a list you could easily, and legitimately, lengthen.
Under the Hood chatted to Nat just prior to the opening of the Morningside Precinct. One of the main questions we asked him was, why Morningside?
‘There’s no shortage of reasons for here,’ Nat said. ‘This is my backyard. I live three or four blocks away on Bannerman Road and I have done for seven or eight years. I never identified with Kingsland, I just never felt that that was a place for me.
‘By and large I’ve left my home and punched into the city in order to find a bit of common social ground and cultural ground like this — a place that felt like it was mine.’
The common ground Nat’s referring to is Morningside, and McDonald Street in particular, home to Crave. For the past decade, Crave has operated in this area and the Collective that runs the cafe has engaged, in different ways, with the people of Morningside, all of whom have particular ways of describing the area’s uniqueness and its character. Nat has his way of doing the same, and it’s pretty special.
‘It’s a really interesting little anomaly in the fabric of this city, this little bubble of light industry surrounded by a sea of villas, filled with young, relatively energetic, relatively engaged people who are looking for some kind of community, but don’t have a platform to build it. That anomaly thing is the first blip on the radar.
‘And Crave is the proof of concept, right? You built a little hole-in-the-wall and the thing just explodes. You moved across the road into a huge, big factory space, and the thing doubly explodes. I turn up here on a Saturday morning and there’s a two-hour wait list for breakfast, and that tells us that here’s a community that’s desperate for something special around which to cohere.
‘So here was a simple bit of urban fabric that was almost invisible, that therefore had a development latency. And we felt that if we were to transform it in a way that was really careful, responding precisely to what we felt the social imperatives of its community were, and offering that community just ever so slightly more than what it wanted, then it would explode.’
Explode it has, if the first few weeks of its opening are anything to go by. But the Morningside Precinct couldn’t be like Ponsonby Central, says Nat. And it isn’t a standalone shop, like Crave. It’s an altogether new thing.
‘It’s coagulating, curating, just five, six, seven little individual producers, hosts, operators, together in a community that has just enough density to make it feel like it’s a place. It’s got critical mass, so you would go to Morningside rather than you would go to this cafe or that bar — its somewhere you could occupy and explore as a place, not just a thing. But it doesn’t have so much stuff going on that it starts to feel like it is bigger than you and bigger than your community, or that you had to take your sneakers off and put on your city shoes.
‘We wanted you to feel like could turn up here with a couple of pushchairs, or you could turn up here in your jandals, and feel both excited and that you belong.’
You get the sense as he talks that this is personal for Nat, as much as it’s about a business opportunity. These are fairly high stakes for him and for the others who are behind the development. For Nat, it’s more than something he’s envisaged and designed, his little family’s money’s also on the table this time. As is that of his parents, and some of his closest friends. Still, he also understands and appreciates the special insight that comes when you’re personally engaged with another, whether it’s a person, a thing or a place. It doesn’t guarantee its success, but it gives you a sense of knowing that you couldn’t have without it. For example, Nat says his mother has been walking his daughter through Morningside in her pushchair on Wednesday afternoons for the two years since her birth. That’s how he knows Morningside isn’t the place, necessarily, that you drive to from Devonport. The Precinct is intended for Morningside and for Morningsiders. If that lights a fire that attracts others, so be it and ‘all the better’. But it’s not the goal.
‘Doing it in our own backyard was really important,’ Nat says. ‘But Crave had been the pioneer. They gave us confidence. So the timing was really good when this piece of property emerged into the market.’
I asked Nat about his thoughts on the potential negative impact of a new development on a small precinct like Morningside. Crave may have been the proof of concept, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the community will improve with the next new thing.
Nat responds with a parable.
‘My middle brother, at 20 or 21, was in Liberia with the UN during the extradition of Charles Taylor. He has a background in development, and one of the first and most important things I learnt about transformation on a global scale is through him.
‘He used the hypothetical example of a community in which the women walked an hour to and from a water source each morning to survive and hydrate their families—and a development agency arriving and building the community a well in the middle of its village, removing that burden from its women, creating free time which then can be used for other things. On the face of it, that’s an extraordinary victory.
‘But what one can’t immediately see, and what developers with real insight see, is that this has the potential to be a profoundly destructive act. What that hour of walking was doing each morning was giving the women of that community a safe environment in which to, A) have some kind of social relationship outside their own homes, and B) have a space that’s safe and free from men in order to manage that part of their lives and relationships. There are all sorts of friendships and bonds that are born over that kind of journey every single day—let alone the deeper cultural and ritualistic considerations that are embedded in those acts—that get inadvertently destroyed by “improvement”, by development.’
Nat says that coming into Morningside, caution was the lens through which they assessed the opportunity.
‘So the very first conversation was with the crew at Crave. Before we had even bought it, before we had even put money on the table to try and buy it, we said “Hey, we think we’d really like to be your neighbours, is this something we should do, is this something that you would be excited about or fearful of, and if we do it, do you want to come on that journey with us?”’
His group’s vision was to grow what had already begun at Crave—something that had emerged upwards from the community, as opposed to a development that had been brought in and imposed upon it.
‘So when you walk down there, this is not an architectural or award-winning project, it’s not even a beautiful project, maybe even it’s a little bit ugly. It’s not about that. It’s not a beauty parade. It’s not about us showing the world how exquisite a set of objects our studio can create. It’s about Morningside evolving and emerging out of itself in a way that feels really legitimate and authentic to its own place.
‘So what’s down there is just an adaptation of some old curtain workshops, with some bits of steel bolted on the side and a little bit of glass overhead to keep the rain off.’
It’s more than that, of course. But Nat isn’t being self-deprecating or falsely modest. If I hear him correctly, he’s about preserving the spirit of the place, and the character that has emerged through the history of the area, a character that has been shaped by difficult times, by blue collar people working long hours, with their hands, forging businesses and lives in a way that might be echoed in other precincts around Auckland, but retains its own particularity in Morningside.
‘I think many, many great things are born out of adversity,’ says Nat. ‘I’m not against the exquisite. I’m not against the beautiful. I’m deeply committed to those things and those ideals in most of what I do. But there is great danger in abundance. This is not Queen Street. This is not the glistening jewel of the city. This is the edge. It’s this complex intersection point with little bits of industry and family business and manufacturing and distributing and living and working and building.
‘I really love the idea that in 30 years’ time or 40 years’ time, what Morningside has become will be completely different to what it is now. I don’t have any fetish for shipping container chic, I just think that the way to work yourself towards the most extraordinary outcomes for a place is not necessarily to start at the top, but to start at the bottom and grow upwards.
‘Crave started here, and we’ve now joined them, trying to build the humble but unbreakable foundations of a future Morningside that none of us can yet imagine.’