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Nat Cheshire’s Story - Part 3

The new Morningside Precinct development had its beginnings in the global financial collapse and the impact of the tightening of belts around the Auckland city that happened in response.

Among the creative types and entrepreneurs who adapted quicker than most in those crazy, scary years was Nat Cheshire, who with a group of other similar pioneering visionaries saw the possibilities rather than the obstacles that the economic squeeze had foisted on the city.

Ten years later, the Morningside Precinct has been developed in a restricted space by adapting pre-existing buildings to offer new life to an urban district in a way that echoes how the new Britomart sprung up in the shadows of the GFC.

As Nat says, 'We've been to war together,' speaking of himself and fellow developers Nick McCaw and Jeremy Priddy.

'We've built our lives together, shared risk and exhaustion and setback. We know with great precision where our breaking points are, and Morningside was an opportunity to make something special out of that.'

Prior to the GFC, Nat says, Britomart was a 'highly planned project' with large pieces of development that had been planned over many years, before being carefully priced and contracted and immaculately executed.

Nat was a small part of that, via his work with Cheshire, the studio he owns with his father, Pip.

'We were literally two days from starting construction on the conversion of a couple of buildings to really expensive apartments,' Nat says. 'The GFC hit us like a steam train. All of a sudden that model didn't work. The market wasn't there and the funding wasn't there.

'And as a consequence, all of a sudden, the hierarchy of leadership and momentum and development completely pivoted. Those at the very bottom of the heap, the “kids” with an interesting restaurant idea or an interesting bar idea, all of a sudden they had the ear of developers who didn't have the usual mechanisms of transformations at their fingertips.

'All of a sudden one person with a really strong food idea was like gold dust. You hunted for that person and when you found them, you found a way to make space happen for them. You found a way to empower them to do more than perhaps even they thought themselves capable, but you had to do it using very few resources.

'So what it created was a development model that was organic, that was incremental, that was ad hoc, improvisational, that used what was already lying around, and that wasn't over-planned. As a consequence, it was highly agile.'

What Nat and others discovered at Britomart was that if you took something that was fragile to begin with, that was 'made up of lots of loosely bound parts', and added to it, manipulated it, you ended up with something that was robust but agile ... like a swarm.

Ever humble about his own part in a moment of history that has fundamentally impacted the character of Auckland (now including Morningside), Nat says his own role in what happened at Britomart was by pure accident, and he was both undeserving of it and ill-prepared for it.

'I got to be that person by firstly standing on the shoulders of my father and sitting in a studio of his that gave me access to that environment, albeit in a kind of servant role.

'And then I picked up the phone one lunchtime when no one else was in the office, answered the phone call — didn't have time to respond but had to — so begrudgingly walked down the hill, met a development manager in Britomart who had with him this one kid who I've described previously as someone who looked like they wanted to punch a hole through Auckland; eyes racing around his head, but with a kind of fierce intelligence and an obvious grit, and seeing a gateway into a different kind of future for our own city, albeit starting in a really small granular scale.'

That ‘kid’ was Nick McCaw.

At the time, Nat was still an ‘understudy’ in architecture — his words. He says he also came out of architecture school with a clear vision for the 'future of the built world’. And that isn’t where he’s ended up.

By the time of getting the phone call, Nat had built one apartment. And that one apartment 'was the opposite of almost everything' he fights for in the city now. ‘Successful, energetic cities needed the opposite of the design thinking that I was once so besotted with. The first step was for me to recognize and then come to terms with being wrong. The next step was to forge a new vision, shaped from the forces of the city itself, not the self-referential world of architecture alone.’

‘In the process, I discovered that almost everything in the world is enormously more manipulable than it appears. Including one's self.

'And what I discovered (in Nick) was a comrade and a co-conspirator and a provocateur and a bully and a friend, who beat me into seeing that potential. He'd send me messages at four in the morning, saying "Get the **** up and be prolific". Once my relationship with Jeremy deepened too, it felt like we were burning rocket fuel, 18 hours a day.’

That energy laid the foundation for the new Morningside Precinct, which Nat describes as a 'raw and direct manifestation' of the idea that architectural design and development can reprogram social and cultural relationships.

'We've been doing this with other people's money and other people's risk for a long time. We share that risk in all sorts of intangible ways that feel acute and real to us but that, by and large, are not monetary. We lay ourselves bare when we make a proposition like Cafe Hanoi or City Works Depot, but we don’t mortgage our own houses to do so.

'Coming here (to Morningside) was about smoking our own crack, as it were. Putting everything we had on the line. And seeing what it was that we put our clients through in the making of all these other places that we've been talking about...that perhaps we might walk much more closely alongside them in the future.

'It's been in the making for a very long time.'