History at its Heart

Design manager Tony Borland-Lye discusses his favourite Auckland buildingDesign manager Tony Borland-Lye discusses his favourite Auckland building


As an architecture student at Auckland University, when Tony Borland-Lye headed off on food-finding missions between lectures, he usually took the scenic route through Albert Park, before dropping down into the laneways and alleys that run between High and O’Connell Streets. Then, as now, this area thronged with the young and the restless. As the hub of emergent New Zealand fashion design, the creative energy was palpable. You’d have thought that with one eye on the couture and the crowds, his other would have been on the urban fabric but it was only decades later that Tony truly began to appreciate the building that he now calls his favourite in Auckland. 

Architectural design of Ellen Melville Centre in Auckland NZ

The Pioneer Womens Memorial Hall (also known as the Ellen Melville Centre) is on the northern edge of Freyberg Square. It was designed by Tibor Donner, Chief Architect for the Auckland City Council at the time and named after the first woman to be elected to that council. Ellen Melville was a feminist and political activist and in 1906 became only the second female lawyer in New Zealand to be admitted to the bar. In the mid-1950s, she proposed a community centre in the heart of the city to commemorate the role that women played in establishing Auckland. The hall opened in 1962 and became a base for women’s societies and events.

Open plan layout of new cafe in Freyberg Place

As a young graduate Tony knew little of this history but he admired the clean, modernist structure of the building as he rushed by. But in 2010, when working in retail design, he was impelled to take a deeper look – and the building’s significance suddenly became clear to him. “I actually designed a fit-out in the ground floor of the Ellen Melville Centre for a kids’ clothing company,” he says.

It was then that Tony was struck by the elegant scale of the building. “I like the way its exposed concrete structure achieves such lightness. It has a wonderful balance of horizontal and vertical elements,” he says. At the time, Tony secretly thought it something of a shame to convert this wonderful space into retail. “A gallery or a café would have been a better use.”

Fast forward 10 years and Tony has his wish. The ground floor of the refurbished Ellen Melville Centre is now a café overlooking a square that is filled with intersecting flights of steps that double as casual seating areas. Supporting slender pilotis extend the building out into the square so that this urban porch feels part of the passing parade. “It acts as a transition zone to blur the distinction between private and public space,” says Tony.

Ellen Melville Hall and Freyberg Place Auckland New Zealand

Architect Tibor Donner, who also designed the Parnell Baths, was a proponent of high modernism – the idea that human intervention can effect positive change in society. This lofty ideal he applied to the hall: its exposed structure sets up a dialogue between the building and surrounding public space.  

“It is unadorned – just the bare essentials,” says Tony. “And there are elements such as keeping things simple, breaking up the spaces into a bit of a grid and using fluid transition zones between inside and out that we certainly use as part of our design strategy at Box.”

Today, skyscrapers may tower over the Ellen Melville Centre but this small civic building punches above its weight in other ways and the essence of its original purpose remains. Upstairs rooms can be hired for meetings or private social events while at ground level, it connections with the life of the city. Modest in scale, simple in structure, it still manages to pull community together.