The city's towering beacon

A look back on 15 years of the Sky Tower

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 09:59 12/08/2012

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At 185 metres above the Earth's surface, suspended by ropes, hooks, and a mild sense of vertigo, Leon Ford was trying to keep his mind off the height.

He talked with fellow rescuer Craig Merz about who would be buying the beers once they had their feet back on terra firma.

Huddled in a small maintenance room underneath the Sky Tower restaurant, construction workers Murray Congley and Moe Tapueluelu had been stuck for several hours. They weren't injured. They weren't panicking. They just weren't going anywhere.

When the call came through on a Friday afternoon at Auckland city fire station, Ford thought someone was having him on. A rescue up the Sky Tower? It didn't seem likely. But now, hanging over the edge with a straight drop to the ground, his thoughts were less speculative. Rather than trying to get them out and haul them back up, it would be safer, his team decided, if they went straight down. It's September 18, 1997, a month after the tower's official opening, and Auckland's new landmark is hosting the highest structural rescue ever attempted.

"You take the big guy," Merz told Ford.

"105kg and 105kg," Ford thought. "We will be OK."

Ford clipped in Moe, tied off, swung out of the maintenance room and into the vastness.

The tower's first pile was laid in 1994, 16 metres below the road surface into the Waitemata mudstone. It had been a long journey from when the first idea of a tower structure was posed at the height of the 1987 stock market crash. Even then, the idea was canned.

It was bold, admits Richard Simpson, who was responsible for the first designs. It was to be based on Canada's CN Tower - a tripod-like structure atop a shopping centre. There were hearings and consents and public meetings and cross examinations. There were four possible locations before the final resting place was approved. There were churches that did not like idea of a shadow crossing their forecourt on Sundays, when they held weddings.

There were corrections staff who didn't like the idea of an overlooking tower invading the privacy of its prison inmates.

And there was a little old lady who claimed to have a temperamental cat that was sensitive to the presence of dimness.

People, Simpson says, did not want what seemed to be a hypodermic syringe infecting the Auckland skyline.

Day and night, Simpson's company were living the Sky Tower. Simpson says he would have visitors turning up to their offices at 2am to check out the designs. He was in his late 20s and not long out of architecture school. He says the tension took its toll and he fell out with initial investor Brierley Properties.

"We took all the bullets," Simpson says, "but it's the victors who write the history".

The way Gordon Moller tells the story, it starts in 1992. It starts with the inspiration of a church spire of a village tower and the minarets of Istanbul's Hajia Sofia. It starts with an aeroplane ride over the United States with one of the heads of Brierley. The executive asks Moller: "So what is this tower going to look like then?"

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Moller takes out his clutch pencil - an architect's tool, with a shaped, thick lead activated by pressing its eraser cap. He holds it vertically and tells the executive that it has to be like this.

"It has to have that simplicity and elegance. It has to be slim and it has to reach for the sky."

The first view Aucklanders got of it was a concrete cylinder going 150m straight up. Not long after construction started, people began calling Moller's architectural vision a sewer pipe. "We got rather sensitive," Moller said. "We had thought a lot about how it would be perceived, it was endless so when you start to get a bit of s... you get a bit sensitive."

It would be another three years until the tower's tip reached 328m and could resist harsher winds of up to 210kmh.

Dave Hunter returned from overseas to take up the role of managing the construction of the Southern Hemisphere's tallest tower. It was a project that required breaking up the problematic steps into small challenges that could be fixed.

Before he and the Fletcher Construction team could build up, they had to dig down, so the 328m structure wouldn't tip over in an earthquake.

They had cranes tasked with "jumping" up the shaft before each stage could be poured with concrete. There were safety screens at each level so workers could function at 185m above the ground, yet feel like they were on the ground. They had to erect the mast and then, in the final task of the tower build, the maintenance structures that Murray Congley and Moe Tapueluelu became intimately acquainted with were completed.

Leon Ford was talking to Tapueluelu. There would be, he said, a few people at the bottom. As the pair abseiled down the side of the tower, a large crowd had gathered. There were news cameras and reporters all eager to talk to the two stuck workers. The descent was slow and steady. Ford told Moe he was doing well. At that height. you have to appear confident. "You don't want to say 'I think we will be OK'."

Ford had trained for this and now, when it mattered, the rescue was going like clockwork.

After almost 15 minutes they reached the bottom. Sky City managers pounced and whisked the pair of workers away from the microphones of waiting reporters. Ford and Merz were left to explain what happened.

No-one was asking about sewer pipes any more.

Nine months after opening, Aucklanders seemed to have learned to accept - and even admire the Sky Tower.

It won a prestigious national architecture award, and for many it has become an emblem of the city - appearing on tea towels and key rings. It was a landmark, alongside Rangitoto and the Harbour Bridge. As for the nation, though, people still did not think it was theirs.

Despite 57 per cent of readers thinking it had reached a national symbol status, others polled by the Sunday Star-Times were less impressed.

"Sky Tower is an Auckland symbol," wrote one reader.

"In fact it probably should be their coat of arms - a giant prick on the skyline."

Moller said even though the tower initially received flak, and some people thought it was obscene, he always felt it was the right design. After 15 years, the concrete finish still looks new.

"That's nice to see."

Richard Simpson, too, seems to have buried the hatchet - with some reservations.

"I think it's a good thing to have - but I never liked the idea of the casino. Would have been better with original design."

Hunter tags it as one of the most significant challenges and achievements of his career.

And even Ford, who got an early, hair-raising perspective on the tower, doesn't hold the rescue against anyone.

"This was something new and innovative. It's definitely proven its worth to the city over the time it's been here."

On top of that, there has not been another mission needed like the one he, Merz and his team performed.

"What will generally happen is that you have a problem and then you fix it."

- Sunday Star Times

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