Wellington’s most creative architect ever, Ian Athfield (or ‘Ath’, as he was widely known), died on Friday 16 January during a procedure to treat his cancer. His death will be greatly mourned among the city’s architectural community, many of who have spent time working in his hillside office and home in Khandallah. But he will also be missed by those Wellingtonians who for over 50 years have watched Ath’s buildings rise in the cityscape and smiled at their whimsicality or felt a sense of wonder at the juxtaposition of their shapes and forms.
I first became aware of Ath in the 1970s, when I was a boy of about 10. Our neighbours had commissioned him to build them a house in Miramar and they invited us to go and have a look. In those days Ath insisted his clients help to build their own homes, so when we arrived they were busy with the concrete mixer. There was enough completed to see the emerging forms. The house was on a steep site and comprised multiple rooms on several levels and a trademark round tower – first used on his own house. Most exciting though were the children’s bedrooms, which had to be reached through a tunnel-like concrete pipe. I felt very jealous of my friend Simon.
These houses and those of fellow Wellington architect Roger Walker were lauded for their playfulness and were nicknamed ‘Noddy houses’. More formally the style was known as the Wellington School. Both architects rejected the open-floor plan of the Modernist style, instead building houses that were a succession of rooms. Each had individual architectural expression, often with steeply pitched gables or lean-to roofs that referenced New Zealand’s colonial architecture. Ath was not to be defined by one style, and from the late 1980s he charted innovative new directions in post-modern and neo-modern idioms. Yet it was his earlier houses for which he will probably be most remembered.
By this time too he was securing commercial work, such as the former Telecom Building, and was pioneering the emerging field of urban design. The best example of that was Wellington’s revamped Civic Square. This project included his stunning public library, arguably the city’s best public building. Ath recently admitted that the square had not met his expectations as a social space, something he thought more street cafés and/or a market could encourage. Among his projects that were never realised was his and Frank Gehry’s stunning design for Te Papa.
Ath was a provocateur and reformer. He rebelled against officious planning regulations. During the 1980s many of his houses featured twin chimneys, sometimes interpreted as a two-finger salute to planners. He defied rules that prevented people working from home by locating his office in his house. Ath also added several apartments onto his house, for extended family or friends to live in a communal fashion. He saw this as part of a vision to make suburbia more liveable and joked that his house would one day take over Khandallah.
His strong views could be divisive. Ath’s belief that buildings should constantly change and not be frozen in time put him off side with heritage advocates, including me. His early 2000s plan to radically rebuild the neo-Gothic Canterbury Museum caused an uproar in Christchurch and was thrown out by the Environment Court, an outcome that Ath saw as a lost opportunity. Still, his appointment to the Board of the Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand) in 2010 might have led him to soften his views. In 2014 he proposed that his home be considered for heritage listing as ‘organic heritage’. This would allow it to be modified. Heritage New Zealand is still to consider the proposal.
Ath considered his home his best work. Since 1971 the house’s bulbous white tower and cascade of rooms has been a landmark presence on the cityscape. It is a fitting memorial to his work and love of Wellington.
Historian and author Ben Schrader was a Te Ara writer. He has been involved with the Heritage New Zealand assessment of Ian Athfield’s house.