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Reflections on Ath

Taking over Khandallah – Ian Athfield's sprawling Wellington house (click for image credit)

Taking over Khandallah – Ian Athfield's sprawling Wellington house (click for image credit)

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.

Angels and demons

Lionel Terry self-portrait (click for image credit)

Lionel Terry self-portrait (click for image credit)

Scientist Steven Pinker (in The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011) argues that there has been a long-term, worldwide decline in violence, thanks especially to:

the rise of nation-states and judicial systems with a monopoly on the use of force;

the increased monetary value of individuals as economies have become more sophisticated;

increasing respect for ‘the interests and values of women’;

cosmopolitan forces such as literacy which help us empathise with people unlike ourselves;

the increasing application of knowledge and rationality in human affairs.

This recasting of the centuries-old concept of human progress has a common-sense appeal. For example, historian Miles Fairburn’s argument that nineteenth-century New Zealand was an ‘atomised society’ with weak social bonds was supported by the colony’s high rate of violent crime – which then fell steadily during the twentieth century as society urbanised and rural roughnecks ’settled down’. Yet rates of conviction and the lengths of sentences for violent crime then rose steadily in the late twentieth century. Was social order in New Zealand now declining – or was one consequence of the ‘feminisation’ of society noted by Pinker an increasing willingness to report domestic and sexual assault? Was there more crime, more openness about it, or more willingness to punish it?

Last week’s atrocities in France are the latest of many recent correctives to any complacency about ‘progress’. New Zealanders have a self-image as easy-going pragmatists – we’d never come to blows over ideas, surely? Yet In the early years of the colony, ‘gentlemen’ fought duels to defend their ‘honour’, sometimes with fatal consequences. And Pākehā land-grabbing during the New Zealand Wars of the mid-nineteenth century was justified by theories of racial superiority. In hindsight, it seems miraculous that the social convulsions of 1912/13, 1951 and 1981 – all clashes of ideology as much as of economic and political forces – resulted in only one death.

Nor have New Zealanders been immune to justifying racial violence on religious grounds. The enthusiasm with which Te Ua Haumēne, Tītokowaru and Te Kooti were pursued during the New Zealand Wars owed much to their espousal of non-Christian religions as well as to the threat they posed to colonisation. And in 1905 Lionel Terry killed Joe Kum Yung in cold blood in Wellington to draw New Zealanders’ attention to the necessity for racial and religious ‘purity’. Violence often broke out at meetings of the early twentieth century Protestant Political Association, which was virulently anti-Catholic – and anti-Irish.

As Pinker puts it, our ‘better angels’ are often at war with our ‘inner demons’, which include ideologies that justify violence in the pursuit of utopia. From this perspective, Kiwi pragmatism has quite a lot going for it.

Remembering the Pike River 29

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Wednesday 19 November is the fourth anniversary of the explosion at the Pike River mine on the West Coast, which killed 29 men in 2010. There is added poignancy with the recent announcement that there will be no further attempts to recover the bodies. The anniversary is being marked this year by a television documentary, Dreams lie deeper, featuring a vocal tribute by Dave Dobbyn and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington.

This was the seventh major disaster in a New Zealand coal mine. A total of 210 men have lost their lives in such disasters. All were due to explosions by methane gas given off by coal or asphyxiation by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, formed after a fire or explosion.

As with most coal mine disasters, the Pike River tragedy would not have happened if established safety precautions had been followed. Both the Royal Commission report and Rebecca Macfie’s book Tragedy at Pike River Mine reveal a series of problems that were consistently overlooked by the board of directors and the executive managers of Pike River Coal Ltd in their rush to get production under way. For months before the explosion there had been reports of excess methane and other health and safety problems. The safety inspectors employed by the Labour Department were overworked, and relied on reports by the company that all safety requirements were being complied with.

One of the main recommendations of the Royal Commission was that the government should set up an independent safety organisation. Worksafe New Zealand now has statutory responsibility for all safety issues in the workplace, with a designated High Hazards Unit for industries such as coal mining and oil exploration.

Last year the Orpheus Choir of Wellington asked Dave Dobbyn to write a piece dedicated to the 29 men who died in the Pike River mine. The documentary (Wednesday 19 November, 9.30 p.m. on TV1) follows Dobbyn as he travels to Greymouth to meet members of the victims’ families and completes the composition and arrangement of ‘This love’ with Mark Dorrell. As the lyrics evolved, Dobbyn chose to focus on the love and memories of the families rather than bitterness about the events leading up to the disaster. You can listen online to the Orpheus Choir and Wellington Young Voices singing ‘This love’.

Designs for living

The showroom of designer David Trubridge (click for image credit)

The showroom of designer David Trubridge (click for image credit)

For those of us who cannot draw more than the odd doodle, the release of our eight new stories on architecture and design is cause for jealousy and wonderment. The inventiveness of people who can imagine a new building, or a new typeface or a new object – such as a revolutionary pair of scissors – is almost magical. The whole group of entries is a testament to the major theme of Te Ara’s last section: creativity.

There are four stories which focus on architecture. To be honest, colonial New Zealand was not especially noted for its creativity or originality in this field. The one exception was in Māori architecture, where, as Deidre Brown shows, Māori developed the idea of large carved wharenui (meeting houses) a style previously unknown in Aotearoa.

Meanwhile, European architects, whether designing domestic buildings, public, commercial and religious buildings, or theatres and halls, stuck to their European background. Architecture was heavily imitative, copying historic styles. Early buildings were a restrained Georgian; but then the battle of the styles developed between classical revival style and Gothic. Gothic, used commonly in churches, was also found in some homes such as Auckland’s Highwic and some public buildings, for example Canterbury’s provincial council chambers. There were some marvels even within these traditions, and I urge you in particular to look at the interactive of Francis Petre’s Catholic basilicas in classical revival style.

Ōamaru courthouse, one of New Zealand's many classical-style public buildings (click for image credit)

Ōamaru courthouse, one of New Zealand's many classical-style public buildings (click for image credit)

The 20th century saw international influences remain strong, but there were striking local variations – James Chapman-Taylor’s homes, which developed out of the arts and crafts movement, the modernist-influenced buildings of Ernst Plischke, the Group Architects‘ attempt to adapt the modernist style to a New Zealand way of life, and John Scott’s magnificent Futuna Chapel, which blended Māori and Gothic church elements with modernism. It is also worth looking at the images and films of theatres and cinemas, some of which were enchanted spaces where ‘everything ordinary was left behind’, as the narrator says in Peter Well’s film about Auckland’s iconic Civic Theatre.

The story of landscape architecture shares with the stories of design – fashion, graphic and industrial – a period of striking growth and creativity in the last part of the 20th century. Although there were garden designers before then, the profession did not really get established until the early 1970s. Since then, landscape architects have helped transform the character of our cities.

Fashion design got its kick-start in the 1940s, when the disruption of imports and a ready market, with American troops here, led to the first local fashion houses. The last 30 years of the century saw an outburst of creative designers and fashion houses such as Zambesi, Trelise Cooper, WORLD, Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester. Exposure at the London Fashion Week in 1999 was international recognition that there was something happening down under – something ‘edgy, dark and intellectual’.

Speedee electric jugs (click for image credit)

Speedee electric jugs (click for image credit)

Industrial design took off in 1962, when both Elam and the Wellington School of Design began professional training. Forty years later industrial designers had helped change the way we experience our every day lives, with such creations as:

  • the electric ‘jug’ (as distinct from the British ‘kettle’)
  • Fisher & Paykel’s DishDrawer
  • Methven’s SatinJet shower
  • Bendon’s seamless bra
  • Phil & Ted’s baby buggy.

As for the third type of design, graphic design, there was some fine work in the 1930s and 1940s, especially some great railway posters. But, again, it was 1962 when the first fully professional training began. The fruits of this were seen in some stunning logos for New Zealand Post, New Zealand Railways and the 1974 Commonwealth Games. In the digital age, New Zealand’s internationally recognised typographic designers included Catherine Griffiths, Sarah Maxey and Kris Sowersby.

Fittingly, these stories are to be enjoyed as much for the visuals as for the words. As you pass from image to image you cannot but be grateful for how much the talented people who can draw have enriched our world – in the buildings we inhabit, the objects we use, and the clothes we wear.

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