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Originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms.
Very few architects have had as profound an influence on the fabric and identity of a city as Ian Athfield. Athfield established his practice in 1968 in Wellington, New Zealand, and over the course of the following four-and-a-half decades the firm has gone from building countercultural ‘pranks’ in the suburban margins of the city to designing some of its most important public spaces and institutions, including its physical and cultural heart, Civic Square.
I grew up in Wellington and as a child Athfield’s houses, with their castle-like towers and fairy tale jumble of pitched roofs and porthole windows, were of persistent fascination. It was thanks to these buildings that I first discovered there was such a thing as an architect, and architecture.
Reading through Julia Gatley’s meticulously well-researched account of the practice offers cause for reflection on the importance of Athfield Architects’ more well-known residential and civic works. It also illustrates emphatically, though, just how much of Wellington’s urban fabric, and indeed New Zealand’s, the practice has been responsible for, from banal bottle- stores in the ‘burbs to imposing, central city office towers.
It was the prominent ‘Christchurch School’ modernist Sir Miles Warren who described Athfield Architects’ buildings as having ‘elements of an extended university prank’. When Warren wrote this in the late 1970s, he saw the practice’s work as a clear rupture with the past, his own significant oeuvre included. Athfield, though, was a one-time employee of Warren’s, and as Gatley and others have been at pains to point out, the Christchurch School’s particular brand of regionally inflected Brutalism did have an effect on him. Athfield might be famous for the ‘romantic’ residential work produced by his practice in the 1970s, the organic forms of which owed a clear debt of influence to Antoni Gaudí, but he counted Mies van der Rohe amongst his formative influences too. Unfortunately, the extent to which Mies’ thinking informed the work itself is hard to gauge from this book, as plans are frustratingly thin on the ground.
It’s tempting to position Athfield’s career, and the work of his practice, as a mish-mash of these kind of apparent contradictions. During New Zealand’s building boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Athfield was instrumental in adapting and saving many heritage buildings, but he is also far from a nostalgic preservationist, arguing that ‘[t]he fabric of your city develops because your society leaves some buildings and takes some out’. And while he has been painted as a countercultural ‘provocateur’, his firm was built through commercial property development and commissions for some of New Zealand’s most established corporations.
On balance, what this book reveals is that the work of the practice has been marked less by contradiction than by a pragmatic willingness to adopt ideas and adapt to circumstances as needs must. Much has been made of Athfield Architects’ roots in hippie-dom, in this book and elsewhere, but there is plenty of evidence too that behind Athfield’s once-hirsute facade there lies a hard-headed businessman. Rightly or wrongly, he began his practice by pinching clients from his former employer, Structon Group, and while the practice is well known for cultivating itself as a democratic working ‘family’, as ex-employees will attest, it’s also not afraid of letting a few family members go when times get tough. Even the famous Athfield home-office that spills down the side of Wellington Harbour in a riot of white is as much a billboard advertisement for architectural services as it is an anti-suburban statement of intent.
This monograph is timely, not just because Athfield Architects’ reputation and accomplishments demand it, but also because much of the practice’s interests are enjoying a renaissance, from adaptive re-use, to its fixation on developing denser residential models, through urban design, sustainability and self-build. It’s back in vogue now, but Athfield and his practice have always been committed to the mid-century ideal of architecture as a socially transformative discipline. As the trajectory uncovered by this book demonstrates, though, a genuinely transformative impact sometimes requires getting your hands dirty with the messy business of building – a stance that our 21st century idealists often seem unwilling, or unable, to adopt.
Athfield Architects, Julia Gatley, Auckland University Press (2012); hardback 280pp.