Book Review: Athfield Architects by Julia Gatley – Auckland University Press $75.00

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Anyone who’s grown up in Lower Hutt, especially around the council chambers will be familiar with Plishke’s austere, post-holocaustal modernity. The Bunker style Library, which resembles an ice cream factory or an enormous fridge; the soul-less clock towered council chambers; the stark, mater-of-fact-ness of the town hall and the Agricultural hall; even the horror of the new Dowse which mimics those other buidings or the ghettoised industrial abortion of the local police station. All these buildings scream for the ghosts of personality. Large, white and bland. Theyy shun any sense of individuality of humanity. They tell us to stay away, remain in our silos , be good little worker bees. Do not think, do not dream here in this new world of post war modernity! Listen to your government, do what they say, think what they tell you!

These are buildings that lack almost any features. Where function over form prevail.
The need to reject the shackles of pre war excess at the expense of clean efficient lineage simply dehumanised public and private architectural and raised it’s respect in modern day life to the clinical extreme. And that modernity was not just a product of the 40’s and 50’s – no, it remains with us today, still. I guarantee now that if you look around any home on the market you will see attempts to make clean, manila walls, new renovations are clean, lack frivolity, the lines are straight and perpendicular. In every home journal or house and garden, not a cord to be seen. There is no clutter, every surface is cleansed of human occupation. This is the legacy of all that modernity. Today houses and buildings are assets, to be cared fore but seldom to be enjoyed. Gatley’s first book, in Praise of Modern was a celebration of that tradition, which , alas is with us even in our newest works. Many of the latest buildings as simply reconfigured boxes of austerity. Domestic and corporate prisons, that whilst squeaky clean at first simply become looming and oppressive over time. Don’t believe me? Then observe the tired, bureaucratic European efficiency that is Lambton Quay’s Massey House. This is a building that needs more that a clean. It’s an geometric, algorithmic post Nazi reminder that we are all here to work to our employer’s bidding.

All this is why Ian Athfield was such a breath of fresh air. When his work appeared on the scene he brought the ideas of cohabitation and community from the masters such as Le Courbusier and Van Der Roe to Wellington. But unlike them, his vision was not to stack every body up like sample in a specimen cabinet. He believed in levels, surprises, twists and unpredictability. All which mixed in his work with the core requirements of the client. Athfield brought his hippy, trippy ideas into a country that was not yet able to break from the traditions of function as ‘all’. He introduced us to white buildings, as a way of adding colour to the surroundings (not teother way around). He introduced the communal living concepts of family, and proved the model in his own spiralling metropolis high above the Hutt Road in Khandallah. He Suggested adaptive re-use with first the Clyde Key Tavern and then the Broderick tavern,, which became his offices, for a while on Onslow Road. He reinvented the concept of the Council Flat in Hankey St and showed us that these dwellings didn’t necessarily need to reflect the hell hole nighmares of the English Estates. And now his thinking, in small and large projects focuses on the rebuild of Christchurch. Athfield thinks of the future heritage buildings. He asks ‘what can we build now that people may cherish in the future?

Athfield Architects is a fabulous document of one of New Zealand’s most inventive architects. My only gripe
is that his influence has not been greater, and that too many bad buildings were constructed even after he started to get successful, perhaps those abominations will be destroyed in honour of work such as his. Gatley’s book is almost a personal admiration. As a student she was clearly involved with his projects and remains connected, as all architects do to his work. But more so, she is in a position to speak for him and articulate his thinking. In this way we can enjoy, and perhaps envy some of his achievements, as we sit in those lesser buildings, in our suburban compromise or our leaky homes, cursing our own faithlessness in a good quality design.

Julia Gatley’s a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland School of Architecture, a passionate boffin who’s penned tomes on modernism and the Group Architects in New Zealand. She also actually worked in 1987 on Athfield’s bach at Awaroa Bay in the Abel Tasman National Park, so she can write from ‘proper experience’. As she says, ‘this was the most memorable’ time at architecture school, which may be why, occasionally, her tone appears still a bit gob-smacked at the ‘starchitecture’ of this humble quirky man. Mostly, the book is meticulous, scholarly but not university bookish. Real people need real architecture. And real people want to read real books about it. Don’t they? Thre is here in this investment a fantastically, preserved record of 200 Athfield Architects projects since the 60s.

She also does her best to write up his life, influences, and extraordinary times in over 300-odd footnoted pages, with a stack of high res photos and drawings. But Athfield isn’t easy. The early work can be seen as counter-culture, picturesque and romantic, neo-colonial, “a mini-Islamic village of plastered pyramids and arched windows” she reminds us. In the 2000’s where does all this now site? Well if it’s lines up against some of the new work, perhaps it can be seen as a prototype, or a model for progress. As my mother would say ‘very nice, but does it leak, is it drafty, and where does the couch and telly go?” I laughed at the suggestion that the repeated use of twin chimneys could be interpreted as the “two-finger gesture to the establishment of the time”. Really, I hope so. Architecture should reflect the mood of the people – not be the preserve of the filthy rich! Interestingly, and not without reason, Athfield moved from the necessary rebel to become the new establishment (in his elevation to president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and other public roles). But as a good punk at heart we hope he still fights banality and commerce over people!

A little about the Man ….

In brief, Ian Athfield started work on his first major project, Athfield House, for his family and a studio in 1965. His early projects were constructed with a broad palette of materials including corrugated iron, plaster, stainless steel and fibre glass. As a reaction to much of the bland “Modern” architecture of the period, Athfield built in a deliberately vernacular style using features harking back to colonial buildings. His designs incorporated finials, steeply pitched roofs, timber weatherboards, verandahs and double hung windows. He was also inspired by the architecture of the Greek Islands with their exterior envelopes of continuous plaster and small windows. Conversely, he also much admired the work of Mies van der Rohe with their precise and refined detailing of industrial materials.

Yet another area of influence was the geometric massing of the Japanese Metabolists. Athfield combined all these disparate elements into a highly eclectic and personal style. During the 1970s Athfield built and renovated numerous domestic houses and buildings, developing a distinctive and highly personal design approach based on the repetition of small scale elements and complex massing. Critical opposition to these ‘cartoon houses’ did not bother him (Manson). Another criticism of Athfield’s houses were that they were built for charm and not practicality. Athfield believed, however, that “in a house, you should get a surprise every time you turn a corner and look up” (Manson).

Athfield’s practice expanded during the 1980s from mainly residential work to a wider variety of community and commercial buildings. As well as continuing to work on small-scale projects, his portfolio has included churches, pubs, council flats, stadiums and commercial high-rise buildings. Athfield’s best known works include Telecom Towers, Civic Square and Wellington Library, Jade Stadium in Christchurch and work on the design of the Bangkok rapid transport system.

He is a past President of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, judges many design competitions and is a keynote speaker at many overseas conferences. His firm’s current projects include Chews Lane Precinct, the Wellington Overseas Passenger Terminal redevelopment and the Wellington Marine Education Centre.

A documentary on Athfield, Architect of Dreams, has been produced for the NZ Documentary Festival.

Following the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, Athfield was appointed as an Architectural Ambassador to Christchurch.

For more information – go here:

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