The career that Athfield built

Last updated 14:20 24/06/2012
Ian Athfield

Ian Athfield, whom everyone calls Ath, is 72 this year and probably our best-known architect since Miles Warren.

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A handsome and readable biography does justice to the country's leading architect. Reviewed by Stephen Stratford.

Ian Athfield, whom everyone calls Ath, is 72 this year and probably our best-known architect since Miles Warren. This lavishly illustrated and well- written book does him proud.

The author, Julia Gatley, is a senior lecturer at Auckland University's architecture school. She tells us what to expect: "The book discusses the work in four chronological parts. The first outlines Athfield's upbringing, education and pathway to forming Athfield Architects. The second focuses on the early years of the firm and the astonishing buildings, particularly houses, which generated immediate attention in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The third section discusses the firm's break into commercial work and the influence of postmodern architecture in the 1980s. The fourth and final section addresses the shift from commercial buildings to public, urban and institutional work, as well as Athfield's increasing influence in the public realm and new and emergent design leadership in the office."

Sounds like a plan. It's a strong structure, and the execution is sound. Gatley is very good on Ath's sources, obviously Warren & Mahoney from the start but also the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck who lectured here in 1963 and talked about ideas of neighbourhood, the house as a village, clustering and in-between spaces he had developed after time in north Africa.

Ath's first job was with Stephenson & Turner. He lasted six weeks, which is probably a credit to the patience of both sides. He then had four and a bit years with Structon Group before being sacked for suggesting that the older partners move aside to let the young guns take over. So in July 1968 he went out on his own as Athfield Architects.

What a lot of great buildings there have been since. Wellington wouldn't be Wellington without him, from Telecom House (the one that looks like a big urinal) to the public library to Civic Square. But his greatest hit is his own house, high above the city on a Khandallah hillside and visible for miles. Every visitor to the city must have noticed it. Location, location, location - it has always been a brilliant advertisement for the architect and an embodiment of his ideas. Talk about a house as a village - currently 25 people live in it, and a staff of 40 work there.

He acknowledges it as "probably his most important building" and Gatley says he would like to see it grow even more "to be twice the size and three or four times as complex, to demonstrate his alternative to suburbia more overtly". Ath built much of it himself with friends, "consistent with his belief that architecture is a craft, 'a role that has been borne out of the master mason' ". In 1999 he fell one storey "and was impaled on a reinforcing bar".

Books on architecture are hell to produce. It's hard to get readable text, it's surprisingly hard to get good images, the two have to be married so that they support each other, and you have to deal with architects who have a different concept of space and time ("Deadline? What deadline?") from the rest of us. So it is a tribute to all concerned that the book reads so well, is easy to navigate and is so handsome. The project texts are clear, efficient and mercifully free of jargon and academese; the captions are looser in style and often amusing; the essays are solid, well- researched and very good at placing the practice in the context of its place and time. Photo selection is outstanding; the designers (Katrina Duncan for the internals, Spencer Levine for the jacket and case - do remove the wrap-around cover and see what is underneath) should take a bow.

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Some niggles. There is a gratuitous snide reference to Athfield's client Alan Duff, which in this otherwise generous context is jarring: the editor should have quietly excised it. There are plenty of elevations but hardly any plans, so the buildings are hard to "read", especially the houses. Not every project undertaken can have been a winner but we don't hear about these. I have always thought that the QEII fitout was horrible and possibly the client did too: "These elements have been removed incrementally over time," says Dr Gatley, tactfully. And does anyone really enjoy the Palmerston North public library? If there have been failures, it would be interesting to know what they were and what the practice learned from them.

There is little on the business side - I'd have liked to read more about how the practice has been run, how he could afford to buy Plimmer's Emporium and all the properties around his original house, what drove the shift into commercial and then public/ institutional work. To know him is to love him, but I bet there is a very hard-nosed businessman underneath that charming exterior. Maybe, maybe not - but the business aspect is the elephant conspicuously not in the room.

And there are some extravagant claims: for example, the rooftop addition to Gummer & Ford's State Insurance Building in Stout St, what is now Te Puni Kokiri, "has been a staggering success". Says who?

And in that building "little of the Athfield Architects fit-out survives". Why? In both cases, I think we should be told.

Best sentence: "Enraged neighbours shot the chickens."

Best parting shot: almost the last sentence on the last page is "Athfield's recurrent use of twin chimneys [. . . ] is usually interpreted as a double finger to the establishment."

Stephen Stratford is a former editor of Architecture New Zealand and has edited books on Pete Bossley, Jasmax and several other practices for the NZ Architectural Publications Trust.

Athfield Architects Julia Gatley Auckland University Press, $75

- Sunday Star Times

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