Editorial: Athfield lives on in his work
Sir Ian Athfield was a great Wellingtonian who changed the face of his city. If you seek his monument, as was famously said of another noted architect, look around you. Athfield lives on in concrete and steel and will be remembered long after a tribe of local bigwigs and lesser architects have passed into oblivion.
Ath's trademark was whim and eccentricity, and his wackiest creation was his own house. Here he could let his imagination run amok, unchained by the demands of the rich and powerful who commonly hired him. Not everyone loved or loves the house that writhes and sprawls down the hill below Khandallah. Some of his neighbours positively hated it. Athfield once claimed that the critics had killed his chooks and even left bullet holes in his house.
People loved and hated his buildings, but what mattered more was that they noticed them and argued. Athfield helped make architecture matter to people, as it should. It is the most public art, and the one that has most influence on our daily lives.
A lot of New Zealand architecture is bland and oppressive, like Te Papa. Athfield's buildings were never like that. Think what could have happened if he and the genius Frank Gehry had been chosen to design the national museum instead of failing even to make the short list. We might have had a masterpiece; we would certainly have had a building that lived in controversy. Instead, we have a giant nonentity.
Athfield's style is known to people who have no interest in architecture at all. Everyone knows the nikau pillars of the Wellington Library, a kind of visual joke or paradox that is pure Athfield. But more impressive, perhaps, are the great curved glass windows that form a wall of the library and look out to the harbour. This was a splendid design that was both striking and useful. Readers love the vast view that surrounds the pages they are studying, and flock to this great building.
Athfield said once that there was no one way to design a building and that the space between the buildings was as important as the buildings themselves. The civic centre is a triumph of this principle. Somehow Athfield welded this weird collection of buildings into a single harmony. This is civic space as a celebration of diversity.
Athfield's style is always recognisable but always adapted to the particular place. The Chews Lane redevelopment is a special success, a shaft of light in Gotham City. Sometimes it takes people years or even decades to see how superbly the building matches the landscape. The house he designed in 1980 for winemaker John Buck of Te Mata vineyard in Hawke's Bay raised a ruckus with the neighbours: they hated its concrete curves and waves. Now it is part of our heritage.
Athfield was a working-class boy who grew up in a drab part of southern Christchurch. His life was a sustained refusal to add to the dreariness of our built environment. His was a joyful architecture, and the joy will outlast the irritation, the back-biting and the bullet-holes. We owe a debt of gratitude to Ian Athfield.
- The Dominion Post