The Wellingtonian interview: Ian Athfield

HOLLYWOOD CALLING: Ian Athfield once acted in a movie directed by Sam Neill.
The Dominion Post
HOLLYWOOD CALLING: Ian Athfield once acted in a movie directed by Sam Neill.

Ian Athfield talks about why he was once sacked, Sam Neill, and being adopted.

Wellingtonian: You've been described as a rebel of the architecture world. Are you?

Athfield: It's partly a myth, though I've always questioned the regulations of the building industry. For a long period I wasn't listened to, though I thought I was. The regulations are totally inappropriate with regard to things like ceiling height and setback from boundaries. Some of the changes forced on the industry were ridiculous. For example, in 1986 it was ruled that butchers' ceilings had to be 2.7 metres high, rather than the previous 2.4 metres. This put a lot of independent butchers out of business. Two years later the height restriction was changed back.

Wellingtonian: This is an incredible piece of architecture here in Khandallah, where you live and work. It's like half a hillside. When you bought the land all those years ago, is this how you envisaged it taking shape?

Athfield: To a degree, but it's evolved over the years.

Wellingtonian: It's now a heritage site, isn't it?

Athfield: Yes, the city council ruled it a postmodern organic heritage site. I objected and now it's an organic heritage site. That's better, because it means I can build here and add to it.

Wellingtonian: You were Christchurch-raised. How did you end up in Wellington?

Athfield: When I was 22 I got offered a position in a Wellington office, with the promise of a partnership at 25. It was too good to refuse. It put me in a position of responsibility early in life I was the architectural manager of the BNZ in Featherston St at 26. I tried to introduce a policy of retirement at 65, but three of the partners were that age and that didn't go down well, so I was dismissed.

Wellingtonian: What did you do?

Athfield: I started my own practice in 1968. I had no alternative. I was building this house and needed the income. Fortunately I got quite a bit of work from my dismissal. Running a company at that age was not a problem. I had the knowledge of the mistakes my previous practice had made.

Wellingtonian: What do you think of Wellington?

Athfield: It's a very identifiable city. One of the things I most enjoy about it is that it is harbour-formed and topography-driven.

Wellingtonian: One of Wellington's best-known mayors was Michael Fowler, who was also an architect. How did you rate him as a mayor?

Athfield: I thought he did a good job. He was passionate, and because of his architectural background he know what was required to make a city.

Wellingtonian: I notice you have railed against roading engineers over the years. Why is that?

Athfield: Road engineers need to be scrutinised very carefully. They are only about roads and traffic and don't consider the consequence of roading on the greater environment. That type of thinking has to be brought to a halt. The motor car is not going to disappear, but why we use the car will change and it could change as quickly as our appreciation of good coffee has. It's amazing that telecommunications companies, power companies and roading departments have not even talked to each other in this small country. We could have saved a huge amount of money if their efforts had been combined.

Wellingtonian: How did your connection with Sam Neill arise?

Athfield: I've done a couple of jobs for Sam. I made a film with him in 1976. My company won an international competition for designing squatter housing the resettlement of an area called Bagatan in Manila. The project was worth US$141 million more than 30 years ago. It was funded by the World Bank. The National Film Unit had a film made about the project. Sam was the director, and I acted in it, which is ironic, in hindsight.

Wellingtonian: I note that you are adopted. Have you tried to find your biological parents?

Athfield: I found out I was adopted when I was 21 and maybe for a couple of weeks I toyed with the idea of trying to track them down. It was a shock. I wondered who I was and what I was about. I did discover my parents had both been very young when they'd had me adopted. But I wasn't incredibly curious. I had extremely generous adoptive parents, and was more than satisfied that they were my parents.

Wellingtonian: Your wife, Clare, is an interior designer. That's a nice fit with your architecture expertise.

Athfield: It is. She was previously an art teacher. Over the years she has done a lot of work with the office and still does, in a peer review-type role. Clare has a very good eye, an architectural eye. She is a good critic.