Shaping a finer world with design

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 10:10 08/02/2013
Jeremy Smith
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
DESIGN FOR LIFE: Nelson architects Jeremy Smith.

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Architecture is not just about looks. It can change people's lives, says Nelson architect Jeremy Smith whose work features in two recently published high-gloss books. Tracy Neal reports.

Jeremy Smith's approach to design might well be a motto for life: Figure out what you like, do away with what you don't like.

Smith is a director of Nelson's award-winning architectural practice Irving Smith Jack Architects, which has added the Whakatane library to a list of projects for which it has achieved national recognition.

The job of converting a former big-box retail space to a thriving community hub, which has revitalised a dormant part of the town, is an example of the impact good design has on people's lives.

"In the middle of town they had a huge building that was abandoned and too big for any small retail outlet to take on, so we put a library into it.

"That's the kind of thinking and research architects are really good at - seeing something as using it to solve a problem, rather than go for the easy answer because it's cheap and quick - it might be obvious but it's not always right."

Smith is on a professional roll right now, having had work selected to appear in two recently published glossy architectural books. One book, Big House, Small House - New Homes by New Zealand Architects, features his own home in central Nelson and the other, Pure Luxury, features a large, but appropriately discreet home in Brightwater now ranked among an illustrious list of "the world's best houses", designed by an Irving Smith Jack team led by Smith. The homes reflect the successful melding of two elements fundamental to good design: People and environment.

The Smiths' 1962, single-level brick house is from the stable of Nelson modernist architect Alex Bowman, and notable now for the accent added by Smith.

"We didn't buy it strictly because it was a 1960s house. We bought it because largely it does everything different to the houses around it," Smith says.

He took the same approach to the alteration as he does to all his work: Figure out what you like about the place, eliminate what you don't like.

"What we liked was the beautiful light in it, the fact it's elevated and when it rains we can see it coming. It's just a really nice house to live in."

Mountain Range House at the foot of the Richmond Ranges bears the lofty accolade of being among the world's best houses, according to the publishers of the large, glossy hardback. It was designed to "explore the relationship between horizontal planes parallel and transitioning the landscape".

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Smith says architecture is about creating a space that responds to the environment and to people.

"We often talk about architecture not being a re-run - it's not something you just do. People are different in how they like to inhabit a house and every site is different.

"Architecture is not a 'one size fits all'."

Smith grew up in Nelson in a household influenced less by design than a culture of learning handed down by his lawyer father and physiotherapist mother. Dunedin was initially the driver of Smith's career choice that began with geology.

"I went to Dunedin because it was a good place to go. I couldn't do architecture there, but that was irrelevant."

He chose to do a science degree, majoring in geology because it had good field trips, and Smith liked getting out and about in the Otago landscape.

"I like landscape and I like New Zealand," he says.

He then moved to Wellington to complete a degree in architecture, and graduated as the top architecture student for which he received the Victoria University Centennial Medal for post-graduate achievement.

Smith then spent several years as a design architect in lead practices in Auckland, Wellington and Melbourne, before he returned to Nelson with his wife and family. He continues to expand his knowledge with study towards a design based PhD through Auckland University, with the aim one day of lecturing.

"I will always be in the practice of making buildings, but I've been invited to lecture and I see that as just a continuation of learning.

"The architects I'm really stimulated by are people who've done what I'm doing - they've got a practice and have then critiqued themselves through an academic process."

Smith says while New Zealand has evolved a unique architectural signature that reflects its position in the South Pacific, "miles from anywhere", that has come about in part through the influence of modern immigrants.

"We are known for our light, small sized houses that are recognised as being slightly quirky and applied to the specific environment, but it's fair to say a large proportion of people having houses built for them are recent immigrants."

New Zealand's architectural heritage revolves around wood, of which there is a good resource and the industry here knows how to use it.

"That doesn't mean it's right for every job. The Mountain Range House was predominantly concrete for the reason that it's a big space and we wanted something that could control the environment."

Concrete absorbs heat during the day then releases it at night.

Irving Smith Jack is one of Nelson's largest architectural firms. A room in the busy office is waiting to be adorned with a pile of awards stacked on the table and against the walls.

Accolades include a win in the New Zealand Institute of Architects New Zealand Awards, New Zealand's top timber design awards in both residential and commercial categories, an invitation to present as a finalist at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, a commendation from the NZ Concrete Society and a NZ Property Council Excellence Award, as well as numerous NZIA local architecture and magazine awards.

Smith has led a range of the firm's design innovations, including the award- winning NMIT Arts & Media building and Whakatane Library and Exhibition Centre buildings.

He has lectured widely about the practice's work, has served as a New Zealand Institute of Architects national councillor and has been part of national architecture award juries.

The firm's current projects include cultural, urban, civic and residential projects throughout New Zealand and in the United States and France.

Smith finds residential design the most challenging.

"I like people so I like to design people's houses. One of the nice things about being an architect in a place like Nelson is that you can do a range of work."

The phase of life he is in as a father of three is a key reason Nelson works for Smith, but he perhaps wouldn't have returned if he not been able to do the sort of work he liked doing.

He was once asked at an architectural conference if he felt isolated living in Nelson.

"I said, 'isn't that the point?' That's the beauty of it - if you don't like being isolated don't come to New Zealand."

The Smith family gets its urban fix from the choice of holiday destination: Tokyo last time, Paris next time.

"We live in a little boutique, seaside town and it's wonderful - that's what it is. But I don't want to take a holiday at the beach. I want the stimulation of the neon and millions of people."

Smith is less forthcoming when asked to describe what frustrates him about Nelson city, but he's practised in the art of diplomacy.

"I think the quality of architecture in Nelson is ever improving. It's an international place and people come here with expectations, but you can't do it piecemeal.

"There's a thing in Nelson, it's easy because we're a provincial town and you follow what everyone else is doing. But that doesn't mean you need to."

He cites as an example the attempt at compromise for outdoor diners in central Nelson and the need to allow space for car parking.

"There's one beautiful car park between outdoor bar tables in Trafalgar St, which is good if you want to drive in and have a beer. We have to do better than that."

Smith says Nelson could do better at thinking outside the square, but he understands the delicacies around consensus planning.

Multiple, failed attempts to get a performing arts centre up and running in Nelson could be through lack of broader analysis.

"Why should Nelson try and do a performing arts centre that's just like every other one. How's that going to help?

"What do we have to do to make it amazing?"

The answer is shining right on us.

"Why not do an outdoor venue." It hardly rains here.

"People are more likely to come because they're going to say, 'that venue in Nelson is outrageous'."

Aside from the intellectual stimulation the job provides, in the end it's the impact on people that compels Smith.

"The biggest thrill I get out of architecture is at the end of the job, and it doesn't matter if it's reconfiguring someone's house or doing a new library, you've changed people's lives."

- The Nelson Mail

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