Architect of the Christchurch rebuild defends the emerging glass and steel city

Peter Marshall, managing director of Warren and Mahoney Architects says fulfilling the blueprint is probably a 15-20 ...

Peter Marshall, managing director of Warren and Mahoney Architects says fulfilling the blueprint is probably a 15-20 year exercise.

Architects come in flavours. There's the black turtleneck and beard brigade, folks who chose their wardrobe and accessories with the same attention they bring to buildings (clients willing). There's the hippies, such as Hundertwasser, best known in New Zealand for his Kawakawa toilets. Their designs sometimes lack straight lines. There's the sole practitioners, working from a converted garage, say, and often building houses for the flush.

Then there's the architect as business executive. They've climbed a corporate ladder and land design contracts for buildings worth $100 million and more. They can schmooze hard-nosed developers and persuade tight-fisted civil servants. They can get the mayor on the phone almost as fast as a reporter. They're as comfortable with tender software as CAD software They employ hundreds and earn top dollar. 

OK, these are stereotypes, but nonetheless Peter Marshall is a business architect. As managing director of storied Christchurch firm Warren and Mahoney Architects, he oversees a staff of 230 in six offices in two countries. More importantly from a Christchurch perspective, he's landed more contracts than probably any other architect involved in the rebuild. 

Architects' own office. Low-rise, steel-framed and lots of glass.

Architects' own office. Low-rise, steel-framed and lots of glass.

Marshall and colleagues helped craft the 100-day blueprint for the central city. They landed the main design contracts, with collaborators, for two of the biggest anchor projects so far – the Justice Precinct and the Metro Sports Facility – although that sounds easier than it was.

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Warren and Mahoney also scored architecture work for the three of the most important heritage restoration projects – the Arts Centre, the Isaac Theatre Royal and the Town Hall. The firm was also appointed Anglican Diocese Architect and was among the advisers who reviewed Shigeru Ban's cardboard cathedral ("add steel"). The firm also drew up three concept plans for Christ Church Cathedral – stone-for-stone restoration, a mix of old and new or a contemporary rebuild. The matter has barely advanced since, but the firm has the inside track for whatever solution emerges.

Warren and Mahoney co-designed the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct.
NZ Govt

Warren and Mahoney co-designed the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct.

Meanwhile the firm won contracts for significant private projects, including the $67m Awly​ building on Durham St across from the Provincial Chambers. And then there's a trio of buildings just west of the Bridge of Remembrance: the $60m PWC Centre on the south side of Cashel St, Ngai Tahu's $150m redevelopment of the police station and King Edward Barracks sites on the north side of Cashel, and W&M's new headquarters, which is a little further west at Cashel and Montreal Sts. 

The firm doesn't own that building, but designed it. At one point, more than 20 architects had their hands on the project, says Marshall with a shake of his head. The only thing more dear to an architect than his own office is his own home

Admire his work or not, Marshall has as much influence on the look of new Christchurch as anyone. So what does he think? 

Another W&M project is 
Ngai Tahu's King Edward Barracks site.

Another W&M project is Ngai Tahu's King Edward Barracks site.

The Christchurch rebuild so far has been an "extraordinary achievement", Marshall says. He concedes the blueprint hasn't been perfect. "One of the big issues has been time. Everybody, including Cera [Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] anticipated that it would happen more quickly than it has," Marshall says. "In reality, it's probably a 15-20 year exercise."

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But the blueprint itself is a good document Marshall insists. "What's important ... is that the essence of the blueprint is maintained [because] the logic behind it is sound."

Marshall counts 13 blocks inside the compressed new central business district. There's building activity underway on nine of them. Residential development is about to start in the East Frame and an announcement on the Convention Centre is "expected in the next few months". Marshall doesn't claim inside information – W&M isn't involved. He's basing that on his position at the pinnacle of the rebuild. The only unknowns are the rugby stadium and the South Frame. 

Christchurch is getting buildings "of its time", Marshall says. This would have happened over 20 or 30 years anyway, and ...

Christchurch is getting buildings "of its time", Marshall says. This would have happened over 20 or 30 years anyway, and Christchurch is simply getting this new typology all at once.

He foresees a "low-rise city". Most buildings will be four or five stories, with the occasional tall hotel that survived the demotions. Height wise, Christchurch will be "much like Paris", he says hopefully.

But he's an architect. Please explain these buildings we're getting: steel frames, built to the street, tons of glass, often decorated with louvres or coloured panels. They're all the same, people complain, and could be in Milwaukee or Perth.

Marshall says they're not the same. They are "cohesive".

Yes, many have glass facades but these are made clearly different with panels, angular facades, sun shading and other effects, he says. "When set amongst the grid layout of existing, often tree-lined streets, a new typology is emerging for the city." Typology is architect-speak for type or perhaps style and something less than a Christchurch "school' of architecture. 

Christchurch is getting buildings "of its time", Marshall says. This would have happened over 20 or 30 years anyway, and Christchurch is simply getting this new typology all at once.

Glass facades are possible because of visible strength or what Marshall calls "expression of structure". Think of those obvious steel frames that are visible to the eye, even to the extent that the 45-degree girders cross windows. Once upon a time, those would have been hidden; now they're proudly exposed. 

Braced steel frames have many advantages over concrete, Christchurch's former favourite material. Steel frames are manufactured off site, with high precision. Building with them is really erecting, which is cheaper. And when steel is damaged in an earthquake, the compromised sections can be cut out and replaced, again a less expensive option than trying to repair or replace a concrete shear wall, Marshall says. Plus some people get emotional comfort from heavy steel. 

Is the Bridge of Remembrance the centre of Christchurch?.

Is the Bridge of Remembrance the centre of Christchurch?.

When courtyards and laneways are added – and they're required by Cera in many precincts – the result is a "more connected, accessible and pedestrian-friendly city. The former model of large city blocks restricting connectedness​ between streets is a thing of the past," Marshall says.

"With low rise structures, enough light can penetrate courtyards at all times of the day, providing shelter and creating a sense of identity for buildings. Buildings will have a street frontage plus a communal outdoor space." The model for this style is Melbourne, but also the Arts Centre and its leafy green quadrangles. 

"The new Christchurch will be an overlay of the new upon the old – one that preserves heritage while embracing modernity. The result will be a 21st century 'garden city' that provides a new way of working and living ... in a contemporary and vibrant environment," he says.

Designing this new vibrant environment must be a road to riches, surely? Marshall claims not. He's got a massive payroll to meet, 200-odd well educated and experienced associates to keep happy, and the Christchurch market is competitive. Delays hurt too. When projects like Metro Sports are held up, the architects don't make more money, he says.

Architecture firms work much like law firms. The company is owned by partners, senior architects who have risen up the ranks and been rewarded with equity stakes in the business. Marshall owns about 7 per cent of the business, according to Company Office records. Sir Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney still have their names attached to the firm but don't own stakes any more.  

W&M calls its partners "principals" and there's about 30 of them. Just three of them are women. "It's not good enough," Marshall says. It's the old story: women leave to have families and don't return.

"We're perceived as the old boys club but that's far from the truth," he says. W&M's female architects are increasingly leading projects and engaging with clients. Perhaps positive discrimination is needed, he says. 

Marshall looks sincere saying this. It's a skill an architect as business executive needs, especially to land co-design contracts for the likes of the $300m Justice Precinct. If you need to negotiate a deal with Fletcher Building (revenue $8.6 billion in 2015), you need to draw straight lines and probably wear a tie.

It's certain Marshall and W&M will score more design work for the next, "most interesting" phases of the rebuild: owners-occupiers in-filling between big projects and the residences going into the East Frame. There's plenty of design work still to be done and Christchurch's big corporate architecture firm is willing to provide the cohesion.

"Will people love Christchurch? Absolutely," Marshall says.

Where's the centre of Christchurch?

Pre-quakes it was obviously Cathedral Sq. These days it could well be the Bridge of Remembrance, says Warren and Mahoney managing director Peter Marshall. 

He points to the string of private developments built where Durham St briefly becomes Cambridge Tce, on the west side of the Avon River. The wavy blue Deloitte building, the brown-tinged Awly building and the glass-clad Lane Neave House will soon get new neighbours on Ngai Tahu's King Edwards Barracks and police station site and the PWC Centre further south.

This north-south axis is crossed by the east-west Cashel St and it's many Retail Precinct developments, some already open, and the Re:Start Mall. They all meet on the bridge. 

The point is that these buildings bring people and  buzz of activity. A city centre is where life is lived.

Cathedral Sq will reassert itself, Marshall predicts. The Convention Centre, Christ Church Cathedral and the Central Library need to get done. They will bring private developers to fill the gaps and people will come. Among other things, the square has the civic space for crowds.

But a city doesn't need just one centre. Identify if you will the centre of Wellington or Auckland, Marshall asks. 


 - Stuff


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