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Tuesday Chew: Architect Min Hall gets specific on bad urban design

In this week’s Tuesday Chew, we catch Nelson architect Min Hall in a reflective mood as she takes time to step out of the ratrace - in Auckland of all places. 

Who the heck are you?

A New Zealander and a South Islander. I’ve been practising architecture for nearly 30 years. I was formerly a director, now a consultant to Arthouse Architecture in Nelson. Recently I began teaching 3rd year architecture students at Unitec in Auckland and I’m also doing research at Victoria University.

Why the change?

I feel like I’ve produced a lot of buildings and I’d really like to have a chance to stop and do things more slowly to reflect on how I’m doing it, how they work and also to look at other people’s work.  I’m interested in alternative buildings, alternative construction that is, – both new buildings and old buildings revisited. 

What inspires you?

  • The landscape – that influences me in many ways.
  •  Anything done well, whether that’s good writing; good food; architecture; music; gardens; even a stack of firewood – I like looking at patterns. I look for design inspiration in things people do, particularly when they do them well.
  • Travel within NZ and overseas. I like what travel does when all the senses are on red alert and you experience things for the first time. I always come back from a weekend away seeing things with fresh eyes. When I walk to work after a major trip, I look at the way the bush changes, the water looks different…by gaining new perspectives you’re really start to see things again. 

Things that influence you?

  • The weather – I’m a real kiwi
  • My physical surroundings
  • Encounters with people
  • My health
  • Current thoughts are reinforced by what I am reading
  • Those unexpected observations you make in the day

Your philosophy?

Life is a constant search for the truth and authenticity. I am always looking for the right answer at the right time, which goes hand in hand with a strong sense of responsibility. It’s about making the right decision to achieve the right consequence. I want to carry that through in all things including my teaching and relationships with people. 

What is your practice known for?

Arthouse Architecture is known for its diversity of skills. Our work has a strong sense of place. Our architecture is very much about people and place. Arthouse has done everything from public loos to houses and large civic buildings. We are known for a very collaborative approach within the office and between professionals and artists. We recently worked with artist Janet Bathgate in providing the Nelson City Council with a standard design they could customise for each public toilet location. 

I’m personally known for my ecological approach using conservation practices and renewable materials - especially for my earth and straw bale buildings. That’s what I’m doing my research on at the moment, particularly in the Nelson area. 

Favourite building in the world?

The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Italy is the holiest building I’ve ever been to. It’s a church built in the 13th Century on top of an earlier church. It’s special because of the quality of light and space of the interiors, even when thousands of tourists are there. 

Favourite NZ building?

St Canice’s Church in Westport, built in 1976 and designed by John Scott. I’m not a religious person but I do love churches. This one has a wonderful radial plan and uses simple materials with a brick floor and concrete pews. High bands of coloured glass create wonderful light inside. It’s a memorial to miners killed in a disaster. As you enter it’s very low and the space expands as you move inside. Only by contemplating it for a while are you able to figure it out. The design is intriguing: it’s a mystery.  

left: Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, right: St Canices, Westport. Image: Malcolm Walker 2007

Favourite Café?

The Suter Gallery café in Nelson– built on a site that’s almost hanging over a pond. Great coffee. 

What role does sustainability play in your designs?

It plays a major role. With the projects I’m involved in, I look at what materials to use, how to use them and how to really utilise passive solar design. But with the pressures of running a big practice, it’s hard to be staunch about the things you believe in strongly. 

What makes you want to jump up and shout?

Every now and then you discover something… when I went for a walk on the weekend, I came across a house by Stevens Lawson Architects in Cox’s Bay that seemed to slide out to sea. It’s hard to put a finger on why I liked it so much. You never know when a design is going to excite you. It may be as simple as the repetition in a stack of wood.

What design makes you angry?

It’s not so much bad buildings but bad urban design that gets me ranting. I hate what's happened to the cross roads that used to make our towns  "somewhere places". By taking the buildings that defined them away and replacing them with car parks and service stations they have become "nowhere places" that could be anywhere. 

Your dream commission?

I’d love to design an eco-retirement community with a great design team and enough money and time to do it properly.

Favourite quote?

From the book I am reading – Wild Wood – A Journey through Trees by Roger Deakin

“There’s more truth about a camp because that is the position we’re in. The house represents what we ourselves would like to be on earth; permanent, rooted here for eternity. A camp represents the true reality of things; we’re just passing through.”

It reminds us that while architects aren’t really necessary (the world will keep going without us), we can still make things better.

left: Straw bale Sleepout, Riwaka - completed 2000, image: Elspeth Collier, right: Treehouse, Golden Bay - completed 2010, image: Simon Devitt

top: Branford Park Toilets, Nelson - Artwork by Janet Bathgate, completed 2009; bottom: Trafalgar Centre Extension, Nelson - completed 2008, image: Simon Devitt