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Weekly Chew: Architect Brendan Rawson on keeping it small and getting your hands dirty

From council dunnies to residential refurbs and libraries, architect Brendan Rawson insists on a very personal approach to each and every project that comes his way.

Who the heck are you? 

An architect and director of Archoffice in Auckland (with partner John Ingham). We both have 20 years experience and personal, hands-on involvement in our projects. Archoffice is committed to delivering high quality, unique projects paying particular attention to site, locality, history, culture, scale, intensity, sustainability, climate and materiality in the New Zealand context to express an appropriate but innovative architecture. 

What sets Archoffice apart? 

Both of us have come out of bigger practices where we saw a need for a more personal approach balanced by good QA. Architecture is a personal thing. We’re very focused on personal relationships with our clients, staff and each other. The practice currently employs 12 staff including directors, we don’t want to get any bigger than maybe 15. That enables us to do the smaller work right up to the larger projects but still get to work on the projects ourselves. 

What are some of your current projects? 

A lot of our work is local Authority or institutional, with a smattering of smaller residential or education thrown in. There’s a bit of a range really. We have just been appointed for the refurbishment of the ASB Theatre in Auckland for The EDGE—it’s a highly complex and involved full upgrade project that will last for two years. There’s a big consulting team and some international players involved. At the same time we’re also doing a $400,000 house alteration just up the road in Ponsonby and four or five dunnies for Auckland City. And we are just completing a 400 student private school for Japanese clients. I guess one of the things about the office’s work is diversity of project  – each one is different. It doesn’t appear that we have a signature style so far as I can see. We’re a small practice doing quite big work. I think this will hold us in good stead for the future. 

What are you best known for?

The National Bank in K’Rd probably—the first thing I had a crack at out of university when I was at ASC Architects back in the 90s . But I’ve just finished the Birkenhead Library for the old NSCC and we’re up to about seven awards so far. Not bad. We knew that the project was good when we designed it and it was great seeing it built, We are very happy with it and so is the community.

With the sort of work we are doing we have to compete against the big boys. We’re not always successful, but our track record in libraries is very good. I was the only NZ architect to attend the 2006 Australasian Library Conference in Adelaide, where I presented a paper there. We work with most of the councils in library work so it’s something we’ve become specialised in. 

Birkenhead Library and Civic Centre

What’s important in every project? 

We always like to have a clear concept that drives each project—one that you can communicate clearly to the client so a conversation can start. It’s the way we do things that works for us. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. We know what clients like and expect. Both of us are all rounders really and can work on any stage of the project. And we do. We both prefer the drawing board for design work as its still the first fluid act of construction whereas the computer is just so final. We have a love/hate relationship with our computers. 

What inspires you?

I do get inspired or rather excited when a design for a project starts to come together in the office, either by me or someone else and then the subsequent discussion of ideas surrounding the design and where we think we can push it. 

We have a library of well-known architects’ work both here and overseas in the office, which we often refer to in discussion and office crits—it gives the basis of an interesting conversation with our clients before moving forward. 

I’m intrigued by the idea of what makes the difference between a house and a home. It’s related to the materiality, the spatial flow, creating intimacy, openness & enclosure. 

What makes a great home? 

To me I like the reality of life’s debris—I’m pretty messy because I’m busy and I suspect lots are too. People living with all their things around them. That’s ad hoc, relaxed, kiwi living. You hardly ever see that in magazines. As soon as you stick people and kids and their stuff in a pristine, machine-image home, it doesn’t look quite so good. We don’t do a lot of houses and aren’t known for this but we are seeing an increasing need for an entertainment room and separation of spaces. . 

Where do you live? 

A little old villa in Kingsland. I like the intimacy of the spaces and a back lawn. 

What would you live in if you build your own home? 

A single storey, simple timber and probably brick or stone home opening out to outdoors with open-plan living and an economy of spaces. 

Do you keep in touch with the academic side of the profession? 

Yes, both John and I are involved in teaching at the Auckland School of Architecture and Unitec. I also participate in the graduate development programme for the NZIA and I am an assessor with the NZ Registered Architect’s Board.  

Your favourite café? 

Coffee’s not so good for me so I don’t drink it that much. But we often go around the corner to Good One in Ponsonby.

Devonport library facade

Henderson Amenities

Amenities, Waitakere Swanson station

Infinity House, multi-level fitout

Public loo, Glendene

Papakura Library