The Kiwi architecture industry is suffering from a lack of confidence, according to architect Andrew Patterson, co-director of firm Patterson Associates, which was this year named a leading light in the field by WAN, the biggest architecture journal in the world. He says for starters, it would be good if our government and councils stopped employing overseas architects for local projects.
You’ve been in the architecture game for some time now – is it something you had always wanted to do?
I actually have no perception of ever wanting to do anything else apart from being an architect. I started my own firm the day I got registered. Now the place is full of really talented people – computer modellers, spatial designers, urban designers, architects, a strategist, planners and every combination of the same.
Clearly it’s worked out for you, and winning the contract to design New Plymouth’s multi-million-dollar Len Lye Centre can’t have hurt. What was different about winning this contract?
It was different because in this case it was a four-headed client: The Len Lye Foundation, the government, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the New Plymouth District Council. There were a lot of different visions for the building. They ran an interview process, of which we had five. But even in the last interview we were still on probation. It was a very tough process for us. The interview process is a bit unusual these days.
And why’s that?
It’s the time-honoured traditional way of engaging an architect. In our generation, that’s been lost a little bit. In our generation we tend to engage architects for public work through big architectural competitions where everybody can enter with 200 entries. For an architect, that’s like putting on blindfold and chucking a dart at a dartboard.
Stainless steel looks as if it’s going to be a massive aesthetic component of the centre. Why go stainless?
One of the major considerations for an architect is that you want to use the local stone. Architecture is a very old profession – if not the oldest – and the use of local stone started because people didn’t want to transport stone for hundreds of miles. Also if you use the local materials in architecture, you engage the local economy. You have a building that feels like it belongs in that place, and if a building feels like it belongs, our philosophy is that the people using it will feel like they belong too. In New Plymouth, stainless steel has become Taranaki’s local stone. That’s the reason Len Lye went there. He went there essentially for the local material because he was making these kinetic sculptures in the 70s out of stainless steel.
Clearly, a sense of place and people is central to your design philosophy?
After you’ve been interested in architecture for some time, you start to see the connections between architecture and culture. You start to build up a design philosophy, and ours is that we work with attitudes rather than working with objects. In contemporary architecture, buildings are often objects, but we try to generate our thinking as a relationship between buildings, people and environment.
Does that make every piece unique?
Definitely. Architecture is one of the last remaining design professions that is bespoke. Much like the medium of dance is the human body, the medium of architecture is land. You’re taking a piece of land and modifying it and improving it to create something. That makes it essentially quite a local endeavour.
Speaking of local endeavours, how are we doing in New Zealand?
We look abroad far too much. Rather than looking overseas for inspiration, we need only look locally, because we have so much inspiration in our own landscape – landscape is the generator of architecture. And we have inspiration in our own culture, too. But first we need to change attitudes in New Zealand to have more confidence. How do we get the government and city council, for example, to stop employing overseas architects? Essentially the government is using the same architects they’ve been using since the late 50s, and they wonder why we don’t want to have a waterfront stadium in Auckland.
Tell us more...
In Auckland, most of the buildings built in the past five years have been designed by Australian firms. Even the old blue Auckland Regional Council building was designed by a Canadian company. Then you’ve got the new ASB building in Auckland’s viaduct, designed by Australians. I’m not criticising the building at all, but we’re losing an opportunity to create our own stories, our own culture and our own sense of self.
But surely we can learn a lot from international architecture, nonetheless?
Learning is a doubled-edged sword. In New Zealand we need to unlearn some stuff. We don’t want to go down some of the paths the rest of the world has taken. Buildings in New Zealand have essentially for years been copies of overseas buildings – like the Edwardian villa, the California bungalow, and lately we’ve had various forms of Mediterranean stucco plaster monolithic cladding housing. If nothing else, the monolithic cladding is the main cause of our leaky buildings. We’ve been looking to the Mediterranean and wanting to be like them, but those buildings don’t perform in the New Zealand environment. They don’t perform culturally, either. It’s a symptom of a wider malaise. We need to have more confidence about what we do and what we can contribute, and what we can contribute is our stories and our place.