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Of urban planning and women in architecture

Auckland architecture firm Sills van Bohemen is sneaking some green back into Takapuna with the Hurstmere Green. Principal Christina van Bohemen is leading the charge.

Auckland architecture firm Sills van Bohemen is sneaking some green back into Takapuna with the Hurstmere Green. Principal Christina van Bohemen is leading the charge.

Christina van BohemenThere’s a bit of a challenge with women in architecture, isn’t there?

Architecture schools have somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of women graduates. A lot of women finish degrees but few of them get registered – it's a process that takes anywhere between three and eight years. The numbers are down and that’s of great concern to the New Zealand Registered Architects Board.

So why are so few getting registered?

There’s no single answer, but having said that, there’s actually quite a few women who run their own practices or are like me in partnership. But their practices are smaller scale. There’s a pattern of women quite early in their career burning out. It’s the same old issue women face in many professions. There aren’t many names that people can think of. Women are also invisible at the corporate level. If you open the directory of architects in New Zealand, there are very few that have women principals.

As a smaller firm, what are your challenges against the Warren and Mahoneys of the world?

We’re unusual in that we’re a small practice that does residential work but we also do larger scale work through our urban design work. That’s quite an unusual mix but it means we have the opportunity to work on a bigger scale. We can’t compete for a large office building project against the likes of Warren and Mahoney or Jasmax.

Tell us about winning the Hurstmere Green project in Auckland’s Takapuna…

The scheme is essentially about revitalisation of the [Hurstmere] park and how to make it work as a public space that contributes to the sense of urbanity and townscape of Hurstmere Road. It also looks at how to connect the sea. Takapuna’s big problem is that everything has turned its back to the sea.

But working on urban design projects means you have to work with council a lot. Is it a necessary evil?

Hurstmere Green was a competition we did in 2006 and we’re only just documenting it now. We’ve got resource consent and there’s been a few changes as a result of that process, which we’ve agreed to live with, but there are frustrations about that process. From that point of view working with council is a challenge at times. And it’s slow. But there can be many good opportunities.

Looking at Auckland as a whole, how can we make it better, considering design hasn’t in the past been a strong point?

I think there’s a big challenge in getting the balance right between strengthening the city centre and also acknowledging that Auckland is made up of lots of centres, and that’s what is its particular character. Mt Eden and Helensville are quite strong neighbourhoods but we’ve got weak, tenuous connections by public transport between them.

There are issues in terms of how the council manages the street design and the architecture that is commissioned to go on the edges. The architecture has to respond in an appropriate way to create an edge.

But we also need to understand that the city is not saved by architecture alone, that in fact it’s a much more complex situation. If you get streets right and you plant a whole lot of trees, it may not matter what happens on the side. It’s probably heresy for an architect to say that. Some of the changes that are being proposed in the draft plan I think are doable. We could make the footpaths wider and just the experience of being in those streets will greatly improve.

Does the draft Auckland Plan bode well for Auckland then?

The draft Auckland Plan is rushed, and there are flaws in it, but at least it’s the beginning of a new way of thinking about how we do the city. The single city governance entity will prove to be a much better way to confront many of the big issues. I’m an eternal optimist but I think it feels as though we’re in a very exciting space.

What about Wynyard Quarter? It feels like the first thing we’ve got right when it comes to design in a long time.

Wynyard Quarter is a good example because it showed a strategic long-term look at how we might plan the city and do things incrementally. It’s great that the money has been spent on the public space. That means the people will come, which in turn will encourage investors – once they’ve recovered from the economic doldrums – to come and put their money in buildings around there.

Auckland is the most amazing city in terms of its opportunities. It feels very positive at the moment and there’s nothing like the World Cup to have been a mid-point in the process, but there’s also a greater understanding by everybody involved – councils, building owners, architecture professions and all the other build environment professions – that we can create much better public spaces if the framework is put in place.