Ian Athfield: Simply the best

To snag the Designers Institute of New Zealand's highest honour, the John Britten Black Pin, the winner must be a star among stars.

To snag the Designers Institute of New Zealand's highest honour, the John Britten Black Pin, the winner must be a star among stars. They must have a CV of the highest standards in New Zealand and beyond, while always maintaining vision, discipline, creativity, leadership, energy and skill. For fans of architecture it was no surprise that last year’s recipient was Ian Athfield.

ian athfield best design awards black pinAthfield, despite being an institution in Wellington architecture, is still uncomfortable with the legacy he has been crafting for more than 50 years.

“I’m not a strong advocate for the architecture industry,” Athfield says. “It has a strong history and language, which goes beyond just an elite few.”

The list of buildings Athfield Architecture has helped create, centred in the capital, includes some of the country’s finest modern structures. However, the 72-year-old is adamant he never set out to make such an impact.

“No. I suppose my work was just a reaction out of frustration. I grew frustrated by people’s inability to think big and an inhibiting regulatory regime.”

Athfield’s earlier work often went against the grain, but his rebellious streak has injected contrast and innovation into urban design. Challenging the status quo has meant the Best Awards black pin recipient has developed a thick skin.

Recently Athfield came under fire by paid agitator Sir Bob Jones in the NZ Herald. He labeled Athfield’s oldest work, his home and office overlooking Wellington harbour, “an unsightly joke”.

Art is subjective, they say.

Athfield’s rebuttal?

“I think that’s praise from Bob Jones – it’s quite good for him, isn’t it? He doesn’t understand what I do.”

The stalwart of New Zealand architecture shakes off most of the criticism, whether it originates from inside or outside the industry.

“It’s always a bit disappointing. Most of it is in the minute details and often it’s motivated by jealousy or ignorance.”

Athfield does not shy away from rustling a few feathers himself.

“Every challenge is complex, but the engineering and the planning industry in the past few years have been very unpleasant to stand up against. I mean, I cannot believe how many planning regulations we have, many totally unnecessary – take city zoning for example,” he laments.

Athfield remains philosophical about the tension between planners, engineers and design teams, saying it’s both constant and necessary. “It’s important to stay a part of
the framework you work in, but also to know that you are only one small voice in your work, and [in] your life.”

The role Athfield took as architectural ambassador of Christchurch again let him voice his opinions on the rebuild of his hometown. Although he has many ideas, he admits the role was
“toothless” when going up against “a whole city controlled by engineering thought”.

“Of course, the guts of architecture should be practicality, but we seem to be caught in a mindset that says there’s only one or two ways to build – there are hundreds of different ways of doing it. In rebuilding, we need a whole range of buildings for a whole range of inhabitants.”

The future of urban design needs to centre on higher density living and building communities for a diverse population, he says.

“Christchurch really needs to cater to those who love living in cities. Before [the earthquake] there had been 40 years of bad planning – there was no critical mass, so you had buses roaming the city trying to find passengers to pick up.”

Large, planned structures need to be countered by organic, smaller ideas.

“People meet other people by accident, rather than by design. So certain spaces, like galleries, parks and pools, suit a certain group of people but many others miss out.”

Despite working in an era where Brand New Zealand seems to constantly be stamped upon design, Athfield says his work has never aligned to be uniquely Kiwi.

“Like it or not, we are involved in international design.”

The architecture heavyweight, despite himself being labeled as currently in-fashion, believes designers should pay less attention to fashion and branding above craft.

“Looking at architecture internationally, I think we are going to be building in more complex ways and less fashion- based ways. That’s good because, whatever fashion is, it’s the last thing we should get caught up in.”

Athfield clearly has many lessons to pass onto the next generation of designers – not that he’ll be slowing down any time soon.