From subterranean offices in Dunedin, Architecture Van Brandenburg is designing the headquarters of a Chinese fashion house. The result: a spectacular sculpture that people can work in.
On a side street in Dunedin in a quiet underground office, a couple of young men sit at their desks, fussing with their keyboards. It’s a cutting-edge office, with exposed brick walls and floor-to-ceiling glass doors. Inside there’s only a few desks and none of the usual office paraphernalia – mostly it’s filled with shelves and tables scattered with dusty, white models made of plastic and cardboard. Some are buildings or parts of buildings, some are weird organic shapes, that could be leaves or insects or a spider’s web. It’s quiet enough to be a museum. Or a lab.
The conspiratorial atmosphere belies the office’s real purpose. It’s the Dunedin branch of Architecture Van Brandenburg, a Queenstown firm that’s responsible for some of New Zealand’s heartland icons: Huka Lodge, Millbrook Resort and Wairarapa’s Wharekauhau. It’s also the design centre for Van Brandenburg’s latest work, a four-year explosion of imagination for international fashion house Marisfrolg (pronounced ‘masifer’), in Shenzen, China.
And it’s as far from Millbrook in style as it is in miles.
Consider the scale. The project consists of five buildings on a 90,000m2 site. That’s roughly 22 acres, the size of nine rugby fields or three Te Papas. It’s bigger than New Zealand’s largest building, Auckland Hospital, and possibly the largest commission ever for a New Zealand architect.
And consider the design. Van Brandenburg’s earlier work was more akin to Middle Earth and English hunting parties. This project is fit for a Ridley Scott movie. From the air the construction emulates a flying bird, representing the movement in the Marisfrolg garments and the emergence of this important Chinese brand. Seen from the ground, the buildings grow out of a man-made pond and are clad in a brilliant, glittering, white surface of broken tiles. The roofs are draped in gigantic, gravity-defying leaves.
“I wanted to do something completely different to anything I’d done before or what people have seen before,” says principal Fred Van Brandenburg. “We’re building a sculpture people can reside in.”
A team of 60 China-based designers and engineers is translating Van Brandenburg’s sculptural visions into blueprints, and Marisfrolg, although officially it has “stopped counting”, is spending $1 billion on the project.
We’ve come to expect this kind of extravagance from China. Think of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium or the wonderfully ellipsoid Performing Arts Centre. But for such a fevered work of imagination to come from Dunedin? Really?
Scone of silence
It began for Van Brandenburg in 2006. A delegation of Marisfrolg executives made an unannounced visit seeking the designer of Millbrook.
“I don’t even think Fred was around, so I offered them some scones my mum had just made,” says son and fellow architect Damien.
For the Chinese, the hospitality completed a circle of good fortune. At every lodge they’d stayed, the delegation asked for the architect’s name and it just happened to be Van Brandenburg. By the time they were munching scones and seeing his latest work – a radical departure from the wood and stone of Millbrook – they were convinced they’d found their man.
Fred wasn’t. “I get quite a few visitors, mostly it comes to nothing. These were the last of three delegations that week. The office was a shambles. I had glue on my hands. I thought I’d never see them again.”
A year later, a fax with Marisfrolg letterhead crawled out of the office machine: We’ve secured the site, please come over, it said in clunky English.
“I’d almost forgotten about them but I went over and sure enough they had this incredible site. It was huge and what really amazed me was that they didn’t really have a brief, just four Chinese characters that spoke about their brand. It was quite difficult, because we were talking with interpreters, but I told them I wasn’t prepared to do any more lodges or that style of architecture. They told me to do whatever I wanted.”
That seems incredible, I say.
"Well, we’d developed a bit of rapport. They’re very wealthy and you get the sense they are very sensitive to being ripped off. I just was who I was. The scones made a big impression because they kept referring to that many times!”
Even back home the Van Brandenburgs remained sceptical.
“A couple of days after Fred returned, the bank manager called to say, ‘Hey, someone’s made a foreign transfer into your account. Do you know anything about it?’ Since then they’ve paid in advance for all the work,” says Damien.
It took Fred just three weeks to turn those four Chinese characters into a full-blown 3D model. Fast work, yes, but in reality he’d been waiting two years for this moment. The Dutch-born, South African immigrant arrived in Queenstown with his family in 1988. He specialised in designing buildings that blended into the countryside.
“The landscape here is dramatic, it doesn’t need architectural statements,” he reasons.
But mid-career it was time for a change. In 2005 he visited Barcelona to see the spell-binding work of Antoni Gaudi – he of the weird cathedrals.
“Such was the impact, I realised I had to stop what I was doing. I had to rethink everything.” He spent two years politely declining offers of more luxury lodges and began instead to immerse himself in a new philosophy.
“Nature is my model now. If you look at a leaf, it has everything you need to know about design: the veins provide structural integrity, the skin provides protection from the rain, the shape allows it to withstanding massive weights and forces. Nature is a great architect.”
As it happened, the month that Marisfrolg visited Fred’s office he’d just completed a series of models based on his new philosophy. One was the winning entry to a Queenstown competition (it was never built).
“This was the one they fixed on,” says Fred.
So it was not such a great leap to create the Marisfrolg designs in three weeks. It helps that Van Brandenburg is first of all a design company. “We don’t use drawings, or at least not at first.”
The third employee in the company isn’t even an architect - but a product designer. Hence the tables groaning with the weight of plastic 3D models, moulded by 3D printers at Otago Polytechnic.
“We like to design first and then figure out the engineering later,” says Damien.
On a table near the back, one model towers metres above the floor and looks out of place next to the arches and curves of Marisfrolg. It’s the next big project: a tower destined for somewhere in China. The Marisfrolg project is attracting interest from abroad. But Fred is characteristically cautious.
“Many people are watching to see if this project is going to be completed. Even we are curious. Our plan is to see this one through first and then see what’s next.”
Still, he must be a rich man by now. “Ha! No, sadly not. They pay us well but it’s not about getting rich. It’s about doing what we love.”
Gaudi would be pleased.
Dunedin usually makes headlines for its couch- burning university antics, but in fact it’s one of the smartest cities in the country
It’s tempting to do the Auckland thing and be surprised that the Marisfrolg project emanates from Dunedin. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of creative endeavour you’d expect from this university town.
Some two percent of the city has a PhD, which is about five times the national average. Education and research (and in particular, science and engineering) are the largest employers. The city is defying national trends, growing its GDP, population and employment at a faster rate than New Zealand.
Across the block from Van Brandenburg, technology company AD Instruments has been soaking up the best of the Otago tech talent for 25 years. It now has 180 staff in 13 offices around the world.
“In our Sydney office we have trouble hiring because the competition is so great. But here, we can hire the best and keep them,” says MD Michael McKnight.
And house them. Like many businesses in Dunedin, AD Instruments just bought an old warehouse to refit. Try doing that in London. Rumour has it YouTube founder Steve Chen is doing the same with secretive Dunedin web company Avos.
For Damien Van Brandenburg, Dunedin is the place to create. “China is so busy it’s hard to find quiet space. I get back here and I can think again.”