Pop your head into an unassuming, subterranean office in Dunedin and you might find a team of architects building a complex in China about the size of 17 rugby fields.
In one room, designers are busy model-making. In another, computer-aided design. Duck through the next arched stone doorway, and here architects are prototyping their products on a 1:1 scale.
In 2007, Dunedin-based Architecture van Brandenburg was asked to design the Marisfrolg Headquarters in Shenzhen, China.
Despite working on it from more than 9,400 kilometres away, the complex is successfully in construction and on track to finish by 2017. And having its architects based in Dunedin has been a blessing, not a curse.
Fred and Damien van Brandenburg at their exhibition in Venice
“Being a ten-minute town we can reach any resource we need within that time frame, and get returns very quick,” architect Damien van Brandenburg, the son of the founder Fred van Brandenburg, says. “The efficiency of our company has been able to really flourish as a result of being based here.”
90 percent of the Dunedin office’s clients are international and Van Brandenburg says Dunedin works well as a transport and logistics hub, with good connecting flights and a port that allows the company to ship large designs.
“We’ll prototype to a large scale. We don’t really draw things, we physically build and test them,” Damien says.
The firm also has gigaspeed internet, thanks to Dunedin winning the Gig City competition, which allows it to send large scale files internationally quickly, and conduct Skype calls frequently.
The Dunedin office’s primary focus at the moment is the China project.
It’s 12 acres in site size, and involves a whopping 120,000 square metres of construction.
The state-of-the-art headquarters features a fashion design studio, with a catwalk gallery, a 50-room boutique hotel and several restaurants.
Architecture van Brandenburg won the client when Madame Zhu Chongyun - Marisfrolg owner and one of China's leading fashion designers - visited Fred in the firm’s Queenstown office, having fallen for his other work, including Taupo’s acclaimed Huka Lodge (it has also worked on Millbrook Resort and Wairarapa’s Wharekauhau).
“They haven’t been to Dunedin, and that’s not really a concern for them,” Damien says. “It’s been our work that’s really been our advertisement, but for us, being based here has allowed us the possibility to reach globally, and technology has only advanced that.”
While every business is different, van Brandenburg says companies shouldn’t take the false mindset that working out of a small city means you can only do something within the perimeter of your bounds. They have found quite the opposite, in fact.
Last year the company executed an art installation project in San Francisco with local artists there, which then translated into part of Dunedin’s street art development.
The year before that, the firm held an exhibition in Venice, where they showcased 50 architectural projects.
“We made it all here and shipped it out to Italy,” he says.
Despite working on grand, sweeping projects like the Marisfrolg headquarters, Van Brandenburg loves the architecture of his hometown, too.
“I think the qualities are stunning, the heritage of Dunedin is fantastic and the work done to retain it is also great to see. People are making some great interventions and preserving a lot of the buildings, which is retaining the character of the city.
“There is room for more of that, but the bones of the architectural content is really stunning, and the city is really becoming proud of it now.”