Tuesday Chew: James Warren – attracted to the eccentric and the enduring

Buoyed by fleeting objects of desire, nomadic child turned architect JAMES WARREN toys with the idea of producing enduring designs that have lifetime guarantees. We chat to the man who has found his feet designing for the built environment, and whose firm recently won the Resene Total Colour Commercial Interior Maestro Award for the Southern Cross garden bar and restaurant.  

Who the heck are you? 

I’m a Kiwi, born in the South Island. I grew up on farms, then travelled the world with my parents living in places like the Caribbean and Malaysia. Dad was an agricultural engineer and we travelled a lot when he was a consultant to the World Bank. In Malaysia, he was designing electric fences to keep elephants off the oil fields. His answer was to dig ditches before they got to the fences. Did you know, elephants have large toe nails which don’t conduct electricity. So one elephant would stand on the fence to hold it down while the other elephants walked through!

I graduated in 2000 after having worked in the profession with several sole practices in the South Island. I have been working for John Mills Architects in Wellington for nine years. Though we probably do more domestic work, commercial projects currently make up about a third of our workload. 

What inspires you? 

Beauty and honesty. 

Things that have influenced you? 

That’s a transient thing. As soon as you’ve finished a project you move on to something else and new influences come into play. But I think a lot about what makes things last a lifetime. A lot of products have a lifetime guarantee. That seems pretty interesting to me. That can work on many different scales from small to large things like urban environments. I like the idea that something can endure everything that’s thrown at it and last a lifetime. 

Your guiding philosophy?

To find out what’s supposed to be done and then do it properly. 

What are you best known for? 

Probably my shorts at university. Perhaps I am remembered more for my shorts than my legs. It’s one of those things people never let you forget. 

Aspects that set your designs apart? 

We’re always defined by the idea that’s inherent in the work we do. But that’s constantly evolving. Every project is different. We’re good at identifying a fresh approach to each project. Achieving a dialogue between everyone involved in always important. 

Your favourite building in the world? 

It’s more a series of buildings and that’s always transient. It’s really a fleeting object of desire. You see something that grabs you, then move on. It’s the ideas behind buildings and something that endures in them, from the beginning to the end. I like Steven Holl’s work, his designs are testament to that idea. I’ve seen a lot of his initial drawings. They move within a collection of ideas. Somehow, throughout the design process, they become very beautiful. Everything is a process. Nothing is a fait accompli. 

Favourite New Zealand building? 

The Beehive. I’ve always been an advocate from the outside at least. For all its inadequacies, the exterior seems to have endured. There’s something there that’s interesting and very elegant. The original concept design was by Scotsman, Sir Basil Spence because the government architect was asked to replicate the building beside it and he refused to copy. This is what Spence presented to the city. 

Favourite Café? 

I don’t drink much coffee but there’s a café around the corner called Customs and I’m impressed by the many different ways they brew coffee. It’s quite eccentric and I’m attracted by that. The design has its own quiet madness. The more you sit there, the more you realise it. 

What role does colour play in your designs? 

Colour is like a great painting. When you’re around a good painting, it draws off a lot of energy. It seems to store it and outlasts the energy put into it. 

Thinking in colour is an interesting notion. It’s a sign that intuition is talking a lot and the design is not all cold hard facts and planning. That’s important. It seems to me like an integral part of a process. Not a lot of materials are naturally devoid of colour. There are a lot of whites. Thinking about colour is intuitive as it gives off energy and life to a space.

Southern Cross garden bar, Wellington

What work makes you want to jump and shout? 

Anything with a large vision – be it a lack of or having one – or a belief in an idea. When you believe you have a great solution for a project, you feel like that. I shout, but mostly on the inside! 

What would you like to tear down? 

That’s easy…my own house. It’s leaking. It’s really old and falling to bits. I had to climb up in the wind and rain on weekend to put a tarpaulin over the bitumen roof. And it’s still leaking. 

Your dream commission? 

It’s more to do with a client than a project. The most rewarding projects are when everyone buys into it and is enthusiastic about it. It could be on any scale. 

I do like the quality of some of the things you buy, particularly mass produced things. Quality is easier to achieve in mass produced things than one-offs. I like the idea that quality can last a lifetime. I would possibly like to make something manufactured or pre-assembled. 

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