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Blurred lines: Isthmus CEO Ralph Johns talks blending landscapes and architecture

Integrated design studio Isthmus recently won three awards in the New Zealand Institute of Architects Auckland awards. Those projects now go through to the NZIA national awards later this year. But it got us thinking here about the blurring of boundaries between the disciplines of landscapes and architecture – here's Isthmus CEO Ralph Johns sharing his thoughts.

LAA: What did Isthmus win in the NZIA awards?

RJ: Freyberg Place and the Ellen Melville Centre won an award in the Heritage category. Delivered together for Auckland Council, this project explored the overlaps between public art, landscape and architecture. Isthmus collaborated closely with artist John Reynolds’ and Stevens Lawsons Architects. The restored building and the new public square provide a unique place that Aucklanders have claimed for themselves.

The next project, Vinegar Lane for client Progressive Enterprises, was a winner in the Urban Design category. This Ponsonby project offers an authentic model for low-rise intensification. It’s an ‘urban subdivision’ of 32 individual freehold lots; the block is broken down into achievable portions individually owned and financed, and designed by a range of architects within a simple set of design guidelines.

 Vinegar Lane was a winner in the Urban Design Category of the NZIA Auckland awards. Photo credit: David St George. 

Vinegar Lane was a winner in the Urban Design Category of the NZIA Auckland awards. Photo credit: David St George. 

The final award went to the smallest project in the Small Project category. The Habitat Markers were developed as part of HLC’s Te Ara Manawa, a coastal walkway designed around the neighbourhoods of Hobsonville Point. Taking the form of large posts, standing or lying down, the markers are micro-architecture, homes for critters. Solid wooden blocks were CNC routed to create a labyrinth of holes and hollows for birds and insects to make their homes within; and in turn for children to explore and encounter nature.

LAA: Isthmus is an integrated design studio - how did that improve the design process?

RJ: Yes, our studio blends landscape and architecture to create projects of hugely varied scale and scope. It's less than five years since we hired our first architect; in that time we have grown the team to include over twenty architects who work across both the Auckland and Wellington studios. Our studio culture incubates ideas; the closer and more collaboratively we work together the more chance ideas have of spreading, growing, cross-pollinating and transforming. We call this way of working ‘no boundaries’ because we think in terms of opportunities rather than constraints. Every project is different, but we tend to follow a similar process, all the time informed by our kaupapa of land, people and culture.

LAA: What impact did it have on the individual projects?

RJ: All three projects were designed and delivered in completely different ways. For Freyberg Place we teamed up with Stevens Lawsons Architects who did the design work for the restoration of the Ellen Melville Centre. So there were no Isthmus architects actually working on that project, although we were the lead consultant and our landscape architects led the project. We worked as a team, each challenging and testing the other to get a better result.

 The Freyberg Place project was a winner in the Heritage category. Photo credit David St George.

The Freyberg Place project was a winner in the Heritage category. Photo credit David St George.

Vinegar Lane is interesting in that the master plan was developed before we moved into architecture. Isthmus have always pushed the boundaries of landscape architecture; in this case we designed an entire urban block through a Masterplan, and an Urban Design Guide administered by an Urban Design Panel. As part of the process we engaged a bunch of architects to test the design guide and see what buildings they came up with. The buildings you see at Vinegar Lane today were designed by a range of architecture practices. Isthmus designed a building on one of the lots, but it's not been built yet.

Finally, the Habitat Markers are a good example of how we work across disciplines. The markers are a bespoke element of the Hobsonville Coastal Walkway, a layer that was added in response to an opportunity to connect people with the unique ecology of the site. Our landscape architects worked with artist Bernard Makoare to develop the wider concept, then with one of our young architects who has a passion for woodwork. A series of concept design models led to the idea of carving out a solid timber block, and thinking about the project as architecture for wildlife.

 The Habitat Makers feature in the the Hobsonville Coastal Walkway and won the small project category.  Photo credit David St George. 

The Habitat Makers feature in the the Hobsonville Coastal Walkway and won the small project category.  Photo credit David St George. 

LAA: How does the influence of landscape architects change how a project is designed?

RJ: Landscape architects are trained to think in terms of systems and flows. We think about the big picture, both spatially and temporally. Land, water and buildings are the elements that shape our experience of landscape. But it is people, or rather community, that brings them to life. By integrating architecture into our studios we are able to go deeper into the human experience and design places where people live, work and learn to add to the external environments that we are better known for. Isthmus has always been really passionate about the public realm, democratic places for everyone. Freyberg Place is a great example of that. So it was only natural to bring those same values, that same ethos to architecture. Isthmus is about democratising architecture, and designing with place. We are really motivated to bring architecture to the people through projects like the Everyday Home. Together with our master planning and community regeneration work, these homes could make a difference for hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

LAA: How can the landscape be used as a catalyst for change?

RJ: In New Zealand we built most of our large settlements by the coast, right on top of some of the most ecologically and culturally valued places. The settlements that we built tended to turn their backs on the landscape, and in no way matched up to the quality of the natural context. This continues right through to the present day, although we are now seeing a process of urban repair and reorientation happening, and some better urban planning. It's not just the big cities that are re-engaging with their natural settings, the smaller places are too. Whanganui, Hamilton and Palmerston North have woken up to the fact that they have rivers. Rotorua and Taupo are re-looking at their lakefronts. Porirua wants to connect to it's harbour. I think this is where landscape is the most powerful catalyst for change. It's the landscape that exists beneath the urban development, waiting to be recognised and respected again. We don't have to create it, it's already there. Our job is to reveal it and enhance it.

LAA: When projects like this are discussed it's the architecture that gets the recognition. How do we make people more aware of the importance of the landscape architecture to projects like these?

RJ: That's an interesting statement. I'm not so sure that is true. Personally I do not see landscape architecture as subservient to architecture, although you do hear that a lot from within the profession. Isthmus has never worried about that; we just get on and design to our limits, and usually a little beyond. We don't worry about recognition, we just focus on getting the most out of every project. And the way to do that is to truly collaborate, without ego and without labels. In terms of architecture we are able to design buildings and landscape in the same studio, with the same team, in parallel. Each informs the other, and the dialogue results in a more integrated, more meaningful design outcome. Working like this breaks down the professional boundaries that do exist, whether designers are conscious of it or not.

 The NZIA awards presentation. Photo credit David St George.

The NZIA awards presentation. Photo credit David St George.

LAA: Any other thoughts around this Ralph?

RJ: What's particularly exciting to me about leading a practice that has an architecture start-up inside it, is that we started from nothing, with everything to prove. Architecture is a crowded field; for every landscape architect in NZ I guess (!) there are ten architects. It's been humbling to go from being big fish in a small pond (as landscape architects) to quite the opposite as architects. We didn't go into architecture to follow, and neither did we have a fixed idea of what we wanted Isthmus architecture to look like. We want to explore a different, richer form of design practice, one where buildings emerge from the land and the culture rather than drop onto the site out of nowhere. Our architecture projects range from the super big (e.g. regeneration masterplan across five suburbs) to the super small (e.g. a system of smart, modular bus shelters), but they all address the same basic theme; we have a critical responsibility as designers to design for people while respecting the land. It's really exciting to see the results of this ethos being built; then lived, worked and played in.

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