There's a lot of bad architecture around

Malcolm Walker keeps his cartoons "small-scale". Photo / Patrick Reynolds
Malcolm Walker keeps his cartoons "small-scale". Photo / Patrick Reynolds

For the past 25 years, Auckland architect Malcolm Walker has had a parallel career as a cartoonist satirising the excesses of the profession, council bureaucracy, contractors and clients. In an extract from Did You Mean To Do That?, a collection of his cartoons, Walker talks to its editor, John Walsh.

John Walsh: Your cartoons provide an illustrated history of a generation of New Zealand architecture. When you started, this country was giddy with deregulation, and mad for mirror glass towers thrown up by developers such as the Chase Corporation.

Malcolm Walker: Which was easy meat.

And you tucked in, as you should have. But along with current issues, you've also dealt with some of the timeless architectural topics, such as the relationship with clients, and the creative process - the terror of the blank page, which you must encounter both as architect and cartoonist.

And the terror of the deadline.

Which makes everything happen.

What can I say to that? Yes, you're right. The thing is, all the time I was doing architecture cartoons I was also drawing for other publications, mostly political cartoons. As an observer, of politics, for example, circumstances provide the subjects, but when you're a participant, it's harder. I find architectural cartoons hard to do. I guess they mean more to me. The subject is closer to my heart.

You're not just a cartoonist in a small society, you're a cartoonist covering a small profession in a small society. You're drawing your peers.

I try not to be too sensitive about it. I draw what I think, and I live by that. Worrying about what other people might think - that's an editor's problem, not mine as a cartoonist. If you start worrying about that, then you've had it, really. If you're going to do this stuff, you've got to have a point of view, and you have to think you're doing something slightly useful. I'd like to think my architectural cartoons are more than just entertainment. Some other strips I do might be more entertaining - you're just telling a joke or being a bit frothy, and there's a place for those things, but I take the architecture cartoons quite seriously.

Having said that, you shouldn't censor yourself, you do have to have a good, hard look at what you think and what you believe. You do have to take some care. There are a few cartoons which made me uncomfortable afterwards. They were political cartoons and I didn't totally agree with their point, but the jokes were so neat that I used them.

Later, I regretted taking what I thought were cheap shots.

I don't think New Zealand architects are very good at handling or inviting criticism. Architecture is rather a closed shop, and New Zealand can be a prickly country, but I think I'm in a fortunate position, as a cartoonist. I'm able to do something, and it does seem to be appreciated. I've noticed - having read magazines over the years - that publications that have a point of view and take a stand are the most popular publications. Otherwise they're just fodder.

As an architectural cartoonist, how obvious do you have to be?

Well, almost libellously so, I sometimes think. I remember one person taking something incredibly personally when the cartoon wasn't directed at him at all. He'd read too much into it. But New Zealand is so small that you do have to work the individual from time to time. There are tiers of people working in architecture. There are people doing quite pushy stuff. They have to expect some attention because they want to be noticed, and if you're going to be noticed you're going to be commented on. Whereas there is a range of people doing their job, whether properly or not, who are just mainstream. It's always the edge that gets picked on.

When I look back at Architecture New Zealand over the years it seems to me your cartoons constitute the most consistent vein of criticism in the magazine. You clearly feel deeply about some issues and there is even some anger in the cartoons.

That's okay, isn't it, getting angry about architecture? It's such an important thing, architecture, it really does matter, and I do think there's a lot of bad architecture around. Although, if architecture was all good I wouldn't have a job as an architectural cartoonist.

Do you have a philosophy on architecture, and architects, that you express in your cartoons?

I think there are fundamental things about buildings that don't change. I mean, there are just essences of what they are. I don't think there are right or wrong ways of designing buildings, but there are fundamentals that run underneath architecture and once you start leaving them I get interested. Fashion is an interesting question in architecture. Once you start getting driven by fashion, things go wrong. It's easy to get seduced in architecture and fall for slick buildings over competent, undemonstrative ones. Other things can get in the way of good architecture - bureaucrats, project managers, clients. All sorts of things can get in the way, even yourself.

Generally, your architectural cartoons are strips, rather than discrete drawings. The strips might have a dozen panels - there's a lot of work in these cartoons.

Well, I've got a big sheet of paper. You can't just have one half-baked idea, you might as well have 12 half-baked ideas, and then you've got six ideas. That's partly it, but you also have a formula for doing these things, and sometimes you try to disrupt it. It does get to be a habit if you're not careful.

When I'm writing, I often don't know exactly what I'm going to say until I start. Is that how it works with cartooning, too? You start out unsure about where a strip is going, but you draw the first panel, and it starts to flow?

Different strips I do differently. With some, I start with the last panel and work backwards. With architecture cartoons, I start with an over-arching idea but the hardest thing is to think of that idea. When I've got an idea I start at the top and do a sequence of panels. Then I shuffle them all around, and throw some away, and reassemble the rest and combine them and make them fit.

That's why the cartoons often look so jumbled and crowded. The process is similar to architecture in a funny sort of way. You're pulling in huge amounts of information and somehow you have to strip it back and get some sort of narrative out of it. It's a matter of sieving and refining, and there's a similar joy when everything comes together and you get this lovely sort of jewel. When that happens, it's so satisfying.

A counterpoint to your architectural cartoons are the cartoons you've drawn for a building magazine. These are drawings in a lower register. The humour is, often literally, bumcrack humour.

I quite enjoyed doing those cartoons because I knew what I was doing, in the sense that I'm used to working with builders, but at the same time I could get a bit of distance from the subject matter. If I have a regret about those cartoons it's that I kept their scope fairly small-scale because I'm a small-scale architect. I haven't ventured too far into corporate building.

Having said that, it's the same business and in New Zealand people are so available. I have friends who are directors of big architectural practices and so I think I've got a good idea of how the whole architectural spectrum works. So I've got no excuse - I'm not sequestered in some little corner.

If you look back at your collection of work, do you see themes or patterns in your architectural cartoons?

It's been interesting to go back and see patterns that emerge. What you think you've done and what you have done are often quite different.

I thought I had sustained an unrelenting tirade against planners and I was sort of backing off the topic, but when I went back and had a look there weren't that many cartoons about planners at all. I was really pissed off - I've let them off the hook.

There is a sensibility running through your cartoons, a sort of liberal humanism.

Which never really worked for grand architecture - you want a good papacy to get a building that scares the living daylights out of people.

I'm certainly more interested in architecture that works with and for people rather than bullying or showing off to them.

Your cartoons suggest the figures in New Zealand architecture you admire, John Scott being one of them. You have your own pantheon of New Zealand architects.

I'm not a great architectural historian. I know who does and did what, but I'm not an analyst. I'm particularly interested in the architects I discovered when I was learning what architecture was. The early stuff of Miles Warren I thought was terrific. Peter Beaven was just a complete eye-opener to me. I was lucky, when I was starting out in architecture, because there was Miles John Scott, and Beaven, and Ian Athfield and Roger Walker. They were all trying to get one up on each other, in a way, and I thought that was terrific. It lifted everyone's game.

Do you think the standard of the game has risen since you began to practise architecture?

I honestly don't know. Some of the buildings that are being done now are remarkable, and budgets are much bigger, but there's still a huge amount of dross out there. A lot of it is not to do with architects. If you really want to fix this stuff up you've got to go to the client and you've got to go to the authorities, I think, because someone wanting a crappy building can always get a crappy architect to design it.

There are good architects out there, and there are poor ones. I think we're starting to get an awareness of what works better, that if you take the trouble at the start of projects you'll get something better at the end.

I hope the leaky building issue has taught us a few lessons. But it's very expensive to build and people will always want to build a cheap building, and I'm not sure we do the ordinary all that well.

A lot of stuff is mediocre, not even thought out in terms of siting or organisation or planning.

Many people think design is something frilly, but in fact it's bones. It's the core of it all, really.

- NZ Herald

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