Book Review: Athfield Architects

By Chris Barton

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Athfield Architects by Julia Gatley
Auckland University Press $75

Book cover of Athfield Architects by Julia Gatley. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Athfield Architects by Julia Gatley. Photo / Supplied

Ian Athfield, something of a "starchitect" here before the term was in common use, has been called both the Billy Connolly and the Ralph Hotere of New Zealand architecture. Joining in the game, he once described himself as the Tim Shadbolt of the profession.

The latter is uncannily accurate when you consider his early practice of the 60s and 70s. As Julia Gatley points out in her encyclopaedic, thumping great biographical tome Athfield Architects, Athfield, now 72, and his "terrible twin" Roger Walker were portrayed as "audacious, anti-establishment, non-conformist, deliberately provocative, out to shock and amuse, consciously disrespectful and all the while both democratic and anti-hierarchical". Phew.

My abiding memory of Athfield when I sat at his feet as an architecture student in the 70s, was that he laughed a lot - a hippie with long hair and beard, doing his own thing and not much bothered by what others thought. Like Shadbolt, he had an infectious sense of humour - particularly when aimed at our absurdly uptight elders.

I vividly remember, on a site visit to one of his rambling brick and plaster creations, being amazed by the audacity and fun of the building - the children's bedrooms were accessed via a drainpipe. Playfulness, perhaps best recorded in his Mediterranean white plaster house and office rollicking down the Khandallah hillside of 105 Amritsar St, Wellington, was Athfield's stock-in-trade.

Not everyone appreciated it. Neighbours shot at the house and killed his chooks. Some called his work "Disneyland" and "gingerbread". The former dean of the Auckland School of Architecture, Alan Wild, describes Athfield and Walker's works as "snook-cocking non-buildings, hippie happenings for inhabiting".

Gatley, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland School of Architecture, who has written books on modernism and the Group Architects in New Zealand, worked in 1987 on Athfield's bach at Awaroa Bay in the Abel Tasman National Park. This was, she writes, the most memorable experience of her time at architecture school, which may be why, occasionally, her tone appears still a bit awe-stricken. But mostly the book is meticulous, scholarly yet accessible, and a gorgeously presented record of 200 Athfield Architects projects since the 60s.

Gatley does her best to nail down his life, influences, and extraordinary times in more than 300 footnoted pages and hundreds of photographs and drawings. But Athfield isn't easy. The early work can be seen as counter-culture, picturesque and romantic, neo-colonial, "a mini-Islamic village of plastered pyramids and arched windows", and/or cob cottage meets fantasy. The repeated use of twin chimneys has even been interpreted as the "two-finger gesture to the establishment of the time". The book shows, too, how the rebel becomes the establishment in his elevation to president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and other public roles.

Then there are the influences - the 19th century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi and the German modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, although looking at Athfield's work, such influences, if there at all, are superficial.

The influence of Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck is undeniable - especially in the Khandallah complex, where 25 people live and 40 work. The house reflects Athfield's battles with town planners, his alternative vision for suburbia, plus ties into van Eyck's idea that "a house is in fact a small city".

It's inevitable that Athfield will be most remembered for the shock of the new in his early work. But Athfield Architects shows much more - including his unbuilt low-cost housing scheme in the Philippines, Jade Stadium in Christchurch, Waitangi Park in Wellington and the New Zealand war memorial in London. There's his crowning glory - Civic Square and the Public Library in Wellington, with its sculpted nikau palms, a design which showed the country how a public space should be and reunited downtown with its waterfront. If only we could do that in Auckland.

Chris Barton is a Herald business feature writer.

- NZ Herald

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