Architect draws experience from the path less travelled

By Claire McCall

Architect and cartoonist Malcolm Walker talks about walking the path less travelled in his career choices.

Architect and cartoonist Malcolm Walker with Sid the Mexican Bearded Lizard. Photo / Babiche Martens
Architect and cartoonist Malcolm Walker with Sid the Mexican Bearded Lizard. Photo / Babiche Martens

Sid the bearded lizard is dicing with death or, at the very least, serious injury. Architect and cartoonist Malcolm Walker and his partner, Diana Curtis, have inherited him for a week or so from their daughter, Polly. Curtis is feeding Sid yellow dandelions on the front lawn of their Grey Lynn home, while the family cat eyes Sid up as a potential meal. It makes Walker nervous. He's grown very fond of Sid.

Such an incongruous scene is not atypical for Walker who, by his own admission, says "yes" to everything life has to offer and deals with the consequences later.

This "yes" is what has made him a singular creature with a dual career as an architect and cartoonist.

If you google these two professions side by side, you come up with just two names that currently embody this rare combination: Walker and British-based Louis Hellman.

In Walker's just-released book of architectural cartoons Did You Mean To Do That?, it's Hellman who points out in the foreword that this odd breed is prone to "foul their own nest". So how does Walker get away with sending up stereotypes and poking fun at his peers? "Cartooning is a sneaky way of making a point at a distance," he says. "It's like being in the artillery - not actually doing the bayoneting. But once you say something, you have to mean it and stand by it. I'm not vindictive with my drawings and I mainly attack bureaucrats, not architects."

Meeting Walker, his outer layer is a far cry from his politicised core. There's no bellicose manner evident, rather something of the mischievous boy; the play of a smile, even when he is being reactionary. He says cartoonists are born not made and that he sees a funny link between his professions. "They're both visual and about consolidating and simplifying."

It was while studying science at Canterbury that Walker was set on this path less travelled. "I didn't see much architecture growing up in Hokitika." But in Christchurch, staying in a hall of residence designed by Miles Warren, he had an epiphany. He crossed the bridge to the Fine Arts department and fell in with the student leaders of the in-house magazine where a cartoon depicting the mistaken demolition of Sir Miles' College House chapel, was his first public airing.

"The irony is," he says, "that, 50 years later, it's the Warren Trust that donated money to allow this book to be published!"

Walker is a magnet for such curious circularity. Take, for instance, the woman who strenuously objected to a draft plan of one of his buildings because it was not what she deemed "fitting" in a heritage area. Once the house was constructed, she loved it so much she commissioned him to design her home. Of the heritage champions he says, "I have nothing against a picket fence but my argument is, that's decoration not substance. It's easy to imitate something, and a lot harder, but better, to take the spirit of it and make it comply."

Walker himself lives in the house he designed for his family in 1987, which has stayed original - no altering or renovating. "Our timing was terrible. We had no money and interest rates climbed on us to 20 per cent," he recalls. "For a while we couldn't afford any Gib board. We were supposed to build in three stages, but never got past the first. Now that the kids are leaving home, we might start on it."

He praises Curtis as an extremely patient partner, but she's not the only one who requires such tolerance. With concurrent vocations and readily distracted by opportunity, he has always pushed the boundaries of the deadline. "I generally practise architecture during work hours and cartoon at night," he says.

Clients and editors of the publications he's worked for over the years find his output is, when it happens, worth the wait. Either way, he's destined to leave a legacy, in the built environment and through his drawings.

Walker: "You'd be amazed how some really old cartoons still pop up in books."

Hailed as having "an accurate antennae" when it comes to architectural style, his houses are about character and canny compromise. He has never designed a modernist box. His depiction of the 21st century house as a long, thin rectangle jammed on to a site and published in a fashionable magazine was a comment on the style that prevailed in the early 2000s.

He calls this approach "the house as a handbag".

"Design isn't frilly, but decoration is and people mix up the two. The problem is when we look at fashion as separate to architecture. Yes, there can be really good long boxes but mostly, as a built form, there's not much it offers."

Another architectural approach that gets the wry Walker treatment is 80s post-modernism where it was considered good practice to retain the historical facade of a building and slap anything on the back.

He lays the blame for such asinine architectural decisions squarely on the council.

"Planners as a breed are not designers, they are rule-makers. Architects should be able to plead a case and not be usurped by bureaucracy. It's not good enough that a building should just comply. The Resource Management Act states there's also a duty to get a decent building out of it."

How that is interpreted is, of course, up for debate, a mission from which Walker does not shy away. He is on the committee of Urban Auckland, a trust set up in 2000 to monitor design in the central city. The society entered the fray regarding the Britomart precinct, fighting the plan to flatten Downtown in order to put up high rises. The struggle paid off. "What's happening down there now is starting to work - it has a lot of life."

A cartoon of an eggbeater whisking up the structures of Auckland City is part of Walker's response to the craziness of it all. "I don't think we have a good culture of urban design. It's a random scattering of stuff; they just make a set of rules and let everyone go for it."

He's almost apologetic that he seldom gets to say anything uplifting about a business in which he fully participates.

But, he argues, by its nature cartooning is a negative art; it has to react to something. For Walker the drawings offer a freedom, a release if you will, from good ideas so often strangled by red tape. His silver lining is that no bureaucrat can change a cartoon. "They can't say, 'hey, that person only has three fingers - add another'."

Far from being lambasted by his fellow architects, he is admired. The key is that even though he mocks aspects of the profession, his work is also laugh-out-loud funny.

This appreciation has surfaced in the unlikeliest of places. Walker has seen his cartoons tacked to the wall of council planning offices. "I made the mistake once of pointing out that it was me who had done them," he says.

Even clients don't escape his wit. One cartoon in the book has the client demanding a "minimalistical" building where he thinks toilets are an affectation. Said client ends up with a less than minimalistic bill.

"The best clients are clear about what they want more than about how to achieve it," says Walker who is perhaps best known for the exuberant alteration of Ponsonby Rd's Bolliwood restaurant. Its vibrant pink cross is, sadly, no more. That fuchsia cruciform echoed the courageous, colourful nature of its designer. In responding to the question the book poses - did you mean to do that? - Walker's answer is: "Yes I did. Now I just have to work out what it means."

* Did You Mean To Do That? Published by the New Zealand Architectural Publications Trust, $49,95. Order online.

- NZ Herald

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