Michele Hewitson interview: Nat Cheshire

By Michele Hewitson

Award-winning architect is charmingly serious about transforming Auckland into a magical, even poetic city

Nat Cheshire says buildings are "just the background. The architecture is everything that happens in between". Photo / Richard Robinson
Nat Cheshire says buildings are "just the background. The architecture is everything that happens in between". Photo / Richard Robinson

On Friday night Nat Cheshire won two gold pins in the spatial discipline of the Best Design Awards. I saw him on Wednesday and he didn't then know he'd won. I did, but was sworn to secrecy. I thought this might give me the upper hand but - although he is only 32 - you'd have to get up at 4am, as he is known to do, to get the upper hand with him. He is very clever and sweet, an unusual combination.

He was planning to wear one of his bow ties to the awards. I thought bow ties were a bit corny and that, if you were only 32, the only way to wear one would be in an ironic way. But he wears them in a serious way; his are serious bow ties; the ones you actually tie, not those silly ugly ones that are cartoonish and come pre-tied and on a bit of elastic. He believes in dressing up. He takes things seriously, with a generous pinch of fun.

How much did matter to him about winning at the awards? "I'd like to say not at all; but probably quite a lot."

I am sure he wears his bow ties in a thoroughly charming way. He is thoroughly charming but I already knew this about him because I interviewed his father, the brilliant architect Pip Cheshire, earlier in the year and he told me that what Nat has, and he doesn't, is charm. (His son and I agreed, in unison, that the notion that Pip doesn't have charm is "crap".)

He won his gold pins for two of his Britomart projects: The tiny dessert restaurant, Milse, which smells of heaven and sells bombe Alaska ice creams and banana and rosemary chocolates; and for The Pavilions, a little grouping of posh shops and places to eat set around captivating gardens in a mad and innovative collection of planters.

We were sitting in Ortolana, which he also designed, and one day, he said, the outside walls will be covered in ivy and all you will see of the structure will be "little jewel-like windows, blasting out. I can't wait!"

In other words, you won't be able to see his buildings. This is wholly desirable, in his view, but it is a funny sort of view for an architect to take, I thought. "We put everything into these buildings, but it doesn't mean we need them to be noticed."

But is he an architect? Yes, and no. He went to architecture school, after Elam. He was going to be a painter but the solitary life of the painter didn't appeal to his nature, which is collaborative and sociable. He wanted to be a painter because he was an earnest younger thing (now he is a bit older and a bit less earnest; a bit.) He had, "I think, this very idealised 17 year-old's notion that painting would enable me to change the kind of culture that I loved and the world that I grew up in".

He makes himself sound like a fairly horrible bright young thing. "No, I was just incredibly earnest." Yes, that is what I meant by horrible, I said. He simply smiled in a charming way and said: "I was a very gentle earnest 17-year-old."

He must have been lovely, really, because he still is and he is still gentle and earnest and so bright he gleams. It ought to be easy to rather hate him because in addition to that charm, he has had a charmed life. But he knows this and never takes that life for granted and he knows, he says, often, how wonderful and extraordinary his childhood was and now how wonderful and extraordinary his grown up life is.

He grew up in his parent's dear little yellow house in Freemans Bay and often went to sleep to the sound of raucous dinner parties and sometimes he'd get up and put on his dressing gown and go down and join in, and was always welcome. He got on better, as a teenager, with his parents' friends, who included artists such as Stephen Bambury and Gretchen Albrecht. The house was full of books and art and talk. He had an "idyllic" time at Freemans Bay Primary School then a rotten time being bullied for being a "skinny white boy" at Pasadena Intermediate and then he made what seems to have been the only wrong decision of his life so far - he bullied his reluctant parents into sending him to Auckland Grammar. God knows what he was thinking. He doesn't. He was into surfing and art: "And neither of these things were understood at all". Also, he never had the right Nikes. Those bow ties could be a reaction against this; even kids with almost idyllic upbringings have to rebel a bit.

That was but a glitch. How charmed is his life? He loves and likes and admires his parents and his two younger brothers who are "extraordinary young men". He met his future wife, Lizzie, a producer on TV3's 7 Days, when they were both 19. He first saw her from a bus window and fell head-over-heels and tracked her down the very next day and she fell head-over-heels too. This sounds like a fairy story, but it's all true.

And now he designs and makes a city and is making it in his own image, in a way. He wants to make a magical city; a poetic one, even. He sent me an email some hours after the interview, at 1.23am. He'd had a few after-thoughts. He wrote, about The Pavilions: "I wanted to make a place in which beautiful things happened to people. I thought this more important than designing building facades that would look good in photos. We collected the best makers of the most delicate, delightful things - silk dresses, satin pumps, salted chocolates, salads in goddess dressings - and set them carefully in a garden filled with sunlight and flowers. The buildings are just the background. They delineate the beginning and the end. The architecture is everything that happens in between."

He and his father share an architectural practice, Cheshire Architects, which they own equally. He is not an architect because he has a problem with authority (free-spirits usually do.) He said: "I have no idea how I might even become an architect." Why ever not? "It's just so much kind of process to go through and I still have this kind of residual problem that makes it hard to stomach that process." That process would involve submitting a case study and undergoing a three-hour exam with the aim of becoming a registered architect. He hardly needs to bother, but what is he then? "I'm a delineator. I think I'm an architect." He swears he has Delineator on his business cards, although he didn't have one on him.

Was that a bit, I don't know, posey? Somehow, it manages not to be - like his bow ties, he manages to pull it off.

I wondered whether he took a circuitous route to becoming (or rather, not becoming) an architect because of his dad's reputation, which is immense. But he says he never thought about this until "I started engaging in architecture and then it was a big deal. You know, on my first day at architecture school, in a lecture about New Zealand architecture, about the third slide was Pip's Congreve house and the lecturer says: 'And I understand we've got Pip Cheshire's son here.' Well, talk about cringe! I think he probably thought it was a welcoming thing to do. And you know there was a part of me that was very proud and there was a part of me that just melted into the floor!"

He was wearing a beautiful suit, with a very white shirt, buttoned all the way up, no tie, of course. He had a very white handkerchief, folded just so, in his suit pocket. He has beautiful, intense, eyes. He said, about Britomart, that if he'd followed the usual architectural route and filled in all of the forms and had every last and little thing countersigned by his clients: "I wouldn't have done anything." He means he does things fast and in the time it takes proper architects to finish the paperwork. That could sound like youthful arrogance. "I'd like to think not. I really would."

That suit. It is a Costume Nationale suit, bought for him by a client, for a pitch. They had three days to come up with a concept, which would usually take weeks, so they decided they would do away with the usual criteria or quantity surveyors or engineers and just get up - in their beautiful suits - and "talk about what we genuinely believed". They also decided to have a nip of tequila, at 7am, before doing their pitch. That's a good story. "Didn't work out."

Oh well, he got to keep the suit. "This suit was the least of it!" He has "profound" relationships with his clients. I'm sure they love him. That is his great charm at work. 'I don't think that has anything to do with it." I do.

You do have to have charm. "Yeah, of course. That's vital. But at that level, you know, these are powerful people, and charm may get you through the front door and last three minutes, and after that ... They can have anybody in the world."

That is of course true. But hardly anybody would instigate parties with dancing and cigars, in loading docks after construction work has finished for the day, with wheelbarrows full of champagne and rum and limes. He works hard; he has fun; he gets up so early in the morning and sleeps only about five hours a night because "it seems like every time I stop, I miss stuff. This is a time in the city that is just unlike any other, I think". He is always reminding himself how lucky he is - and he is, but the city is also lucky to have him. If you really could make a city in his image, imagine what a stylish, joyous and charming place it would be to live in.

- NZ Herald

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