The risk-taking architect who embraced hippydom is happy to be the respectable face of NZ’s Biennale exhibit in Venice

David Mitchell, the well-known architect, has just returned from Venice where he's been doing a turn as the creative director and host of the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. This is the first time New Zealand has been invited to have a national pavilion at the Biennale and so it is A Very Big Deal and I am not to call it a jaunt. It has taken 30 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship to get our foot in such an elegant door.

The exhibit is called — after the Kipling line — Last, Loneliest, Loveliest and it is certainly lovely. It mimics the architecture it depicts: poles and sticks; wood not stones; our tent-like, whare-like roofs. It somehow, cleverly, seems to be filled with that particular New Zealand light, even in Venice. There is an extraordinary photograph taken in 1929, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum's opening day, of the Maori meeting house, still there today, made tiny tucked in behind the imposing neo-classical pillars of the museum. Which looks more odd is hard to say.

In the pavilion in Venice, that oddity is turned on its head. As part of the exhibit, a carving of a wharerangi (storehouse) was commissioned and within it is a tiny 3-D printed replica of the museum. What really brings home (should it need bringing home) our place in the world is a depiction of New Zealand, a tiny imprint, adrift in a vast ocean marked only with the lines of migrational patterns. What a small country we are.

Julie Stout (Mitchell's partner of 30-odd years; their architecture practice is Mitchell & Stout) showed me some Facebook pictures of the opening of the pavilion and I said, of a familiar face: "That's X! What's she doing there?" Because of course we are a small country; isolated, but you can always find a New Zealand face in a crowd, wherever you go. We travel well and so has our architecture exhibit, although of course I have only seen the pictures.


Of course I don't really think it was a "jolly" (as I was asked to also please not say, by the NZ Institute of Architects) not only because they have pulled it off beautifully but also because that would be silly, and it is serious stuff, architecture. But who wouldn't be a bit green? Hopefully the exhibit will be displayed at home sometime after it arrives home; it can be seen at the Venice Biennale until the end of November, should you be on a jaunt.

The teasing of architects aside, you do hope the architect and Julie Stout, and his son, Julian (also an architect), and the other members of the NZ pavilion did manage to have some fun, because Venice and architecture ought to equal a good time. It did and I was jolly glad to hear it. It was a very New Zealand affair. Stout said they were agog at the grandiosity of some of the other exhibits; ours included fishing lures as weights for the fabric structure and, of course, some number 8 wire. A team of 10 went and they stayed in an appropriately florid Venetian apartment designed for about six people but more and more people (brothers, cousins) turned up and so it sounds as though it became a sort of grown-up version of a student flat — with better wine, presumably. The ambassador's name is Trevor. "You could tell our lot," Mitchell said, "by the short pants on the men. No Italian would be seen dead in shorts."

He has long been known as "the dapper architect". So, what did he wear for the opening? "I wore a striped jacket. I wore a tie." Like a boating jacket? "No. no. Not so vulgar! Ha, ha! I wore a tie twice. We had two very serious openings and I think the ambassador and I were the only people wearing ties."

Even people who don't know about architects often know about him because he was on the telly, if years ago, in a series celebrating New Zealand architecture, called The Elegant Shed (there was also a best-selling book of the same name). Presumably he was known for being dapper — which he scoffs at, and who wouldn't? — because of his liking for hats: white in summer and black in winter. He is mocking about this (and quite a few other things) and he said that it's only photographers who always want him to put his hat on for pictures because the ensuing pictures are preferable to ones of his "bald nut".

But he obligingly went and fetched his hat, despite saying later that his father and grandfather — both of whom always wore a hat, as chaps did then — would not have approved of hat-wearing indoors. "It isn't right. That's the truth of it." He's 73 and likes, I think, to play with the idea of being a pillar of the architectural community which requires the donning of faux-pomposity, along with the hat.

The New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

I did rather ask for this (the faux-pomposity) by asking, in an incredulous way, whether — given that he was the creative director of the pavilion and so representing New Zealand architecture at such a serious and prestigious event — he was now respectable. Of course, this happens to the best (or worst) of us, but like so many of the country's now leading architects he was a young architect in the '60s and '70s when young architects were radical hippy types. He said: "When hippydom arrived, I embraced it." He embraced what, exactly? Sex and drugs and rock and roll? "There was a bit of that, yeah! Lots of risks were being taken, by and large. Including architectural risks." You'd hope so, and he lived up to such an expectation. He certainly built some weird things and, as it happens, when I was young and less respectable too, I spent too much time drinking wine and playing scrabble and other less respectable pursuits in a bach on the Wade River which was on family land (not mine) and on which he built one of his earliest and very weird experimental buildings. Built might be pushing it. He said, when asked about early architectural risks: "Well, a building that is weird and is still rather strange [was made out of] a corrugated iron tank and bits of plywood and photo litho plates that had been used." He hasn't seen it for years because it belongs to his ex-wife's family and he said: "Well, I don't have any truck with it any more. It was a period of my life 50 years ago."

Fair enough. I mentioned it only because it rather emphasises the intimate feel of the exhibit and that in New Zealand our paths are likely to cross somewhere — and that we are a very small country. I once went to a party at the first house he and Julie built for themselves. They weren't there — they went sailing the world for the best part of a decade in the 90s — and I said I remembered the house as being a bit hippy. That made him slightly huffy and he said it wasn't when they lived there; it may have been when other people did. Then he laughed and said their friends said it looked like a boat and another architect mate "reckoned it was floating in the front and sinking at the back, because it had this pool out the back".

He and Julie now live in another Mitchell & Stout house, at Narrowneck, but he doesn't seem too fussed about where he lives. "I can live anywhere pretty much. I've lived on boats for long periods." He has been respectable, as an architect at least, for a long time now and builds houses for rich people, mostly. He is probably best known for the Gibbs house, which was part house and part art gallery. So, very respectable. I was thinking about the tie. I said: "All you architects start out as rebels, don't you? And have all these ideas about, God knows what — communes probably."


"Yes," he said, agreeably. "Communes!" So communes (that collection of motley baches at the Wade was like some sort of commune) and all that sex, drugs and rock and roll, and now look at him! "That's right! You wear yourself out. I was doing everything that I could, but I wore myself out!" I am relieved to be able to report that he wore, in addition to the tie, bright yellow boat shoes. "Julie bought them for me. They were cheap at the fancy shop down there on the corner." They might have been a bit vulgar. Julie: "Oh. No! A nice yellow!"

I was trying to fathom the depths of his respectability. "I'm old." Most architects that are any good are old, he said. "Well, it takes about 30 years to get enough practice." As for how good he is? "I have no idea and I'm not too worried about whether I'm good or not, either. So you're not going to trap me there!" Trap him! I'd have thought he'd want to be good, that anyone would want to be. I suppose he didn't want to look like a show-off, but there must be an element of showing off to be confident enough to make big things, such as houses, which are made to be shown. "I don't know. But if people think you're good, you tend to think you're good. That's the framework, isn't it?"

I'd hoped he'd be able to tell me what a respectable Mitchell house looked like — I'd seen the other, very early sort — but he couldn't because he doesn't know. He has, in other words, no truck with that sort of thing. Somebody else might be able to say what a Mitchell house is. The most he can say is: "I'd like to think I could do one that I hadn't done before."

He's not at all snooty about other people's houses. I thought architects might not be able to help themselves. "You've got to be aware that architects are always looking architecturally and therefore they have accommodated, they have adjusted to the world." That is very big of architects! "Well, how could they do anything else? So it always amuses me that someone thinks I might be troubled if they say they don't like something I've designed. And I always think: 'Well, probably your place I'm not too shook on either'."

I wondered what people, out there in the big world, have made of the New Zealand exhibit. I also wasn't quite sure what it was for. He said it was so that people could talk about it (other architects, mainly) and that "they found it very foreign". Also it has been reviewed in "some obscure magazines" but as they are in Italian, he doesn't know what they say.

He's the creative director. He can have the final say. He might want to talk it up. "Anyway, it was coherent, I thought." Which is perfect really. It's so very New Zealand.