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Some architects, when asked about their intentions for a building or the theoretical basis for their architecture, are difficult to shut up. Ivan Mercep is not one of them.

The 2008 recipient of the New Zealand Institute of Architect's Gold Medal - in recognition of his contribution over more than 50 years - is the quiet achiever of New Zealand architecture. Genial, unassuming and reflecting values of a bygone era, the 78-year-old tends to let his buildings speak for themselves.

Yet many of his buildings don't immediately talk much either, well not in a loud way. They often seem nondescript and merged into their context. A Mercep building would never be described as flashy. "It's against my nature, I find that quite foreign," he says, horrified at the suggestion.

That's not to say his buildings can't make strong statements. On first encounter, his Fale Pasifika at Auckland University is a shock. The replica of the traditional Pacific meeting house plonked on a platform on the slope of Grafton Gully signals a stranger in a strange land, an alien arrival. The fale has landed.

But ask Mercep what it's all about and he'll tell you matter-of-factly the fale was the client's brief - what the Centre for Pacific Studies wanted. So he duly delivered, with a few modifications - tiles instead of thatch, bolted steel gussets hidden by decorative lashings for the pine poles and laminated frame, and glazing instead of open walls. Plus a raised ridge for natural ventilation - a hallmark of Mercep designs.

Mercep is no stranger to working with another culture's forms. Along Wynyard Street is the Maori Studies and Marae complex opened in 1988, one of several urban marae he's designed, including Hoani Waititi in West Auckland.

Does his affinity with other cultures have anything to do with being Croatian? Brought up in Taumarunui and speaking Croatian at home, Mercep says he was aware of being a minority. "Your peers at school reminded you of that occasionally." But the sense of difference quickly disappeared with social contact, particularly at Auckland University. Whether his background played a part in getting on with other cultures, Mercep doesn't know. He doesn't care much for self-analysis.

"Probably subconsciously - I never think about it actively."

But it was his parents who encouraged him into becoming an architect. "My parents were keen, like most migrant parents, for their kids to do well - they provided me with the opportunity."

The university's meeting house is a little different from most because its walls slope slightly inwards. Why did he do that? "It had a sort of solidity to it, a sort of withstanding the elements," says Mercep who admits he designs mostly on gut feeling. He does, however, stick to some guiding principles. Sustainable design has been part of his repertoire since the 60s - the meeting house, for example, has clever openings under the eaves which bring fresh air in between the wall studs and down to floor level. There are similar tricky flaps and natural air circulation vents at the whare kai, but it's the building's strutted roof truss that shows another Mercep hallmark.

In architecture speak it's "a hierarchy of timbers" that, while functional, also "forms a nice tapestry in the roof space." Mercep says the construction draws from both the 1840-1850 New Zealand churches built by Bishop Selwyn and modernist work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

But the most guiding of principles in Mercep's designs is undoubtedly the way he keeps his buildings at human scale. "From early on I was very conscious of the scale of buildings relative to people and how they use them. And the comfort you get from being in a space that feels not overpowering."

The net result is public buildings put together with a lot of domestic detail and materials - brick, timber, pitched roofs, opening windows, balconies, eaves, chunky gutters and spouting. Probably the best example is the university's Arts and Commerce building made with pre-cast brick panels and using various other domestic-sized elements to keep what is a substantial faculty structure in context with existing houses on Symonds Street.

"I know we've been criticised that we make all our buildings domestic scale," says Mercep. "But they've stood the test of time. One thing that gives me a lot of satisfaction is the users of the buildings have enjoyed using them."

Mercep is the M in JASMaD, the architectural practice he co-founded with four other colleagues shortly after returning from working in Canada and England in the early 1960s. The practice developed a style known as the JASMaD vernacular, which some say reflects an architectural regionalism unique to New Zealand. Others say its roots lie, via architects such as Alvar Aalto, with humanism. Either way, what JASMaD did - reworking institutional buildings in the image of houses - had a lasting effect on the built environment of Auckland.

But there are signs - literally - that the JASMaD vernacular is fading. The 1977 University Recreation Centre, which won an Enduring Architecture award, has a huge university billboard plastered across the glass of its street frontage.

"It shouldn't be there at all," says Mercep, who is disappointed that the exterior is no longer painted red. "We had two predominant colours that we used - red and green - that came about from the predominance of red and green corrugated iron roofs around the country. It tied the building together quite nicely and reduced its scale."

There's further insensibility and architectural disrespect around the corner where the length of windows that allowed students to look into the central gym space from the outside are no longer accessible - blocked by a bike shed cage. "Why would you do that for God's sake?" says a dismayed Mercep. "It's a shocker."

Architect Pip Cheshire says while older architects fully appreciate Mercep's gold medal and see it as well deserved, some younger architects can't bridge the generation gap.

"I do know younger people mystified by it, because for the last 15 or so years there has been a much greater emphasis on the appearance of buildings - for those people, the JASMaD buildings just look wooden and domestic and confusing."

Cheshire, who joined the firm in 1989 when it transformed into JASMAX through the merger of his practice and that of Pete Bossley and Gibbs Harris Architects, says at the time he hadn't realised how much Mercep was the foundation stone of the group.

"He was able to offer a vision that people would follow," says Cheshire. "It was incredibly hard to understand what that vision was, because you could listen to him talk for half an hour and not have the faintest idea of what he said. Yet throughout the industry people said, 'Yes, Ivan's got it right, we'll go with him'."

Architect Mark Worner, who joined JASMaD as a raw graduate in 1987, remembers Mercep's commanding presence and mana. "I think we were all in awe of Ivan, because he had such boundless energy and knowledge of the vast number of jobs in the office. He was very much in control, but he had a sensitivity which meant he was still very approachable, even for the greenest newbie."

Cheshire says Mercep's values were inclusive and that he was incredibly gracious about accepting other people into projects. He was strong, too, on satisfying client requirements.

"For Ivan there was never a line in the sand," says Cheshire. "He would always seek to find another way, but there was an immense will of iron in there."

Cheshire says although Pete Bossley was the lead designer of the $135 million Te Papa Tongarawa, Museum of New Zealand, it was Mercep who was the architect - "in the complete sense of what an architect is" - of the eight-year project completed in 1998.

Mercep was known also for his angular planning.

"He was forever chopping corners off things," says Cheshire. "If you look at the versions of Te Papa, you can see corners get lopped off, Pete [Bossley] redraws them and they get lopped off again."

Mercep says the influx of new blood into his practice in the change to JASMAX was difficult. "I had a pretty major role in JASMaD and pretty high control of what I was doing. To suddenly share that was a challenge. But after a while it was absolutely delightful."

He faced a similar challenge withdrawing from the running of the practice in 1995 - taking what he calls a sideline position, but still going into the office four days a week. There's no sign of him stopping.

"I think architects keep going. It's not a job, it's something you enjoy doing. The teamwork here is just phenomenal. There's a great bunch of people coming up through the ranks, and they treat me very well."

Mercep, who is a member of the Auckland Urban Design panel, says he's concerned by how many developers still don't use quality architects for their projects.

"It's the idea of the market knowing what is best. I don't go along with that at all. The market might eventually get some of it right after a lot of mistakes, but we have to live with those mistakes for years."

While people are now saying all the right words for what's needed for the city, Mercep says the words are yet to translate into regulation.

"When a building comes before the panel, if it complies you can comment on it, but you can't reject it - and too often something quite ugly can comply."

So is the battle against Auckland's ugly architecture lost? "It hasn't been totally buggered up yet, so there is still an opportunity there. I've always been an optimist."

* Fale Pasifika, University of Auckland
* University of Auckland Arts & Commerce Building
* Mangere Pool and Leisure Centre
* University of Auckland Recreation Centre
* University of Auckland Maori Studies and Marae
* Te Papa Museum of New Zealand
* International House, University Hall of Residence
* 2 Whitaker Pl, JASMaD office building
* Rarotongan Hotel, Cook Islands
* Samoa House, Karangahape Rd
* Cathedral Church, Glendowie
* Waikato Museum of Art and History, Hamilton
* Te Tuhi The Mark, Art Gallery and Community Centre, Manukau;
* Hoani Waitete Marae, West Auckland;
* Ford Motor Company, Manukau;
* Birkenhead Inn;
* Glendowie Catholic Church;
* Marine Parade Townhouses, Auckland;
* Potters Wheel Pub, New Lynn