David Mitchell, who has died aged 77, knew his history and was not afraid to move on with his designs.

Obituary: David Mitchell, architect

It was a bright day for Auckland when the new Music School at the University of Auckland opened in 1986.

Designed by David Mitchell and Jack Manning, the school is built around a courtyard with a lovely, relaxed aesthetic, where flat geometric shapes and surfaces are offset by curves and cylinders, mostly painted white. The building flourishes those curves at you, yet with an elegant restraint.

This was the mid-1980s, a time when restraint was hard to find. Post-modernist architects filled the eye with incongruous classical detailing, form ignored function and "fun" reined supreme. Sometimes it worked, but not often.

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The Music School did not embrace the new style. It was, rather, a building derived from modernism that brazenly set out to better the post-modernists at their own game: its true glory was not its functionality, but its facade.

On the street you see a yellow stucco wall shaped like a wave with a sweeping curve, a pair of four-square Georgian stone archways, one of which leads nowhere, and a cabbage tree. It's funny and beautiful, it feels like it's in the Pacific and it has things to say about Europe. That colonial masonry is both frivolous and admirable, while the curved plaster wall pays homage to Le Corbusier's mid-century masterpiece, the chapel at Ronchamp.

Facadism is fabulous, says the Music School to modernists and post-modernists alike. But you have to do it really well.

It's still there, now partly obscured by regulation bus stops, but that didn't stop it receiving an Enduring Architecture Award in 2012.

Sadly, David Mitchell himself is not still here. He died at North Shore hospital last Thursday, aged 77.

Mitchell was born in Morrinsville in 1941, gained a degree at the University of Auckland's School of Architecture and, at a young age, married Judith Lowry. They had three children together.

He began to practise as an architect in the late 1960s and in 1972 returned to the university as a lecturer.

"You knew Mitchell was in the building because you could hear Johnny B. Goode thundering down the corridors," said one student at the time. He remained on staff until 1987.

In 1984, he presented a TV series called The Elegant Shed and, with Gillian Chaplin, wrote a book of the same name.

Our architecture may be based on the woolshed, he suggested, but the things we do with it can be sophisticated and surprising. Mitchell never stopped proving it in his own work.

By the late 1980s he was living and working with a new partner, the architect Julie Stout. The house they designed for themselves in Freemans Bay was a quiet, timbered haven with a kind of "outdoor room" that looked across to the city.

"Small but so perfectly formed", people liked to say, mostly assuming this was the quintessential Mitchell & Stout house. But Mitchell didn't like to get stuck.

In 2009 they designed a new home for themselves at Narrow Neck featuring giant pre-cast concrete slabs and sheets of corrugated polycarbonate, with everything set at rakish angles to everything else. It seemed like the opposite of their last house and, it is said, the neighbours were confused.

"I'm not really concerned about whether people like it or not," Mitchell said at the time, "because there are a lot of their houses that I don't like."

The true glory of David Mitchell's design for Auckland University's School of Music was not its functionality but its facade. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The true glory of David Mitchell's design for Auckland University's School of Music was not its functionality but its facade. Photo / Sarah Ivey

In between times they went sailing. In 1992 they took their 11m yacht up to Hong Kong, where they lived and worked for several years, before sailing all the way to Turkey. But they kept up their practice in New Zealand, completing, among other things, the New Gallery, across the road from the Auckland Art Gallery.

In 1999, while away, Mitchell discovered he had prostate cancer. They returned to Auckland and set up an office in town. The firm Mitchell & Stout specialised in residential and cultural projects; recent notable work includes Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi, completed in 2014.

That same year Mitchell was the creative director of New Zealand's first exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. Called Last, Loneliest, Loveliest, the show celebrated our relationship with the sea and with the Pacific and Asian cultures it brings us in contact with. Here were Mitchell's passions, all woven together.

More recently Mitchell was diagnosed with a rare skin cancer. He never retired. They moved their office to Devonport and up until three weeks ago he was still riding his bicycle to work.

David Mitchell won the New Zealand Institute of Architects' supreme national award three times. His many other accolades include the NZIA's Gold Medal in 2005 and a distinguished alumni award from the University of Auckland in 2016.

He was an environmentalist who battled port expansion into the harbour. He continued to write and teach and he advocated for both preservation and the new, especially in the suburbs. In a 2013 lecture he declared his opposition to "the idea that Mt Eden should be villaville forever, and Mt Albert bungaloidal". Variety was vital.

He saw value in tower blocks, which would help on Ponsonby Rd "to give the street presence" and produce higher pedestrian numbers.

"I'm happy with high-rise," he wrote. "I love a lift like I love an underground railway. I want to look out. I want contrast, more than context."

He knew his history and he was not afraid to move on. "Making the elegant shed has been a fine indulgence," he wrote, "but making the elegant city is now our great task. We had one once, and we're heading there again. I do hope Nature doesn't get there first."

David Mitchell will be farewelled at a service at St Matthew-in-the-City tomorrow afternoon.