The Architecture of Ian Athfield

Ian Athfield is undoubtedly one of the most influential, versatile and compelling architects in Australasia and the South Pacific.  The peculiar interest which his designs generate, above all amongst the young generation, result from a rather complex mixture of aesthetic surprises and cultural inquiries present in his work, and through the unexpected combination of a local and global perspective.  On the one hand, his architecture speaks of its quiet, marginal condition in New Zealand, a youthful, often impertinent country built on the mythology of a fearless indigenous population, and still carrying the ponderous burden of a exploitive colonialism.  The bold and poetic gestures of his architecture emerge from the dual condition of a ruggedly pristine natural environment and the too-often disastrous condition of the contemporary city; simultaneously from an intense sensitivity to the primeval beauty of the land and a painful cognizance of these urban ills.  On the other hand, Athfield's work exudes pioneering assuredness, individual expression, and an often amazing inventiveness, executed through a convincing occupation of the site and emerging as a single, poetic whole through elementary acts of construction.

The architecture stands strongly and bravely, ready to be heard and read.  Disdaining both an apologetic colonialism and stylistic clichés, it poses basic questions and challenges fundamental issues of land, history, aesthetics and culture.  An extremely diverse architecture, each project has its own, usually tacit but nevertheless potent, purpose.  Ideas and forms are never overly intellectualized, but remain strongly embedded in the human experience.

Designing from first principles, the result is almost continual originality and experimentation.  The sense of architecture as an instrument for discovering reality, discovering what reality conceals as well as what it reveals, pervades Athfield's work.  His architecture allows one to see.  It is more revelatory than interpretative, divesting reality of the familiar context and recontextualising it.  In the process, the question itself changes.

Over the years, Athfield has gathered around him a young, highly talented team of professional architects, interior designers and industrial designers, individuals who retain a central commitment to the quality of each project on whi h they work and collectively combine their effort to maximum effect.  The catalyst for the process is Athfield himself, whose fertile imagination and intense commitment to architecture establishes the germative condition.  But the team as a whole works in close unison from first idea to completed artifact, creating and executing designs often exceptional in their consistency, integrity and potency.

Buildings and projects from Athfield's office form a clear body of accrued knowledge which has grown from the initial exchange with native crafts to embrace sophisticated, contemporary technologies, the site, housing and its morphological role in the city, the structure of the city, and the nature of urban social and cultural institutions.  One project builds on the next, not as a mindless clone but as an autonomous and self-generating memory composed of several strata of earlier alternatives, variations, corrections, errors and precedents which, in one way or another are present in the final composition.  Products built via a process of accumulation and purification of successive pregnant discoveries in turn become absorbed as constitutive elements.  Nothing is designed discretely or absolutely, but always in relation to other things, affiliations, belongings, and always as a seed for further, usually unpredictable, creative impulses.

Overall, New Zealand provides only a tenuous colonial and indigenous tradition on which its architecture can be meaningfully anchored.  While Athfield views architecture fom a cultural perspective, he is aware of the creative and political perils of cultural misfit and misappropriation.  Nevertheless, with a long standing commitment to the indigenous Maori and South Pacific peoples, he has used their cultures as inspiration in a number of his works.  Colonial occupation of New Zealand, occurring only within the last 150 years, is more problematic.  Often enforcing derivative, mimetic stances in which local architecture, Athfield finds these positions and attitudes repugnant.  Commonly, he reverts to his innovative genius to transcend what otherwise could become a stifling tradition or ill-advised cultural references.

Athfield neither romanticizes history nor congeals time.  His designs treat history as a living archaeology of cultural ideas, memories and aesthetic precedents, where the strength of the past informs and is balanced with the imagination of the present.  A whole range of subtle temporal references and metaphors co-exist in his new buildings and ricochet back and forth between old building and new addition.  A number of strategies are used to achieve this:  introducing powerful indigenous forms and materials into the composition; extending the formal strength of the historical morphology with substantial aesthetic sophistication; or working contextually only insofar as the main visual lines respond to salient profiles of adjacent buildings.  He believes that the mingling of old and new buildings, with the consequential range of living costs and tastes, is essential to achieve a diversity and stability in residential populations, as well as diversity and viability in institutions and enterprises.  This insistence on the juxtaposition of old with new challenges the modernist tabula rasa tradition without denying the utopian implications of rationally organized form.  He has always remained selective when advocating the preservation of a particular quality or element, invariably clarifying the fine line between contextualism and sentimentality.  Thus, while his buildings develop from a conscious relation with precedent, his architectural language is of today, incorporating elements of the past as well as the capacity to formulate new meanings.

Never one to become trapped in a simple bi-polar logic, Athfield's process of designing is inherently lateral and exploratory, not linear or deterministic.  His processes of observation, investigation, interrogation and projection are beyond that of a mere invention; they actively engage in the transformational possibilities of a given site which only a creative mind might perceive.  And they rely heavily on intuition.  As Athfield states,

"In my design process a feeling comes first, a feeling for the surrounding context and for the people I am working with.  I would characterize my design process as a certain naivety about what architecture is and what it means.  There is no right or wrong way of designing.  The way I work is not to produce definitive designs, but to keep an open mind and an open ended vision.  I tend to gather things as I move along ... the vision changes each day, each month.  I don't see things in black and white.  For a number of years I didn't have the luxury of thinking at a big scale.  As a result, much of my grounding is firmly rooted at the scale of rooms, beds, entries, doors and windows, although my thinking has always been comprehensive and inclusive, not focused and exclusive".