Article for BLOCK Magazine
The editors of this esteemed organ have requested autobiographical writing on this city’s architects and “what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why”.
A lot of what we do is the same as any other small practice: a bunch of generalists attempting to spend as much of our day as possible practicing our architectural craft. In our practice the more senior of us, or the most general of the generalists, are also engaged in the peripheral tasks that go with running a small business: management, marketing, strategy, tech support, HR, etc. There’s something disheartening about knowing that one isn’t doing any of these subsidiary duties especially well, but also some satisfaction in developing diversified skills and having the appearance of controlling one’s own destiny.
An aspect of our practice that is dissimilar from many other small outfits is that we partake in an area of work commonly described as urban design. While on one hand this makes us especially generalist it also paradoxically allows us to legitimately label ourselves as specialists. As many business pundits have noted, marketing a practice as capable of all types of work may in fact be the reality, but it doesn’t do a lot to differentiate it in the marketplace. So for better or worse we don’t trumpet to our residential clients that we design parts of the city and we don’t tell our urban clients that we have spent the morning working out someone’s kitchen.
Practising in an area in which we have no formal qualifications is a bit of a dilemma. We have considered doing post-graduate study but it is difficult to balance with financial survival and maintaining a viable practice. Having said that, it is our learning and experience over the last 10 years that allows us to work in this field, not our architecture degrees – many architects have a confident belief that their architectural training has more than adequately prepared them for pronouncements on the city, but in our opinion we often don’t deserve to be so self-assured.
The work that we do in the urban realm can sometimes be what we would call urban design (i.e. some aspect of the built environment that will be built to our design) but often is master planning or urban planning (areas that will be populated by buildings and landscapes designed by others). It is urban planning, along with constituent transport planning and demographics that will dictate the future shape of Auckland.
At last week’s Winter Lecture Series Alistair Ray presented some research his team had undertaken with Patrick Fontein on the viability of the intensification signalled in the Draft Auckland Plan. Afterwards in a post-match discussion about intensification in Auckland there was a real sense that many architects in the audience believed that a new building typology or two would somehow solve the issues Auckland is said to face: how to fit and provide for the extra population (the equivalent of two Wellington’s) moving into the city over the next 30 years. This sense of people wanting to rearrange the deck chairs as the Titanic slips below the waterline is similar to the feeling we had when Miles Warren described the gratis work a group of Christchurch architects were doing on sites in their devastated central area: perfectly useful and commendable to illustrate viable developments, but not really the big picture.
Part of that discussion focused on the suburb. There is no doubt that the suburban model with its one-car-per-adult requirement has suited (and continues to suit) a large percentage of Auckland’s population. It is also clear that there is a portion of the population that would rather live closer to a town centre, drive less and don’t need a garden consisting of four thin strips of lawn around the edges of a 250m2 site. When Pete Bossley says on Nine to Noon this week that the suburb is one of the best forms of habitation that humans have invented for themselves we need to remember that the amenities of the city centre are a lot more accessible to his house in Coxs Bay than one in Glen Eden or Dannemora. Our work has illustrated that average densities in typical suburban residential areas rise rapidly once you dot a small number medium rise apartment buildings around. Remuera Road illustrates that this can be done without destroying the suburban character. Of course viability of those apartment buildings is reliant on sufficient proximate amenity.
Just as the call for more intensive forms of housing closer to town centres is not going to be the death knell of the suburb (the need to protect heritage areas and the amount of capital tied up in suburbs will see to that), so too the call for a more walkable and cycle-able city won’t spell the end of cars. It is not either/or, but rather about choice of modes of movement. As recent converts to bicycles we realise how cycling and walking doesn’t remove the need for a car but it does mean you don’t need to use it so often, and cycling reveals how easily accessible the city can be. In our case it is central Auckland that is our closest town centre but the same need for mode choice should be available for example for someone in Henderson to get to and around their town centre on a day-to-day basis.
Many architects come to the profession because they wish to work on the built environment and create buildings that will survive them. To answer the editors’ question about why we’re doing what we are doing – it is that we believe the future shape of the city is extremely important and urban planning materially affects this. Engagement in design at both ends of the built environment spectrum is personally rewarding.
Originally published in June 2012