Ian Athfield, the architect who helped change the face of Wellington

Athfield Architects
Julia Gatley
Auckland University Press
RRP $75

Aucklanders often lament the quality of their city, its lack of focus and the lack of integration in urban planning.

In contrast, one of the notable features of Wellington over many decades is the quality of the built environment and how it contributes to the sense of the capital being a livable city.

Part of this has been due to the focus of the local council on creating a livable city and individuals such as the architect and mayors SirGeorge Troup in the 1920s and Sir Michael Fowler in the 1970s and 1980s, who were not only visionary mayors but good architects.

One architect in particular has helped add to the look and feel of the city is Ian Athfield, who, with his firm Athfield Architects has helped transform the city.

It is his vision which has seen the development of the Civic Square, creating a new public space. His refurbished council building and the remarkable library have greatly added to this.

The library, with its now iconic sculpted nikau palms have become part of Wellington visual identity.

The spaces that he has created with the library, the square, the Capital Discovery Place and the bridge across Jervois Quay to the water are inspired with the various levels, views and panoramas.

One is conscious of the design aspects of the buildings and spaces which have been created.

This sense of an urban environment can be seen in some of his other development, notably the new Chews Lane Precinct, where the apartment building towers over the lane giving a sense of New York combined with small European town.

These projects and dozens more are outlined in the new book Athfield Architects by architectural historian Julia Gatley.

His 50-year career designing everything from small family homes to vast housing projects are documented, as well as his small commercial buildings and major public works. All are covered in detail, with a good range of photographs and plans.

Central to Athfield's work, especially for Wellingtonians, is the ever-present Athfield House looming above the Hutt Rd, a permanent record of the way he has transformed Wellington.

Athfield House, like a small town, has been growing since it was first started in 1965. It now houses an extended family of 25 and offices which employ 40 people.

The complex has been largely hand built by the architect, family friends and employees making use of simple materials.

It is not only a great example of urban living but an example of the aspirational ideas of many New Zealanders and the No 8 wire approach to building your own house or bach.

Athfield has also been innovative in the way he has worked with artists in various developments such as the bridge over Jervois Quay, which is enlivened by the Para Matchitt installation.

He has also worked with Paul Dibble in creating the New Zealand War Memorial in Hyde Park, London, and has done justice to Len Lye with his installation on the Wellington waterfront.

While a large proportion of his work in the capital there are other examples of his work scattered around the country, such as the former Waitakere City Council building with its huge set of stairs and voluminous council chambers.

Then there is the Selwyn District Council Building with the juxtaposition of local river stone and rough timber cladding.

Throughout his work there are elements of the post-modern practice, referencing other styles of architecture as well as the concern for ornamentation and detail. There is also his humour in challenging the way we look at and experience architecture.

This linking of the functional with playful shapes and spaces has seen him produce a number of extraordinary buildings, reinventing and reappraising his aesthetic and practical approach to architecture.

His houses show the architect responding to the range of challenges each one brings and his solutions, which are a mix of the quirky and the classic.

The fact that some of his clients have asked for second houses to be designed by him is testament to what these living spaces must do for people.

The hand-built aspect which is so obvious in his own home seeps into many of his other buildings.

The use of recycled material, unusual combinations and juxtapositions speak of the DIY handyman, making do with what is to hand and a joy in getting the disparate bits to hang togerther.

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