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Auckland Art Gallery. Photo by John Gollings

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Kiwi’s Big Holiday

An architectural travel guide through New Zealand

The pleasure of travel is often estrangement. Out there, with your wheelie suitcase and sunglasses, you can unmoor from everyday life, imagining yourself as another kind of person in another city. For an American, a trip to ogle New Zealand architecture offers a different kind of pleasure. It’s not a strange land but a version of our own, refracted through a Southern Hemisphere lens.

A long-lost cousin who’s more sun-kissed (thanks to a damaged ozone layer) and a little younger (the Maori settled New Zealand in the thirteenth century, the British in 1840), New Zealand is still happy to discuss dumpling pop-ups and flat whites and how to get the right amount of char on the outside of your blackened cabin. (I’d advise architects to consider olive, as in the metallic siding of Bull O’Sullivan’s Lyttleton crib, which also features interior upholstery in maize-colored wool plaid.)

Bull O'Sullivan's Lyttleton Studio. Photo by Alexandra Lange

In New Zealand the taste level is high and the landscape reliably stunning. The hills are jam-packed with houses that rival the indoor-outdoor appeal of California midcentury modern, and new urban office and residential development is clean and contemporary, apparently well-made and without labored contextual reference. The style question felt settled, in a way it never is at home.

Any overwhelming anxiety involves discussions about density of people, sheep, and cows. All those picturesque sheep, it turns out, are decimating the slopes and native forest. The good life—defined by the single-story, single-family home—can’t continue indefinitely when Auckland, home of nearly 40 percent of the country’s population, is growing by 40,000 people per year.

What I missed on my trip, though, was an experimental edge, an only-in-New-Zealand character. We once called it critical regionalism. I wanted a similar experience to the one I had in Melbourne, where I encountered that city’s distinctive and ongoing postmodern moment, complete with neon brights, and metallic scales. It wasn’t an exact aesthetic I was looking for but the Why not? wildness behind it. New Zealand did have a bland 1980s moment, but modernism carried the day.

Counter Culture

It’s hard to go more than a block in a Kiwi city without seeing a stylish coffee bar. It’s one of few places to have beaten back Starbucks. Each spot, no matter how small, seemed to have thorough branding, clever interior design, and a carefully chosen selection of snacks. I’m still thinking about the cinnamon brioche I had at Frank and Albie’s, a petite coffee shop on provincial Gisborne’s almost deserted Gladstone Road. New Zealand’s independent coffee culture and generally excellent food, even in unlikely locations, seemed a decided improvement on the American model.

As I traveled around, I wondered if Kiwi design culture might not be gearing up for contemporary regionalism now. It could come from a number of different sources, or perhaps all at once: the influx of East Asian and Polynesian immigrants, the increasing role of the Maori as developers of real estate and architects in their own right, the rediscovery of native flora and fauna and, most of all, that topography. New Zealand’s cities and its coastline have their own inherent drama, but that doesn’t mean architects have to treat it all with "deference," as designer Nat Cheshire put it. There’s enough to go around.

Cheshire and his father Pip are the directors of Cheshire Architects, designers of two of my favorite projects from my week-long tour, sponsored by the New Zealand Institute of Architects. The first was the very small, very stylish pair of cabins Nat designed for a pair of friends, at the end of a dirt road along the Kaipara Harbor, a popular Auckland second-home destination (Hudson, or maybe Ojai).

One enters the 300-square-foot cabins through a large square window-door, pushed to one side of their road-facing facade. On the opposite side of the cabin, an opening of the same size faces the harbor. In one of the dark corners, a compact built-in contains a powder room, a kitchen nook, and a ladder-like staircase up to a sleeping loft up top. The shower is outside, marked by a large rock. One interior is blonde and one is black. I preferred the black, where a brass-wrapped kitchen and a Donald Judd daybed provided the wink and the flash I was looking for–no one was really making claims to roughing it.

Eyrie Cabins by Cheshire Architects. Courtesy of Cheshire Architects
Eyrie Cabins by Cheshire Architects. Courtesy of Cheshire Architects

Pip Cheshire was the design lead for the interpretive center at Marsden Cross, up in the poetically named Bay of Islands. For someone from the American East Coast, where the coastline means a view of the infinite horizon, the area’s intricate bays and flotillas of islets were unbelievably picturesque, like a Chinese landscape painting of an endlessly diminishing string of atolls. The view from Marsden Cross was the best I saw in New Zealand, out to the ocean through the Oihi Valley, a fold in the golden, grassy hills, to the crucifix planted where Rev. Samuel Marsden conducted the first Christian service in New Zealand on Christmas Day 1814–by invitation of Maori chief Ruatara.

Cheshire devised a rammed earth structure, curved like a shell, that first encloses the visitor and then frames the vista. A thin, faceted roof made of epoxy-infused laminate, manufactured by Larry Ellison’s boat-building company, crowns the heavy walls. It’s a tough and tiny ship on earthen seas. When I remarked that it was helpful, amidst all the landscape pleasures, to have a place to stand, someone told me that the Maori concept of tūrangawaewae, which means "a place to stand," is important. Obviously, the Marsden Cross shelter embodied the cultural desire to feel connected to place.

I visited a number of contemporary projects that reference the Maori marae, the fenced meeting grounds that belong to a particular iwi (tribe) and are typically marked by a pitch-roofed wooden meeting house (wharenui) with an elaborately carved front. One of the most photogenic of these was the 2011 Auckland Art Gallery, designed by Australian firms FJMT + Archimedia. (NZ architects are miffed that large projects often go to firms from Sydney and Melbourne.)

Marsden Cross, designed by Cheshire Architects. Courtesy of Cheshire Architects

The gallery was originally housed in a 1888 library building with a delicate interior backing on to Albert Park. The new building extends the older one’s pale color and close contact with the trees, pushing glass walls right up to the foliage. Artist Lonnie Hutchinson designed floral patterns in wood veneer for some tall, slim doors inside, known as thresholds, and the gallery’s multi-story entrance, which faces the city, is topped with a golden kauri wood-veneer canopy, supported by wood-clad columns decorated with wave-like motifs. The upward thrust of the wood columns, which taper as they descend, suggested the tree canopy of the park beyond the museum, or perhaps a bridge between nature and culture. The canopy also provides a roof, to one side, for an outdoor cafe.

As I talked to architects about their projects, the question of approval by the local iwi came up again and again. But the discussion was all about process, about a ritual of presentation. There is an association of Maori designers, called Nga Aho, that has an agenda parallel to the question forming in my mind. What might a Maori-produced, not just Maori–approved or –inspired, contemporary architecture look like?

What might a Maori-produced, not just Maori–approved or –inspired, contemporary architecture look like?

I found one answer to that question in Wellington, in the form of John Scott’s 1961 Futuna Chapel. Futuna Chapel is square in plan, with a handkerchief-shaped roof originally covered in white shingles. You enter on one corner, next to a Carlo Scarpa-esque stepped fountain, brushing by the rough thrown-gravel finish on the gray stucco walls. The triangular spaces below the roof’s peaks are filled in with brilliant geometric stained glass designed by sculptor Jim Allen, and the roof itself is timber-framed, coming together around a tree-like central column. The chapel was built as a retreat center for priests, necessitating multiple altars that are fitted into tiny popped-out niches. Scott combined Catholic ritual with Maori ceremony. The shape of the roof and the ridgepole recall the wharenui, and the two banks of pews are set catty-corner to one another, like a bowtie. Maori councils involve groups who must meet in the middle in order to come to agreement, and Scott’s plan facilitates that by flattening the hierarchy of more traditional church plans.

Futuna Chapel. Photos by Paul McCredie

The footprint of the church is relatively small, but Scott has also cleverly incorporated an adjacent green through a few embracing shapes in concrete. Scott’s Martin House (1969-70), spotted in Jeremy Hansen’s Modern: New Zealand Homes from 1938 to 1977, employs a similar combination of high peaks and glazed corners to make an utterly charming home for two ceramicists, filled with rooms that alternate between cave-like and crystalline. (A book on the chapel is forthcoming.)

"Welcome to Middle Earth," it says on the outside of Wellington airport, and a giant head of Smaug greets you inside. Weta Workshop, the FX house responsible for the Lord of the Rings, is located there, and LOTR tours have recast the Green Belt planned by Wellington’s founders in 1840 as a trip to Hobbiton Woods. It was also in Wellington that I visited Amritsar House, the closest thing I experienced to Hobbit architecture and the exception to all that good taste.

Athfield House, Wellington. Photo by Alexandra Lange

"Ath’s House" was the home and studio of the late, much lamented architect Sir Ian Athfield. An ongoing project initiated in 1965, the building clings to the side of one of Wellington’s many surrounding peaks. One can walk down 100 steps or up 200, but either way a wandering set of tiled stairs brings you to tinder-frame boxes and white stucco aeries, crumbling caves and a swimming pool, with Loosian portholes, that juts out into thin air. The ovoid room that marks the house’s peak is reached up an iron staircase scavenged from a bank: steampunk from way back. It’s bombastic and sexy and bizarre, and somehow Athfield’s son Zac is running a firm within the quirky spaces, a firm which built the sleek, neo-modernist apartments that thrust, like a giant cruise ship, along Clyde Quay on the waterfront below.

Ian Athfield also designed Wellington Central Library, a giant room surrounded by tall silvery columns with palm capitals worthy of Vegas. These were a welcome attempt at an indigenous order and seemed related to the brass Corinthian capitals I saw in the library of Sir Miles Warren, New Zealand’s finest Brutalist. Again, a little bit of flash went a long way.

Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city at 1.4 million people, is among the most diverse cities in the world. Over 40 percent of the population was born overseas, and nearly 50 percent are not of European descent. Auckland feels like a mini-Los Angeles, with hilly residential neighborhoods stretching back (and back and back) from the coastline. On the eastern shore of Auckland, New Zealand Christmas trees–the pohutukawa, which flower red in December–line the promenade along a long stretch of public beaches, served by bus stops equipped by countdown clocks and a string of restaurants spilling on to the sidewalk. Houses cling to the edges of upper slopes, layered like shelf fungus, here a flat roof, there a butterfly.

On a Walkabout

Jessica Halliday, an architectural historian and director of FESTA, an annual fall "festival of transitional architecture," took me on my Christchurch walkabout. For lunch, we went to Supreme Supreme on Welles Street, a strip where restaurants, advertising offices, garages and industrial shops worked as neighbors, most painted with large graphic signs.

The one- and two-story buildings had withstood the quake as well as subsequent demolition, and provided a sense of the small-grain commercial fabric Christchurch used to have. The industrial zone had been built on top of the original planner’s green belt, and, according to Halliday, now provided an urban structure unavailable in places where bigger things were supposed to happen. She mourns the jump up in scale that the new commercial projects have. Many of the combined sites are block-long, and even if their ground floors are subdivided into small shops, the long view is monotonous.

Other places that still had that grain – and attracted the crowds – were New Regent Street, a pastel Spanish Colonial-style commercial strip straight from a 1930s Hollywood backlot, and Re:START Mall, the village of shipping container shops and restaurants set up on the pedestrian paths next to Ballantynes Department Store, a Christchurch institution also designed by Warren and Mahoney. In all of these areas there seemed some hope for a future city of buildings of many ages, while in the center, the threat of contemporary monoculture hovered over the empty lots.

On the city side, the formerly working-class neighborhood of Freemans Bay offers streets of gingerbread cottages, most one-story, with intricate carpenter-Gothic details along the eaves of their shady porches: San Francisco, shrunk. Entering one is like a tunnel to the 20th century: many have been opened out the back into glazed great rooms and pool decks. The lots are small but all those one-story houses present a problem for the city, now grappling with traffic, long-commutes, and a desperate need for density. (As in many American cities, they dismantled their tram system in the 1950s.)

This year, funding for a 3.5 kilometer rail tunnel under the city center was confirmed, there is a short tram route along the waterfront, which has been transforming from industrial use to leisure over the past decade. When I told people there that Los Angeles was rethinking its relationship to the car, their ears perked up, as supporters of funding for public transportation, bike lanes and even multi-family housing along major streets feel embattled.

Auckland’s downtown traditionally centered on a set of not-so-tall) tall buildings up the hill from the water. But over the past ten years the waterfront has been transformed, with condos and offices and hotels, most in a pleasant, forgettable neo-modern style. I was more intrigued by the public space redeveloped in the Wynyard Quarter, an area masterplanned by Architectus. Old concrete tanks have been preserved as punctuation for the end of a 12-kilometer public route along the bayfront, and Isthmus and Cicada Works added a playground and pool, shaded by Michiko Ihara’s 1971 Wind Tree sculpture. A three-story open pavilion, 110 meters long, named The Gantry, provides a lookout back to the city and also over Silo City, a wharf where traditional maritime businesses have been preserved but the north-facing prow will be turned into Headland Park. It was hard not to dream of slicing and dicing the concrete tanks into pools and caves, planting lush subtropical flora between them.

The Gantry, Wynyard Quarter. Photo by Alexandra Lange

As it stands, the waterfront walk is cleanly designed but lacks overall identity. At Daldy Street, Wraight + Associates created a small, densely planted park with benches and native plants that hints at actual wildness amidst a lot of hardscape and many planned commercial buildings. More plantings stretch back toward the city and Victoria Park along the road, restructured for multi-modal transit. At key corners there are, temporarily, bits of playground, including a funnel-like slide hub and a water screw.

I loved seeing play liberated from a set-aside area, incorporated into the pedestrian life like street furniture. More of that, and more of these fulsome plants, threaded through the waterfront redevelopment would be welcome, especially leading to some future breezy point beyond the silos. Megan Wraight also designed Waitangi Park on the Wellington harborfront, which combines a filtering sponge park with a playground, skatepark, and shaded seating. I was impressed by the scenography there, moments when the grasses and water made you feel miles from the city.

Another interesting route toward a New Zealand aesthetic may run through Japan. In Christchurch I saw two buildings, one a Japan-New Zealand collaboration, the other by an award-winning Kiwi firm, that would not look out of place on those other islands. The first was a junior school for the Cathedral Grammar School, designed by Tezuka Architects and Andrew Barrie, a Kiwi architect who studied in Tokyo and worked for Toyo Ito. A timber-frame one-story building that combines glassed-in classrooms, covered walkways, and an interior, grass-covered courtyard that, thanks to a rooftop slide, doubles as a playground, the school seems to embody the idea of education as play. The architectural language is that of the modern house in extremis, though this one is rather sadly plonked on a straightforward urban site. It had the simplicity of a prototype, ready to be deployed where early childhood education had grown too dark and lacked daring.

The second, also sitting like a box of pretty baked goods on a flat side in Christchurch Botanic Garden, is the new Visitor Centre, completed by Pattersons in 2015. If you had shown me a photograph of the center, a long glass house with a glass roof made from the gentle rise and fall of a series of white steel gables, I would have immediately said it was Made in Japan. The lightness, the technical precision, even the leaf pattern impressed onto the few solid concrete walls seemed directly from the school of SANAA. But Andrew Patterson hasn’t worked or studied in Japan: It’s global style now.

Christchurch Botanic Garden Centre, designed by Pattersons Architects. Photo by Alexandra Lange

After the extreme urban topography of Auckland and Wellington, Christchurch’s straightforward British grid planning seemed inert. The dramatic houses were up in the hills that surround the city, reached via tunnels straight through a mountain or roads that seemed to go directly up and over hills. In town, it was the buildings clustered around the wend of the Avon River–whose lower part was declared a red zone after the 2011 earthquake–that seemed most interesting, combining the pastoral and the urban in village-like proximity.

Christchurch has been the longtime home of the New Zealand branch of Brutalism, as practiced by the firm Warren and Mahoney and its now-retired founding partner Sir Miles Warren. I was able to meet Warren and see his library in an old stone house, where the frieze of architectural greats runs from Borromini through Hollein, including Aalto and Stirling, and the gardens outside start out formal and British and then turn toward native plants and carefully sited contemporary sculpture. Warren’s way with a site is clear in the 1972 Christchurch Town Hall, damaged in the quake, that local architects and historians rallied to save and retrofit.

Its most striking features are its copper-topped oval auditorium, fitted with wooden acoustic "reflectors" and banks of seats that jut from the walls like jaws, and a concrete-frame pavilion that juts, under a pagoda-like roof, into the river. The floor of the upper part of the pavilion provides shelter for the series of glass boxes that step lightly out toward the water – these are currently being rebuilt to seismic code. When it was built, it was the first new town hall in New Zealand built in 50 years, and it must have been particularly revolutionary in Christchurch’s Collegiate neo-Gothic context, an expressive jump up in scale.

1972 Christchurch Town Hall. Courtesy of Warren and Mahoney

It was good to see the town hall under reconstruction, especially when so much else in downtown Christchurch seemed desolate. Much rebuilding has been done in residential areas, and cranes are everywhere visible, but private investment has created an edge of new, glassy corporate architecture right around the regulated zone at the city’s center where the government had hoped new building, including an anti-urban convention center, would go. The Anglican Cathedral, propped up on a wooden scaffold, sits at the center of empty lots and to-be-demolished modern structures, billboards for graffiti, still a giant question mark. Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral, a few blocks away, is a tourist magnet in a hermetic shell, mute and gray on all but the front façade. As with the Twin Towers, there are those who want to rebuild, those who want to replace, and those angry that five years have passed without a plan.

Is there a lesson in Christchurch, the most picturesque and nostalgic of New Zealand cities?

Which is not to say there was no activity: the most successful redevelopment I saw was the Margaret Mahy Family Playground, to one side of downtown. The block-long playground has a splash pad and a zipline, a hill of artificial grass and trampolines. The equipment was mostly off the rack, but the design team of Opus and Boffa Miskell have grouped it and massed it so that it has some presence, particularly the slide hill, which reminded me of the pyramids of Central Park’s Ancient Playground. A couple of food trucks provided coffee and treats, thankfully, because there was nothing else around.

Where the families had come from I couldn’t say, as it was blocks to any residential neighborhood. As one of few permanent landmarks in the rebuild, it seemed like an ideal core to build upon. Could there be family-size residential housing across the street, or a school? (Few families have ever lived downtown.) A new central library designed by Architectus and Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen is under construction close by, would that it could be next door.

Is there a lesson in Christchurch, the most picturesque and nostalgic of New Zealand cities, in the fact that life had sprung back in the uncherished parts of town, and via play rather than big business? My observations there seemed directly related to the questions I’d been asking all along. What is deference? What is tradition? What should New Zealand architecture look like? The answer seems very much in play but, in the examples I describe, I could see architects letting their minds wander, and poking at precedent in the way Miles Warren must have been doing when he brought concrete to Christchurch.

Many people who’ll never make it to New Zealand itself will be able to see a miniaturized version of my tour—with stops at Amritsar House, Cathedral Grammar School, and Marsden Cross—in the country's pavilion at this summer’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which incorporates 49 contemporary Kiwi projects. Its title? Future Islands.


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