Making places sing

by Diana Wichtel / 27 August, 2005
If anyone will have you toiling up to an inconvenient roof terrace and liking it, it's David Mitchell, winner of the NZ Institute of Architects Gold Medal.

The mind of the architect is a foreign country. If David Mitchell is a representative example - as 2005 winner of the New Zealand Institute of Architects Gold Medal he ought to be - it is perverse and seemingly committed to discomfort.

We start out at the unassuming offices of Mitchell & Stout, where Mitchell, 64, works with fellow architects Julie Stout (his partner in life and practice), Julian Mitchell (his son) and Ginny Pedlow (no relation). It's an old two-storey building, in Swanson St, dazzled by the low winter sun. There are no blinds. "It can get too hot," notes Mitchell contentedly.

There's a model-in-progress of the concrete house ("Ugly as sin," Mitchell gleefully promises in Architecture New Zealand magazine) that he and Stout plan to build for themselves within sound of the sea on Auckland's North Shore. Nice. Where's the deck? There isn't one. What, no indoor/outdoor flow? Such heresy could see them drummed out of Devonport.

Their current house in Freemans Bay has the most inviting deck in town, sailing out from the house to perv over a narrow street into the lush section across the road. "You get above the road and borrow everyone else's garden," explains Mitchell.

Stout was inclined to keep this happy arrangement for the new place. Mitchell did consider having a deck. In the middle of the house. "For the perversity of it, you see. You have to go outside to get to the living-room!" he says, positively beaming at the inconvenience of it all. Now they're thinking roof terrace. Why? "No one uses them!" Of course. The trick will be to entice people up there. There'll be a wok, the view, everything plus a kitchen sink. "I think great rooms lure you in."

Architecture as social coercion. If anyone will have you toiling up to an inconvenient roof terrace and liking it, it's Mitchell. His idiosyncratic 1984 TV series and accompanying book, The Elegant Shed, invented New Zealand postwar architecture - well, a version of it that you can recognise and/or reject - three years after Metro invented Auckland. Like some of the deceptively simple structures the series forces you to see anew, the episodes seem now both dated (Mitchell brings an acute pop culture sensibility, some serious period whiskers, chest hair and chains to the task - the architect as showman) and still modern.

Back then, in a country obsessed with the natural, Mitchell was a blast of fresh air. He had an appetite for the sort of cliff-clinging baches the eco-nazis are trying to eradicate and he embraced the manufactured - "Me, I love it!" he says of the commercial badlands of Takapuna's Barrys Point Rd.

And could be infuriating. "Why is there no rail to the front of the terrace?" he mused, teetering over some austere architectural abyss. "Because peril is a kind of luxury, too." Had he not heard of toddlers?

The pretentiously unpretentious functionalism of the Group houses were to this version of New Zealand architecture what Frank Sargeson was to our literary identity. Though not everyone was impressed. Sneered one critic, in possibly the greatest line in New Zealand architecture, "At last. The Great New Zealand Hovel."

The book was a reality, says Mitchell. "It isn't just a statement of the facts, which is a pompous and pious way of saying it's a bit exaggerated here and there. Not entirely true, but mythically good. I'll take the myths every time."

The concept began offshore. "In the early 70s I went to America with the family. Travelled around in a V8 into the deep, dope-smoking South," he recalls, mythologising as he goes. He saw an art gallery exhibition of surfboards. "It was that capacity to make art out of their immediate culture. I rather wished we had a bit of that ourselves."

The notions that Mitchell whipped up out of surfboards, Tom Wolfe and No 8 wire still resonate. "The garden here may be luxuriant, but the building behind it is simple," intones Mitchell of a house in the series. The New Zealand architect, stranded in paradise, destined always to be outdone by the view.

You get the feeling that the ideal local abode is a tent pegged to a windswept ridge. "The life of the inhabitants is engaged with the house in the manner of a campsite or boat," noted one commentator of Mitchell and Stout's own house.

But Mitchell's buildings can also have an inward, brooding quality. Part of his architectural philosophy? "Philosophy sounds a bit pretentious. I'm touchy about too much highfalutin talk." At least when talking to a journalist. On the DVD made in honour of Mitchell's gold medal, he refers to architecture as, potentially at least, "great public art". Today, the description is less elegant, more shed: "I believe in the idea of trade. You keep your mouth shut and do your trade."

His own house has a bob each way, being both Spartan and luscious. "It's quite dark, isn't it?" he notes happily when we stop in for coffee. "This," says Mitchell, indicating a carefully placed pot plant, "represents a leak." An inaccessible water room glints greenly at the back of the sitting area. However does he tend to it? "You stagger in with your waders," he says.

This boots-and-all approach has taken Mitchell off on all sorts of tangents. In the 70s and 80s he taught at the Auckland University School of Architecture's influential and infamous Brick Studio, a free-range educational establishment "way up the boohai" behind Elam, responsible for incubating such stars of the present generation as Pete Bossley and Amanda Reynolds. "I noticed [Auckland architect] Mike Austin saying some quite correct things about it the other day. That at the time history was ignored. We were Brave New World country."

The architect as adventurer. At one point Mitchell took off to the Himalayas and sailed around Cape Horn, making documentaries with old mate Roger Donaldson. In 1992, as he records in provided bio notes, he and Stout "left to sail away with no plans to return, heading for Japan via the Pacific Islands". They popped back for jobs like the New Gallery and the Gibbs house, but didn't return for good till 2000. "I found I had prostate cancer," reads the bio. "Circumnavigation on hold."

Today, circumnavigating the inner city will have to do, taking in the Auckland Synagogue (he worked on it for John Goldwater in 1964), the Gibbs house, the New Gallery, Auckland University's lovely School of Music, designed with Jack Manning, where the noise-reflecting street wall mimics the curved side of a grand piano.

We drive through Tank Farm, between Hobson Wharf and the Harbour Bridge, ripe for redevelopment. A proposal Mitchell and a group of architects came up with would see a canal linking the Viaduct and Westhaven. "At one stage we had it going up one of these roads all the way to Victoria Park." A canal slicing through the city. Think of the havoc that would entail. The way Mitchell sells it, we'd be mad not to do it. "It's absolutely important that you maximise all these ties to the edge."

Public art. Mitchell finds himself increasingly attracted to the big picture. "I mean it's a wonderful thing to produce a single, poetic artwork if you can. But there are bigger issues in the culture at large, and in the making of cities, which I think are the chief architectural tasks of our time." He's on the Auckland City Council's Urban Design Panel, where owners and developers can bring city projects for review. "It's not mandatory, but it wouldn't be a bad thing if it was."

If you can't lure them in the right direction, kick butt? "I actually think the institute [NZIA] has to try and stop architects of little talent putting up things we all have to look at," he told Architect New Zealand magazine sternly.

If Mitchell can be a bit curmudgeonly, this is as befits a bearded bohemian turned Grand Old Man of New Zealand architecture. How did he feel about that NZIA award? "Incredibly embarrassed, actually." A good Kiwi vernacular response. "Well, it is. I was horrified, really. Gordon Moller, the president, rang to tell me and I said 'You just can't do it, Gordon.'"

Still, it's amazing what a few days can do. "I moved away from feeling embarrassed and thought, good God, what an amazing thing to do to me. I felt honoured." Lest this sounds in any way highfalutin, he adds, "The feeling that you've already died is rather strange. They expect nothing more from me."

So what is there left he'd like to do? "Design a major public building that's a beauty." Lest that sound in any way pretentious, he amends: "I'd like to design some public buildings that are good." He amends again: "I'd like to design buildings." We'll be back to the elegant shed in a moment (shortly after our interview, Mitchell & Stout won the NZ Home and Entertaining 2005 Home of the Year for a house inspired by, yes, a tramping hut).

And there's the city to be made. "How do I feel about Auckland? I feel hurt by the damage done to it over the last 30 years. I feel enormously encouraged by the efforts to try and improve it, especially on the waterfront. I feel heartened by the giant influx of non-Anglo-Saxons." The notion that Auckland is a hopeless case infuriates him. "You've never lost a city, right? It's always being rebuilt, it's always moving."

As are we. Last stop, Tank Point, where I see the best view in Auckland. Mitchell - showman, tradesman, very possibly artist - sees a three-ring circus. And somehow makes you see it, too. "You could have a park. You could have a big cultural centre. You could have," he raves, gesturing at the water, currently nice and empty, the way we like it, "a sound shell for Kiri Te Kanawa to sing on, floating in the sea." The Lido baths, the zippy slides, the whole darn lot. Why not? To lure people in. "I think you might make it sing."

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