Interview: Architect Ian Athfield

by Diana Wichtel / 15 January, 2015
Renowned architect Ian Athfield died on January 16, 2015. In this interview, first published in the Listener in 2012, he talked about starting his landmark “act of defiance” in 1965, and finally wanting to finish the place.
Ian Athfield / photo Marty Melville


The house of the architect is another country. More like a village on the move, actually, falling in its sculptural, slightly shambolic manner down the Khandallah hillside to the sea. It looks as if it’s been there for centuries. It also looks like it’s just been teleported in from the Mediterranean or, perhaps, outer space. The taxi driver is curious. He’s only seen the famously infamous Athfield House from the Hutt motorway. Do Wellingtonians like it? “It’s a landmark,” he says with a shrug. The place has been called worse: a prank; a Noddy house; a hippie happening; a shipwreck. I follow arrows down narrow flights of stairs, such as you might find in a medieval town, to the offices of Athfield Architects.

Ian Athfield, universally known as Ath, is, at 71, wiry and puckish. This is appropriate for one who, back in the day, seemed a bit like a one-man architectural version of 60s travelling road show Blerta, only with a hill encampment instead of a hippie house bus. He takes keeping up with as I’m whisked around for a tour. At the lower level, doors open, revealing various members of the practice in various ad hoc workspaces. Forty people work here. One of the many seductions of the place is a slightly trippy geographical disorientation it induces. Don’t people get lost? “Not really,” says Athfield. “I was lost for an hour on my first day,” volunteers a colleague. Athfield notes, with a detached air of mischief, that he takes students around the house, then has them draw it from memory. Good luck with that.

Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, who spoke here in the 60s, proposed the house as small city, a notion Athfield seems to have taken quite literally. “He talked about the space in-between, the space between private and public,” says Athfield. There was always a social aim with the architecture. “It was to demonstrate that you can live a slightly different life. We did it through building.” Other influences: the organic sensuality of Gaudí and the “less is more” austerity of Mies van der Rohe, a seemingly irreconcilable pairing. “You can actually take the two of them and push them together or tear them apart. Once you’ve done that in your mind, it’s an interesting combination. In the end,” he says, of the improbable permutations, “it’s what dreams are made of.”

The Athfield house, like a gifted, wayward child, lacks clear boundaries. “The spaces that you leave over after you build have to be as good, or better than, the spaces you build in, because they’re the spaces where you form relationships with other people or meet by accident," he explains, in his … spacey architect-speak. The upper level of the house feels enchanted, with its network of courtyards and accessible rooftops; sudden views from high windows that make a room seem under water… Athfield flings a gate open with a flourish to reveal a grandchild playing on the deck of a dwelling that has been bought and woven into the project.

photo Marty Melville


The house is legendarily unfinished. “Designed and built: 1965-present,” notes Julia Gatley’s handsome new book, Athfield Architects. It presents an astonishing body of work, from the early experimental stuff to the Wellington Public Library, with its evocative nikau palm colonnade, and Civic Square; Jade (now the broken AMI) Stadium in Christchurch; the Palmerston North City Library… There’s Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery, a sometime stairwell transformed into a gallery linking the Student Union and the Old Kirk Building, showing what can be made of “the spaces between”.

As Gatley says, “his own house and office is probably his most important building”. She tells its sometimes semi farcical history with an admirably straight face. The constant building strained relations with neighbours over the years. It seems a sore point at home, too. “My family won’t let me add any more until I tidy it up,” sighs the architect. There’s doubt he ever can. He gets people saying “How can you bloody well live in that place?’, or “He hasn’t painted it for so long.” Even dishevelled, it’s… amazing. “Oh it’s just something that dribbled out one end of him,” says Athfield’s wife, Clare, a striking, slightly exasperated presence. Which end? “This end to begin with,” she says, indicating cerebral regions. Now? “I’m not so sure.” There’s another book about the house in the works and possibly a film, she says. “I’m thinking of going to live in a caravan.”

Well, it must be exhausting. The house is also a sort of Great New Zealand Novel-in-progress – a narrative of a pioneering DIY enterprise at the edge, with its own land wars, shots fired, wildlife massacres and imperialistic ventures undertaken. Khandallah as the Wild West. “There was a bit of that. We did actually unsettle people.” There are bulletholes as evidence. “That was when I painted ‘Keep New Zealand Nuclear Free’ on the back of the tower.”

There was Jack the sheep who ate the neighbours’ cabbages. There was the business with the peacocks. “They screamed every time people came home from the pictures on the motorway because they thought it was morning… Well, finally it depressed many people and the neighbour came in and said, ‘I’ll f---en blow their heads off if you don’t get rid of the peacocks.’” There were the chickens. “They free-ranged around the place and then one morning we got up and they’d all been shot. Hens were hanging from the trees.” Goodness. Did they fear for their lives? “We were equal to that sort of thing,” says Athfield evenly. “We were slightly wild, drank too much too quickly, had plenty of friends… Two or three of the neighbours were so damn uptight. We didn’t expect to come into a neighbourhood where people didn’t talk to each other or get on.” So he set about making his own more convivial society.

At 21, he discovered he and his brother were adopted. His birth parents had been 17, and he has a sister. He never sought to find out more. The Athfields have two sons, Jesse, who is also adopted, and Zac. “Sometimes I think, well, you should try and find out,” he says. “But our adoptive parents were so good to us, just unbelievably interested and devoted to us.” Anyway, 25 people live at his place – friends, extended family, colleagues … Most of those who work at Athfield Architects become shareholders. He has family. The house they inhabit began as a sort of advertisement. “I thought when we started that you get a site, build a house that looked different and create clients.” It didn’t quite work. In the excellent 2008 documentary, Athfield: Architect of Dreams, he says, “I can honestly say no one has come to this house and said, ‘I’d like something like that.’”

“That’s certainly right,” he says now. “But there are a whole lot of people who enjoy this building. There are people who like to have a place here, which is quite good.” And, as he says in the documentary, “People did know I was here.” Athfield, like his buildings, is not entirely easy to read. He’s great company, with a certain reticence. “One doesn’t look forward to achieving everything you want in your own lifetime,” he says. He doesn’t like using “I” a lot. Things can be elliptically couched. “As an office, we don’t step into the pure professional practice which shows its best side,” he says, which I take to mean he does what he likes. A reflex wink when he’s not entirely serious gets a workout as he describes his modus operandi. “Their son was three when we started,” he muses of one client. “Their grandson was three when we finished the house.”

photo Marty Melville


All good fun, but Athfield’s grand designs have taken some knocks. There was a 70s housing project for a squatter community in the Philippines that was reneged upon, the setback poignantly captured in Sam Neill’s 1977 documentary, Architect Athfield. There was the gloriouslooking design, with Rewi Thompson and American about-to-be-starchitect Frank Gehry, for Te Papa. It didn’t even make the short list. Not wanted in New Zealand, Gehry went on to design one of the wonders of the 20th century, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Athfield’s idyllic communal sprawl at Awaroa, designed as a “shared property company” for family and friends, has become problematic as some now need money tied up in the place. “That’s one of the big issues that I have to get through… Keeping friendships and not selling bits off. It’s a worry.”

There’s Christchurch. “I suppose it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he says, of his role as post-quake Architectural Ambassador, “because the amount of respect I got out of that was zilch.” The New Zealand Institute of Architects offered his services and the Christchurch City Council accepted. There was some controversy over the process. At a press conference to announce the appointment, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker banged on as Athfield stood looking awkward and barely got a word in. “I spent 18 months frustratingly deciding what it was,” he says, of the post. “I’ve probably walked away from it since December and feel a helluva lot better. Because no one respected that position. I questioned too much and everyone was interested in getting the city fixed in the manner in which it existed before the earthquakes.”

The problems of Christchurch, he says, happened 50 years ago. “Someone said the other day politicians don’t like a vision and architecture’s a little bit about a vision.” For some, that vision might mean working with the decentralised reality of the damaged city. Athfield’s vision of a vibrant populated centre required some fundamental change. “Having a fast one-way system through an area which is poorly settled doesn’t help your settlement patterns, it’s just as simple as that. What you have to do is get more people into the centre of town or into areas which need to be densified to make it work properly.” The one-way system became a sticking point. And Athfield was perceived by some as anti-heritage. “I’m actually on the Historic Places Trust board and the Maori Heritage Council,” he points out.

“What’s a real worry to me and many other people is that the memory of the past is being wiped from Christchurch. Every building that is demolished is crushed up. You’re lucky if a few weeds come up and then people park their cars for a long time while decisions are made. And unfortunately individual objects of architectural desire spring up with no relationship to each other and the spaces in-between.” Heritage, he maintains enigmatically, “starts with a good idea tomorrow”. Take the cathedral. “That’s really, really sad. The recommendation is you take it down to two or three metres. What have you got left? On the other hand, you’ve got the heritage-building huggers. They want it rebuilt stone by stone.” Athfield occupies, naturally, the space between. “The sanctuary exists. It can be strengthened. There’s a roof sitting up there, which hasn’t dropped. There’s beautiful timber framing.”

photo Marty Melville


Something new could be built that respected what remains of the old. “I can’t see anyone building off two- or three-metre stone walls and getting those things that are important to people back into it. The spirit which was there has left this place.” As Athfield was born and raised in Christchurch, this recent experience must have been bruising. “People in authority just cast you aside, really.” There was, however, unexpected support. “Like you’d be in town and an elderly woman would come up and just hold your arm and say, ‘I like what you’re saying, Mr Athfield.’” Still, he seems remarkably resilient. Where did that come from? “Goodness knows.” Though as the conversation veers wildly from Riccarton gravels and pontoons to Athfield ancestors, it emerges he’s from doughty stock. His adoptive grandmother, the Mater, was a “leg lady” with a surgery full of terrifying equipment who travelled Christchurch and points south, cutting out gangrene and doing amputations. She loathed sport.

At one point she bought the North Beach Tennis Club. “She instructed Dad to destroy the club. So we pulled it down, put the nets in the middle of the court and burnt it to satisfy the Mater that no one would ever play tennis there again.” A possibly formative, if mad, experience for a future iconoclast. Heritage in this country, says Athfield, consolidates after 60 or 70 years. So he might qualify for a designation like the one he’s got on his house: “organic heritage”, a construction that is iconic but not static. He has won innumerable awards, was made Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1996 and received the NZIA Gold Medal in 2004. He has gone from enfant terrible to grand old man of architecture. Gatley’s book recounts how he lost an early job for being an “upstart”, when he looked at the old fossils in the office and decided the place needed a retirement policy. Are his colleagues working on one for him? “Ha. No, I have to devise my own plan.” He’s already throttling back, he says. And there’s the house, which has gone from something people took potshots at, sometimes literally, to an icon. “This is still a bit of an act of defiance,” he says suddenly, of the place. “I’ve hung out quite strongly in defiance.” Now he’d like to finish it so it can be properly understood.

the Athfield House, home to 25 people


“Put the ribbon around the box. So there’s another level of appreciation or learning.” We sit with the prospect of closure for all of five seconds before he’s off again. “And once everyone feels happy about it, you untie the ribbon again and then you move on.” Neighbours beware. So, how far he would push the project if he could? Someone once predicted the place could take over the suburb, recalls Athfield. “I said to him, ‘You’re bloody stupid.’ That was never my intention. But certainly you would like to be able to keep building into the fabric of suburbia and change people’s perceptions,” he muses incorrigibly. The Athfield House – improbable, slightly alarming, the stuff dreams are made of – taking over a suburb near you. We could do worse.

Athfield Architects, by Julia Gatley (Auckland University Press, $75).

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