16 Jan 2015

NZ remembers 'genius' architect

3:25 pm on 16 January 2015

Influential architect Sir Ian Athfield has died in Wellington aged 74.

Regarded as a maverick in his younger days, he came to be widely admired for his pioneering and often provocative style, underpinned by a belief that a building's place in its natural environment was critical.

Ian Athfield

Ian Athfield Photo: The Arts Foundation

He was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the recent New Years Honours.

Sir Ian's work is scattered throughout the country from Whakatane to Wanaka, but his biggest impact was in Wellington.

His designs can be seen not only in his own distinctive hillside home, but in landmarks such as the Wellington Central Library with its colonnade of imitation nikau palms, the Adam Gallery at Victoria University, the inner city redevelopment of Chews Lane, and a number of waterfront refurbishments.

In 2004, the New Zealand Institute of Architects gave him its highest award, the Gold Medal, and in 2013 he was honoured by the Arts Foundation.

Born in Christchurch in 1940, Sir Ian was educated at Christchurch Boys' High School and the Ilam School of Fine Arts before taking a Diploma in Architecture at Auckland University.

He graduated in 1963 and after only three years was made a partner in a firm of architects.

The partnership lasted only five years before he was sacked. He later claimed it was for being too revolutionary.

Sir Ian set up his own practice and his opinion there should be few regulations affecting personal environments embroiled him in sometimes lengthy arguments with bureaucracy.

On one occasion, the Auckland City Council rejected his plans for an Epsom house, mainly on the grounds that the chimney was two metres too tall. He responded by arranging for a hinged chimney, hoisted into position by a rope.

In 1976, Sir Ian gained international attention by winning a design competition run by the International Architecture Federation for a low cost housing project in the Philippines' capital of Manila. He went on to win numerous awards, speak at international conferences, and undertake lecture tours. He was also involved in the concept design of the rapid transport system in Bangkok.

His house designs were strikingly unusual, retaining a strong identity, and complying with his belief that houses should promote neighbourliness and should grow over time.

Wellington Central Library

The Wellington Central Library is one of Sir Ian Athfield's most recognised designs. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Distinctive home

An example is his own Wellington home, a series of interconnected residences that progressively descend the hillside; it was the focus of a long battle with the Wellington City Council over planning regulations and caused dismay to some of his neighbours. By 1995 though, attitudes had changed and the council included the complex on its heritage list.

Following the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, Sir Ian was appointed as an Architectural Ambassador to Christchurch. He believed the next great challenge for New Zealand's architects would be the form of our cities and their suburbs and how they relate to each other and to the countryside.

Sir Ian is survived by wife Clare and their two sons.

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