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Patrick Clifford and Architectus

Architectus directors: Michael Thomson, Malcolm Bowes, Carste Auer and Patrick Clifford.

Photo by David St. George

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Charles Walker reflects on the design philosophy and works of Patrick Clifford and Architectus.

Staying true to type

In an introduction to a 2004 book on the work of Architectus [Architectus: Bowes, Clifford, Thomson; New Zealand Architectural Publications Trust], Tony van Raat identified the practice’s “critical and rigorous approach to the problem of making architecture”. Van termed this approach ‘ideological’ because it evidenced a concern for establishing an intellectual basis for practice – an understanding of the ‘why’ and not just the ‘how’ of architecture – that is still rare in New Zealand.

At that time, too, Architectus had just joined a consortium of Australasian practices and was seen as a firm on the cusp of bigger things. Yet, in the style-fixated New Zealand scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s, critics saw Architectus’ attachment to rigorous planning, tectonics and craft as a bit, well, old-fashioned.

A decade on, Architectus is in the vanguard of a newly mature and confident New Zealand architecture. Perhaps more significantly, the ambitious theme chosen for the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale by its Director, Rem Koolhaas – ‘Fundamentals/Absorbing Modernity’ – provocatively re-frames relationships between universal abstraction and local practice, and signals a renewed interest in questions that Architectus has been asking for close to 30 years. Patrick Clifford’s own lantern-like pavilion from 1995 (the Clifford-Forsyth House; see gallery below), which is included in New Zealand’s Biennale pavilion, seems to have anticipated Koolhaas’ theme.

Clifford suggests that Koolhaas’ focus on building elements and the socio-historical foundations of practice presages a desire on the part of architects to re-engage with big ideas about context, meaning and the continuing relevance of the profession in increasingly fluid and complex societies. That such issues have been neglected is perhaps partly due to the context in which today’s senior architects were trained. Clifford says that he and his partners in Architectus, Malcolm Bowes and Michael Thomson, were educated in “an era without precedent”. By this he means that the idea of studying architecture by looking at what other architects had done, or seeing one’s practice as part of a tradition, was discouraged in favour of an approach in which designing was a matter of “personal expression”.

“It took me a while after I left architecture school to realise I could actually study architecture – by reading books, and looking at buildings, their history and how they were made,” Clifford says.

Ironically, even though students are now exposed to more examples of architecture than ever before, he remains skeptical about the real value of the unfiltered torrent of styles continually being uploaded by design blogs.

Clifford’s declared interest in precedent invites a discussion of typology, another unfashionable idea now being rediscovered in architecture schools and offices around the world. The architect and theorist Rafael Moneo has noted that architecture is not only described by types, but is produced through them. The notion of type offers a methodology for linking past and future, as well as a means of thinking through the relationship between a building and its environment. Clifford sees typology as a kind of architectonic knowledge transfer or ‘operative theory’ that is simultaneously universal and local. Generic enough to accommodate international trends and differences, typology is specific enough to anchor practice to local cultural, social and political circumstances.

 

For Clifford, this wider context of practice includes advocacy and public engagement. While relatively few New Zealand architects have really taken on major public roles, far less adopted the very un-Kiwi position of the ‘public intellectual’, it seems fair to claim that architecture has a significant part to play in the debate about the kind of society we want to live in. Inevitably, for architects, this involves a lot of thinking about the nature of the individual and the collective – about the architect and the larger firm or profession (the ‘I’ and the ‘we’) as much as one-off buildings and the city itself as products of social, cultural, economic and political processes. Clifford values – and contributes to – the collegial, mutually supportive character of the Auckland and wider New Zealand architectural community. This is a remarkable and under-appreciated feature of local practice, particularly when compared to, say, cities like Melbourne or Sydney, where architects organise themselves into mutually exclusive cliques.

From his firm’s early work on the Auckland Viaduct, through to the design of major streetscapes and the framework for Wynyard Quarter, and through his service on Auckland’s Urban Design Panel, Clifford has consistently and successfully promoted the virtues of collaboration between architects, artists, engineers, the construction industry, public bodies and political parties. In the process, he has fronted up to a few hostile audiences to argue persuasively for the value of architecture – and an architectural way of thinking – in the civic realm. Without such contributions one might ask whether the city could ever have been in any position to claim the shared vision, articulated in the Auckland Plan, to be ‘the world’s most liveable city’.

Inevitably, in these discussions about the new Auckland, questions arise about an appropriate style of New Zealand architecture. For Clifford, the question is no longer interesting or relevant in its simple sense. For him, questions of ‘New Zealand-ness’ have been superseded by a broader consideration of context at multiple levels: social, cultural, environmental, technical and material, as well as historical and stylistic. “Those more complex things inform what we do and the way that we do it,” he says. Nevertheless, Clifford does recognise that, in speaking to a wider public audience, there is a need to address the issue, and “to be quite overt about our response to context”.

Building institutions

Clifford’s concern for the future of the city is played out in different contexts – in Christchurch and Wellington, as well as Auckland. The common thread has been the ability of Clifford and Architectus to build lasting partnerships with major institutional clients. Prominent among these have been educational institutions – and schools and universities that represent perhaps the closest approximations to, or most visible manifestations of, a traditional community in the modern city.

For the American architect Louis Kahn, the city is an “assembly of institutions” and the quality of the city is measured by the quality of those institutions. If, in the past, the indirect influence of Kahn on Architectus projects has been noted, critics have tended to focus on an assumed ‘predictability’ of spatial organisation, of the plan and its tectonic resolution. Less attention has been paid to what are arguably Architectus’ more significant concerns: environmental sustainability, natural light and ventilation; a rethinking of the New Zealand context; and an overarching ambition to achieve Kahn’s merger of “thought with feeling” to elicit an emotional response to space and material.

It is significant that so many of Architectus’ core institutional clients are owner-occupiers and have engaged the firm for multiple projects. Institutions, by definition, take a long-term view and maintain an ongoing dialogue between continuity and rejuvenation. Much like their architects. Clifford recognises that clients return to architects for different reasons. Obviously, they must like what an architect has provided, yet what is liked varies. It may be that a building has in some way made someone’s job better, or allowed people to see themselves or what they do differently. Or, as in the case of St Peter’s College Technology Building [2001], by the side of Auckland’s Southern Motorway, it may be that a building functions to proselytise the virtues of a particular form of education.

The process of building over time is not without its ironies. In discussing the iconic Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Sciences Building at the University of Canterbury [1998], Clifford reflects on the particular confluence of people, circumstance and time that resulted in a building of such formal, spatial and material clarity. Since then, new components and systems, project management and auditing processes, building controls and a generally less laissez-faire attitude towards construction have all improved building performance. Yet these innovations, products of the pursuit of ‘quality’, have also ensured that such elegance is hard to achieve again.

Two decades on and undaunted, Clifford again confronts institutional value-engineering. His new Science Centre at the University of Auckland squares up to the monumental Brutalist heritage of the Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry Building, while promising to animate the till-now unpleasant corner of Symonds and Wellesley Streets.

Meeting the brief demanded a dense compaction of teaching, research and social spaces, and solving a problem: How to create meaningful spaces for instruction, speculation and informal knowledge exchange? For Clifford, the Science Centre also affords a first-time opportunity to design new types of research space – specifically wet labs – and to think about how these facilities could be linked to other areas. He talks of the satisfaction to be gained from conceiving, working through and resolving a new idea; it’s a process that can be as pleasurable and as frustrating as nutting out a puzzle. Here, the puzzle was how to bring light and ventilation into the deep space, without resorting to the conventional atrium solution. Instead, the key section shows an arrangement of three linked atria, each notionally allocated to, and activated by, a different core ‘community’, respectively the public, students and researchers.

These days, universities are driven as much by a social agenda as an educational one. If the 1970s were characterised by university buildings that actively discouraged students from gathering together (lest they riot), students now need to be nurtured, and institutions have invested heavily in new buildings that blur the boundaries between traditional teaching, information delivery and more socialised learning. The Hub at Victoria University’s Kelburn campus [2013; see gallery below], designed by Architectus and Athfield Architects, exemplifies this approach; essentially, it is a common atrium animated by social spaces. Clifford acknowledges his practice has done a lot of research into how students learn, in schools as well as universities, and that this has resulted in myriad ways of creating flexible, open-plan or informal spaces. But that old-school rigour is hard to shake. Clifford is clearly happier to talk about the library reading room that hovers above this student ‘lounge’. Elegant, ordered and calm, the reading room offers an alternative to the ‘bean-bag space’ below. “One can’t spend one’s life on bean bags,” Clifford says. “Sometimes you need pews.”

Contestable futures

Unusually for an established New Zealand practice, Architectus has built relatively few houses. However, it is no surprise that Clifford has aspirations to design more urban housing. As a type, the urban house is inextricably linked both to the city and to the modernist project. For Clifford, then, the idea of the house affords another opportunity to address both the universal and the particular in a very timely way.

Trinity Apartments [Parnell, 2008] is one of Architectus’ forays into housing. At the time of its completion, the project seemed like a game changer for Auckland housing. Except the game didn’t actually change.

Developers still build apartments where private lives are exposed to the view of people passing by bedroom windows – an outcome that could have been averted by a quick look at the Trinity plans. At Trinity, rigorous planning results in the provision of two lift cores that serve to optimise common circulation space in a way that liberates the building’s façades and avoids the need for external walkways.

 

Now, Clifford believes, there is a critical mass of New Zealanders open to the idea of other models for living, and to the notion that they may live in several different types of house over the course of their lives. This means architects must rise to the challenge of creating more choice and of conceiving ways of maintaining connections to nature within more condensed environments.

The E2 project is one of several housing schemes currently being designed by a number of different architects in Wynyard Quarter. Instead of defaulting to the perimeter-block-with-cars-in-the-middle typology that is a staple trope of conventional urban design, Clifford proposes three blocks, running west–east, with a 10-storey concrete structure to the east, and a five-storey timber assembly of different layouts to the west. A three-storey brick mews runs between the two.

Rather than describe the specific design details, Clifford refers to the discussions with the client that shaped the final solution, and the various precedents that influence idea of the urban housing project, such as Auckland’s Courtville Apartments. Conceptually a big house with smaller houses inside, Courtville also brings to mind Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti’s dictum, “The city is like a great house, and the house in its turn a small city.”

In the final analysis, perhaps what emerges most clearly from Patrick Clifford’s work is the recognition that a discerning knowledge of the history of his discipline can be repeatedly mined to generate inventive new possibilities. Clifford has no plans to retire any time soon. “We’re the guys we used to hate,” he says. “The ones we wanted to step aside and give the youngsters a chance. It’s not gonna happen.”

This article was first published in the NZIA’s 2014 Gold Medal publication.

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