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New Zealand architecture mourns the passing of David Mitchell

27 April 2018

David Mitchell, one of the most accomplished, respected and fondly regarded figures in New Zealand architecture, died in Auckland on 26 April, at the age of 77.

Mitchell was the architect of some of the most acclaimed New Zealand buildings of the later twentieth century, an influential teacher at the University of Auckland School of Architecture and Planning and a highly respected and exceptionally articulate commentator on New Zealand architecture. 

In 2005 Mitchell was awarded the highest honour in New Zealand architecture, the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal for career achievement. In 2014, he was selected as creative director for New Zealand’s first-ever national exhibition at the prestigious Venice Architecture Biennale.

Mitchell grew up in the Waikato town of Morrinsville and graduated from Auckland University’s School of Architecture. He returned to the School as a lecturer in 1972 and remained on the academic staff until 1987. In 1984 he wrote, with Gillian Chaplin, The Elegant Shed, a seminal book on New Zealand architecture that was the basis of a TV series of the same name.

While teaching at the University of Auckland Mitchell continued the professional career he started in the late 1960s. He worked on education and state housing projects, and came to wider attention with a series of innovative buildings in the 1980s, including the Gibbs House in Judges Bay, the Music School at the University of Auckland (with Jack Manning), and the Mitchell-Stout House in Freeman’s Bay, the latter designed with his practice and life partner, Julie Stout.

In the next decade significant work included the New Gallery at Auckland Art Gallery, a second Gibbs House, in Orakei, and the master-planning of the Viaduct Basin.

For much of the 1990s Mitchell and Julie Stout lived abroad, working as architects in Hong Kong and sailing through the Pacific. These maritime expeditions combined Mitchell’s passion for sailing and his strong interest in the architecture of the Pacific and South-East Asia which, he argued in his 2014 Venice exhibition, is part of this country’s architectural inheritance. 

Returning to New Zealand, Mitchell and Stout focused on residential and cultural projects. Tauranga Art Gallery was completed in 2005 and after a long process requiring much persistence Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi was completed in 2014. Latterly, Mitchell and Stout had been joined in their practice partnership by Julian Mitchell, David’s son, and Rachel Dodd.

Mitchell not only designed numerous award-winning buildings, he also had an eye for talent, and many successful architects started their careers in his office. He was an excellent writer on architecture, and just as good a talker about it.   

Mitchell believed architects should speak up, as design professionals and citizens, and he contributed constructively to many of the public debates about Auckland planning issues. Most recently, he was a strong advocate for protecting the Waitemata Harbour from further port expansion.

Tony van Raat, former head of the Unitec School of Architecture and current chair of the Auckland Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, said Mitchell’s career was characterised by “a consistently high quality body of work.”

“Mitchell’s significance to New Zealand architecture has been as an educator, practitioner, author, commentator and explorer,” van Raat said. “His influence on many significant contemporary architects has been profound.”

“Mitchell was at once engaging, astute, analytical and creative, and the sheer breadth of his knowledge of the art and craft of architecture was outstanding. His passing is a huge loss to New Zealand architecture.”

The funeral for David Mitchell will be held at St Matthew’s-in-the-City, Auckland, on Tuesday 1 May at 2.30pm.