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Niall McLaughlin pays tribute to 'rebel' Ian Athfield

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Niall McLaughlin remembers New Zealand architect Ian Athfield (1940 - 2015)

Amritsar is a house. Or it is an extended house; even a small village. It is a sprawling settlement on Khandallah Hill overlooking Wellington Harbour. It is a home to seven families and a place where your parents might come back to retire amongst grandchildren and die among friends. It is an Entwicklungsroman and a love story between a young adopted rebel and the most beautiful girl in Wellington, which develops into a sprawling tale of intertwined families over time, filled with squabbles, disappointments, reconciliations and gossip.

The house is a social history, a manual, a comedy, a rebel’s tract and a document of the lifelong search for a voice. It was an illegal settlement, constantly stalked by city authorities trying to control and trammel it. And, for years, it was an architects’ office where the whole staff took to the woods when the Building Inspector arrived, but from which major urban developments, squares, waterfronts and universities have been designed. You can look there for projects abandoned, postponed, revised and built.

From here the architectural world was set alight by radical competition-winning plans for low-cost housing in Manila based on ambitious social and environmental principles in 1975, and which registered the shock and disappointment when Marcos diverted the budget into her collection of shoes.

This house is an affront to its neighbours who expressed their distaste by dropping chicken shit through the letterbox, shooting out the windows and killing the menagerie of hens, roosters and peacocks who wandered its roofs and yards. It was eventually decreed a heritage structure in spite of its designer’s scepticism about the idea.

It is a sketch, a ruin, an endless building site and its essence is its capacity to mutate. It is a source of constant polemic: against American nuclear ships in Wellington Harbour, against the suburban future projected for shattered Christchurch. It is a labyrinth, a maze of courts, pools, and roofs where the wanderer finds abandoned rooms and terraces, packed drafting offices, a high window where a woman sits alone combing her hair, a yard with two men carrying a double bed across, a doorway through which someone barks down the phone at a builder, a raucous room full of young graduates drinking beer and smoking on the rickety terrace above an alley where hens pick at scraps on the cobbles.

It has become the heartland of New Zealand architecture, the place where people look to stand up for their higher values. It is the house where architects flocked with their families to bid a rowdy farewell to its treasured author, delinquent, patriarch and mercurial guiding spirit, Ian Athfield, as the brass band serenaded his lovely coffin up the path and away from the place that had almost become him. It is Ath’s house.

Ian Athfield (1940 – 2015)

New Zealand architect Ian Athfield set up Athfield Architects in 1968 after working at Structon Group Architects.

He started work on his first major project, Athfield House in 1965. This studio and house for his family, in Kandallah, Wellington, stood out from the neighbouring suburban homes.

During the seventies he worked on many domestic projects and in the eighties his studio expanded and began work on a larger mix of community and commercial buildings.

Athfield was president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, he was appointed as an architectural ambassador to Christchurch.

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