The Risk of Being Nowhere
By Tim Nees, Architect in Residence, College of Engineering, University of Canterbury
This article was first published in The Press on August 17 2016
Tim Nees is a practicing architect and Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. He is currently Architect in Residence at the University of Canterbury’s College of Engineering (Civil and Natural Resources). Amongst his many design awards, Tim is a recipient of the NZIA National Award for excellence in architecture.
As the Christchurch Rebuild intensifies and new buildings almost outnumber empty sites in the CBD, there is no doubting Christchurch has gained many fine works of architecture and even some great ones. Yet when the overall quality of the urban environment is discussed, concerned voices continue to be heard. ‘Bland and boring’, ‘lacking vision’, ‘could be anywhere’ are common complaints, often linked with a disappointment that too many issues identified in the ‘Share an Idea’ campaign have been ignored.
Some architects responded by requesting we suspend judgement and allow time for the city to settle, and that we need to accept this contemporary environment of ‘steel and glass’ as necessarily new and different to ways of creating buildings in the past. Others called for bolder designs, for architects to be more adventurous and create a new paradigm through innovative design where Christchurch can proudly become a global leader in urban architecture. Both responses fail to recognize [CG1] the disconnect between public expectations and built outcomes, and that this disconnect stems from a lack of connection to place, and a lack of substance, or meaning, in the new architecture. “Newness’ and ‘style’ is not the issue. ‘Meaning’ and ‘connection’ is the issue.
One of the architect’s most important responsibilities is being aware of how a building can and will affect people. Good buildings should feel appropriate, as if they rightly belong to the place and the time, the neighbourhood, and our lives. Good architecture responds to its place in the world, connects with that place and re-invests in the physical environment, the social environment, and the temporal environment.
Good buildings acknowledge memory. To build a relationship with memory is especially important in Christchurch, where many of our memory prompts have been removed. Whether we are aware of it or not, memory contributes to a full appreciation of spatial experience. Architecture has a responsibility to stimulate and sustain experiential memories of many kinds — from the sensual to the material, and to the immaterial such as light and shade — and so enriches user experience. These are the elements that construct the atmosphere of place and influence our experience of that place, and the memories we build as a consequence of our interactions. These same elements are what we take with us and talk about with others.
When a building carries meaning, we relate to the messages and stories it tells, and feel a sense of pride or gratitude or respect or love, a sense that it belongs and that we also belong and will experience the future of the city together. In this way the building earns our respect. In order for the city centre to be repopulated, Christchurch’s buildings need to earn people’s love and respect. The city needs people as well as buildings to regenerate a sense of collective effervescence and urbanity. Regeneration is not just about buildings, services, amenities and retail opportunities, it is 99% about people. Christchurch’s architecture, therefore, needs to communicate meaningfully with people.
Shigeru Ban recently told a Christchurch audience that loved buildings endure. Even temporary buildings like his Cardboard Cathedral may last longer than intended if people love them too much to let them go. The buildings and places that have earned my love in the past five years include Ban’s Transitional Cardboard Cathedral, and also the Botanic Gardens Visitor Centre, Cathedral Grammar Junior School, the Christchurch City Council Building, the Margaret Mahy Playground, and the Bus Interchange. They each in their own way use form, material and detail to convey meaning and provide memorable experiences.
The Transitional Cathedral is a big white tent, an archetypal gathering place with a worship space that immediately uplifts. The exposed repetitive structure recalls the Gothic Revival interest in the bones and sinews of a building remaining visible, of which there were many fine examples in Christchurch. The Cathedral Grammar Junior School draws on a similar Gothic Revival language of posts, beams and buttresses that interlock in a way that makes sense. The exposed construction is perhaps didactic; the students can learn from observation how the building was built. The Bus Interchange likewise draws inspiration from the Gothic Revival, although the formal references have been abstracted and reworked into something quite different. The building demonstrates how contemporary design can maintain an intelligent connection with history and still be cutting edge.
Still unfinished, the Awly Building on Durham Street also ranks reasonably highly in my book. Through colour, pattern and texture it talks to the Law Courts and Provincial Chambers across the road. In that respect, it is lucky to have had an architectural context to respond to. Awly doesn’t ignore the street edge; it provides generous pedestrian space and a promising looking courtyard on the western side. What’s more, the columns, timber soffits and bronzed handrails give it scale and detail passers-by can interact with and appreciate.
A loss of meaning in cities is not a unique problem. It is a global issue. However, given Christchurch’s circumstances and the regrettable decision to clear the city, it is perhaps more apparent here. But if we sadly agree meaningful buildings are an exception at present, shouldn’t we then expect more architects take care to invest meaning in their work so that more buildings can establish a positive relationship with the community, and so make the exception the rule?
Read the original article here
FESTA, the Festival of Transitional Architecture is on over Labour Weekend and it’s packed full of inspiring, creative events once again.
The theme for this year’s festival is We Have the Means, which focuses on making the most of the resources available – in terms of people and their skills and knowledge; and reusable materials. FESTA all starts with a horde of creative people who imagine how Christchurch could be different. These imaginative people translate their visions of the kind of city they most desire into a live event or project to present.
The purpose of FESTA is to:
- create a platform for city-makers and citizens to imagine and experience Christchurch differently
- celebrate the culture of creativity, active citizenship and hope that has emerged in Christchurch since the earthquakes
- encourage more people to get involved in the remaking of their city, bringing tens of thousands of people into the city for one occasion
- provide a positive, collective experience of the changing central city
- stimulate longer-term change in how and who makes Christchurch.
The headline event this year is called Lean Means and is held on Saturday 22 October and will attract thousands. Head into the inner city to experience a temporary city made from reused materials, where spaces are transformed by incredible installations by students across Australasia.
FESTA is exploring sustainability through the reuse of waste materials in design and creative urban regeneration. Enjoy spectacular imaginative architectural installations, workshops, talks, pop-up projects, family events, foraging tours, live performance, artworks and more.
Five local branch members from the NZIA, including yours truly, presented the ideas behind their own homes, which are in various stages of design/construction/
Presentations provided plenty of insights into tricky sites, post-earthquake considerations, budgets, influences, materials and final outcomes.
– Tim Nees (me) presenting the design for my home on Scarborough Hill, consented and ready for construction.
– Dan Sullivan presenting his parent’s recent award winning home he designed, ‘Ophir’ in Redcliffs.
– Mike Callaghan presenting his own small home in Huntsbury, was sort-of finished late 2014.
– Maria Chen presenting the design for her own townhouses on a back section in Sydenham, has just been granted resource consent.
– Michael O’Sullivan presenting his award-winning Lyttelton Studio Retreat, he designed and built himself.
NZIA Canterbury are aiming to make this a regular event so if you would like to be involved next time with your own home please let me know.
Danish architect Lene Tranberg will be delivering three lectures across New Zealand this March. Lene will talk about her architectural practise, highlighting her recent projects to demonstrate her approach, philosophy and influences.
Lene Tranberg has practiced in Copenhagen working in and managing the practice of Lundgaard and Tranberg formed in 1985. This is a significant and creative practice, which has authored some of the most important cultural projects in Europe. Winner of 5 RIBA European Awards, Danish Business Woman of the Year 2010, Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog and judge in international architectural competitions such as Mies van der Rohe Award (2015) and Stirling Prize Jury (2011). Through her work Lene has accrued significant and worthy international acclaim.
Auckland – 6.30pm Wednesday 16th March
Christchurch – 6.30pm Thursday 17th March
Wellington – 6.30pm Saturday 19th March
New York – Spring Street The High Line
Recently I visited North America on a speaking tour for the university that spanned both coasts and a wide array of architecture. Two of the places I visited on the East Coast couldn’t have been more different – New Hampshire and New York – they perfectly illustrated my lectures on ‘genius loci’ and the meaning and prevailing atmosphere of a place.
New Hampshire Gothic
As Architect in Residence at University of Canterbury, the inaugural delivery of my Masters Course on Integrated Design has now been completed. It was a pleasure to teach a class of highly motivated engineering post-grads.
We were also lucky to have so many professionals involved, giving guest lectures and participating in one of the assignments.
The course is being repeated in the first semester 2016 with enrolments now open.
- What if housing was more affordable?
- What if housing solutions were more achievable?
- What if architects and engineers could contribute creatively to the supply of housing, and at the same time, improve the environment?
But is owning a single family unit on a single piece of land the appropriate goal for all New Zealanders to aspire to at this point in the 21st century? Is this crisis really an opportunity to rethink the nation’s goals not just in terms of housing but in terms of all the environmental and social factors that are present alongside housing? With an unprecedented demand to develop new homes in the Auckland region, and the complex housing requirements of Christchurch’s rebuild, surely this point in time can be seen as not a crisis but a strategic opportunity for New Zealanders to address the way we design, build and invest in houses.
As part of my role as Architect in Residence, Department of Civil and Natural Resources Engineering at the University of Canterbury I presented a lecture in September 2015 examining the crisis as portrayed in the media and investigated ways architects have responded to this urgent need, drawing on local and overseas examples.