The Risk of Being Nowhere

I recently wrote and article for The Press that features my selection of the city’s greatest hits in the Christchurch rebuild, plus my views on how and what is needed to create a great city and from the memories of it’s previous incarnation to engage current visitors and residents.
Cathedral Grammar Junior School by Tezuka Architects and Andrew Barrie Lab
Images by Patrick Reynolds

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

Build Magazine Interview

Build is New Zealand’s premier building industry information resource, offering impartial, expert advice. I feature in their April/May 2015 issue talking about everything from visits to Ian Athfield’s house as a teenager to the Christchurch rebuild and challenges to architects in New Zealand today.

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Tim Nees, in the new role of Architect in Residence at the University of Canterbury, talks to Build about collaboration between disciplines and his hopes and concerns, for the architecture of the re-emerging city.

Q. What attracted you to architecture?

A. My father worked as an architect and designer, so I grew up in an environment where architecture and design were in the foreground. When I was at high school, he took me to Ian Athfield’s house, and the rest is history. I became Ath’s after-school office boy, and later, after graduating from architectural school, I worked in Ath’s office for 7 years before starting my own business. I feel privileged to have had such a strong foundation in architecture.

Q. What does your appointment as architect in residence at the University of Canterbury involve?

A. The role is to foster greater understanding between engineers and architects and to encourage early professional collaboration from the concept design stage. By sharing this with students, it is hoped a more effective professional environment will develop. The role is partly in response to the recommendations of the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission.

Q. What are the advantages of architects and engineers working collaboratively?

A. Complex buildings require the participation of many professions, not just architects and structural engineers, but geotech engineers, fire engineers, services engineers, façade consultants, planners. The list can become quite long.

If all the consultants share their expertise at the beginning of the design process before lasting decisions are made, that knowledge can be incorporated in the creative process. This helps [architects] to design effectively, increasing the quality and lessening the risk of expensive changes down the track.

Q. How are students taught about this?

A. I encourage engineering students to think of themselves as design engineers as well as technical engineers. If, once they graduate, they participate confidently in a collaborative design process, our built environment can only improve in quality, safety and in terms of economy of time, means and materials.

Q. Thoughts on the Christchurch rebuild and the contribution of architects?

A. The scale of the rebuild represents a considerable challenge. There are huge opportunities for collaboration, and many architects and engineers are doing that well.

Seismic research at the College of Engineering at the University has been applied on a number of projects. Many of Christchurch’s new buildings are being heralded for their innovative structural solutions.

Some impressive architecture has been built, and more great buildings will be built in the years ahead. But as in any city, there are also the less impressive, pragmatic buildings. Christchurch now has a good many of these. I hope that as the rebuilding continues, poor examples will recede into the background and good architecture will be the dominant fabric of the city.

It’s crucial for architects and engineers to get public buildings in the central city right. These form the emotional heart of the city. The public needs to feel they belong in the public realm, to feel a sense of identity with the buildings they walk past every day.

The city can’t only be generic commercial, retail and hospitality venues. Buildings with power and resonance are essential. The Cardboard Cathedral has become a new symbol for Christchurch already, as has the Re:Start Mall. This is wonderful, as they are symbols of hope and business as normal but in the longer term, they are transitory buildings. The Arts Centre has survived and is being well restored, but a lot will rest on the success of buildings like the new cathedral and the new library. These buildings will need to be deep, rich examples of architecture.

Q. Nationally, what issues do architects face?

A. The biggest issue is the position architects hold in the marketplace. We are faced with a market that favours expediency over quality, low cost over investment, time constraints over design development.

Architects are struggling to communicate the value they can bring to the built environment, when the built environment itself does not seem to be highly valued at a government or commercial level.

When the built environment is primarily shaped by developers, investors and bulk suppliers, it is difficult to wave the quality flag or the built-culture flag and say, ‘hey, architects can provide all these advantages.’ Other parties judge these advantages to be disadvantages.

Other building professionals, with perhaps less awareness of the effects a poor or average building has on the urban environment, have been quick to provide services. This has had a negative effect on architects and architecture generally.

Effective collaboration between architects and engineers, for instance, could give both a stronger position to leverage improved outcomes for the natural and built environment.

Instead of defending the positions we’ve traditionally taken, architects need to discover new ways of working together with other industry professionals to build new types of position and influence within the industry.

Read the original article at build magazine here » 

Resene Architecture and Design Film Festival 2015

With New Zealand almost into the icy grip of winter it’s also film festival time. This year Resene is working with Rialto Cinemas and Clearly & Co to bring us the fourth Resene Architecture and Design Film Festival.

The movies are divided into four separate spheres: Architectural Perspectives, Design Inspiration, Experiments in Space, and Greenscapes.

My must-see picks for this year are screenings of two Sir Ian Athfield movies: Architect of Dreams directed by Geoffrey Cawthorn and Architect Athfield directed by Sam Neill.

The festival is screening in three New Zealand locations:

Wellington – The Embassy Theatre – 28 May – 10 Jun 2015

Dunedin – Rialto Cinemas Dunedin – 11 Jun – 21 Jun 2015

Christchurch – Academy Gold – 25 Jun – 8 Jul 2015

Download the festival programme here »

Visit the festival website here »




Tim Nees: Architect in Residence, Management Board Member of Studio Christchurch, convenor of the Canterbury Architectural Awards

Keeping busy: Tim’s other roles

Architect in Residence

I’ve been the Architect in Residence at the College of Engineering, University of Canterbury, since the end of July.

My main role is to facilitate closer engagement and collaboration between engineers and architects.

An interview was recently published on Scoop.

Read the article »

Management Board of Studio Christchurch

I’ve also been appointed to the Management Board of Studio Christchurch, a cooperative group between universities in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The Management Board sets extracurricular projects based on urban research and proposed interventions in Christchurch city.

Studio Christchurch Website »

Convenor of the Canterbury Architectural Awards

I am also on the Canterbury Branch Committee of the NZIA and over summer will be the convenor of the Canterbury Architectural Awards.

NZIA Awards Website »