Frances Cooper: Laying the foundations of Success

I’ve always been happy with a pencil in my hand,” says Frances Cooper. “I wouldn’t say drawing necessarily came naturally — growing up is a constant struggle of where you want to be and where you want to go — but putting pen to paper was something I was certainly comfortable with. An easy articulation of what I was thinking.”


That talent last year saw her scoop top international gong, the Architectural Reviews Global Architecture Graduate Award, for her re-imagining of Wynyard Point as a post-industrial port. Her master’s thesis project, Architecture of the Synthetic, the Spectacular and the Belligerent, came top of 700 entries, with a proposal that included creating new grounds using synthetic materials. “That area is a very special place,” says the architectural graduate. “I was quite dissatisfied with the urban scheme that had been put forward. I felt it could have been anywhere else and that it was not specific to being on the reclaimed land. The project was partly in response to the increasingly private nature of our waterfront, as well as just starting something brand new. The site is fascinating to me. It’s an interesting piece of land in New Zealand’s history. The whole project resides within the wider argument, that whole discussion of ownership specifically, the foreshore and seabed.”


The concept caught the eye of renowned Kiwi architect and author David Mitchell, who invited her to be part of the New Zealand team at this year’s Venice Architectural Biennale. “I travelled over to Italy for a couple of weeks for the June opening,” says Cooper. “It was my first trip to Europe and was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”


A highly inspirational destination to study architecture?


“It’s overwhelming, and at times baffling. Not just the architectural aspect, but the complicated series of stories that go with them, particularly in Venice. The buildings unwrap. Speaking with the locals, each one would have an incredible legend, whether it be about Marco Polo, Napoleon, the Black Death or a young man trying to propose to a princess. What was truth was not always so clear, but it was intensely fascinating nonetheless.”


Cooper also travelled to Florence and Milan, the latter, she says, in terms of spread and scale is similar to Auckland. I ask how Auckland design compares. “In an urban sense, we’re certainly learning lessons,” she says. “There is good architecture, well-placed, well-situated and carefully speculated upon. The projects that actually get built — and the handful that don’t — are wonderful notions. Some of it comes from borrowing, sometimes looking to Australia, in the past Wellington, but maybe now more so Christchurch. There’s a style that, for me, couldn’t really go anywhere else other than Auckland.” The geography, too, plays an integral part. “We’re an island and certain things are built here in certain ways because of that fact,” continues Frances. “The remoteness can be limiting in terms of what’s imported and what is locally available.”


I ask if the isolation influences the design psyche. “I think it has an effect on us all, it’s inherent,” she says. “To leave this place, you have to get on a plane, which is a bit strange when you think about it. You can’t just drive across the border. Leaving and coming home become marked as significant events. Also, being made up of many islands, the unique topography and dramatic climate plays a part. The fact that we’re not a big enough landmass to affect the weather, that it just kind of rolls over us, there’s something significant about that. There’s something of that in us all I think, a little bit.”