“My brother and I were both adopted into a working-class family and we lived south of the railway tracks in Christchurch, which is significant because it’s always hard to move beyond that,” Sir Ian Athfield told Urbis Magazine. “And my parents used to take in lodgers and one of them was a school teacher… he suggested to my parents that I could be an architect… so from the age of seven, I was given the thought of architecture and I stuck to it.” And New Zealand is all the richer for it.
Since the 1960s, Sir Ian Athfield — or “Ath” — has built some of the nation’s finest modern-day monuments. His multi-award-winning firm, Athfield Architects, were behind the likes of Wellington’s Telecom House and Adam Art Gallery, Jade Stadium in Christchurch and the Palmerston North Library. “Ath was a big personality, and he had a huge impact on Wellington,” says Teena Hale Pennington, CEO of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. “Civic architecture was always important to Ath, and he was a tireless advocate for better public spaces.”
Christchurch-born Athfield attended the Auckland University School of Architecture and opened his first practice in 1968. He went on to win over 60 national and international design awards. Following the Canterbury earthquakes, he was appointed Architectural Ambassador to Christchurch. Sir Miles Warren describes Athfield as, “New Zealand’s most distinguished and most creative architect.” In 2004, Athfield was given the Gold Medal for career achievement, the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ highest award. In 1996 he was made a Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit, and earlier this year, a knight. But it wasn’t just Kiwis who recognised Athfield’s contributions. In 2000, his most famous creation, Athfield House, was described by the editor of renowned British magazine, The Architectural Review, as, “one of the most wonderful houses of the 20th century.”
The project, considered a blight by some, a beauty to most, has loomed over the Wellington motorway for the best part of half a century. It remains unfinished. In a 2012 Listener piece, Diana Witchel described the house as, “a sort of great New Zealand Novel-in-progress. A narrative of pioneering DIY enterprise at the edge, with its own land wars, shots fired, wildlife massacres and imperialistic ventures undertaken.” She goes on to compare its sensuality to the works of Gaudi and the less-is-more austerity to that of Mies van der Rohe. An improbable combination, suggests Withcel, that shouldn’t work, but does.
“You can actually take the two of them and push them together or tear them apart,” replies Ath. “Once you’ve done that in your mind, it’s an interesting combination. In the end, it’s what dreams are made of.”
Sir Ian Athfield passed away on 16 January, 2015. He was 74.