Architecture Foundation Australia

Ian Athfield


Ian Athfield , or ‘Ath’ as he was affectionately known, past President and Gold Medallist of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and a major figure in New Zealand architecture, died unexpectedly on 14 January 2015, only a few weeks after being knighted Sir Ian Athfield in the 2015 New Zealand New Years Honours.

An obituary to Sir Ian by Architecture Foundation Australia Convener Lindsay Johnston appeared in Architecture AU  – architectureau.com/articles/vale-ian-athfield-1940-2015/ 

(The following was edited from the well informed ‘bio’ on Wikipedia)

In 1968 Athfield started work on his first major project, Athfield House, for his family and a studio. Located in Khandallah, Wellington, this distinctive group of structures stands out amongst neighbouring conventional suburban houses. His early projects were constructed with a broad palette of materials including corrugated iron, plaster, stainless steel and fibre glass. As a reaction to much of the bland “Modern” architecture of the period, Athfield built in a deliberately vernacular style using features harking back to colonial buildings. His designs incorporated finials, steeply pitched roofs, timber weatherboards, verandahs and double hung windows. He was also inspired by the architecture of the Greek Islands with their exterior envelopes of continuous plaster and small windows. Conversely, he also much admired the work of Mies van der Rohe with their precise and refined detailing of industrial materials.

Yet another area of influence was the geometric massing of the Japanese Metabolists. Athfield combined all these disparate elements into a highly eclectic and personal style. During the 1970s Athfield built and renovated numerous domestic houses and buildings, developing a distinctive and highly personal design approach based on the repetition of small scale elements and complex massing. Critical opposition to these ‘cartoon houses’ did not bother him (Manson). Another criticism of Athfields houses were that they were built for charm and not practicality. Athfield believed, however, that “in a house, you should get a surprise every time you turn a corner and look up” (Manson).

Athfield’s practice expanded during the 1980s from mainly residential work to a wider variety of community and commercial buildings. As well as continuing to work on small-scale projects, his portfolio has included churches, pubs, council flats, stadiums and commercial high-rise buildings. Athfield’s satisfaction from large commercial buildings, such as Wellington’s Telecom Towers, came from his belief that such buildings make a city. Because of this he made sure his buildings addressed the city positively rather than standing away from it (Manson). Athfields best known works include Telecom Towers, Civic Square and Wellington LibraryJade Stadium in Christchurch and work on the design of the Bangkok rapid transport system.

Over the past 40 years Ian Athfield has reshaped Wellington and other parts of New Zealand with his free spirited creativity. He has been a considerable professional and personal influence on a generation of younger architects. He judges many design competitions and is a keynote speaker at many overseas conferences. He is still deeply engaged in the practice architecture and current projects include Chews Lane Precinct, the Wellington Overseas Passenger Terminal redevelopment and the Wellington Marine Education Centre.

Ian Athfield has won over 60 national and international architecture and design awards. In 1976 he won first prize in the International Competition for the Urban Environment of Developing Countries. In 1978 he was placed first equal in a Low Cost Housing Design Competition in Fiji. Ian was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1996. Over the years he has won 13 NZIA Supreme Awards for his outstanding architectural projects. In 2004 he won the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ highest honour, the Gold Medal.

A documentary on Athfield, Architect of Dreams, has been produced for the NZ Documentary Festival