Page 1: Biography
Athfield, Ian Charles
This biography, written by Julia Gatley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.
Ian Athfield was an award-winning Wellington architect whose practice, Athfield Architects, designed distinctive and innovative houses that challenged suburban norms, as well as celebrated commercial, public and institutional projects. Athfield was the figurehead of the practice and provided an insightful and engaging public voice on built environment issues.
Early life and education
Ian Charles Athfield, known throughout his adult life as Ath, was born in Christchurch on 15 July 1940. He was the first of two sons adopted by Charles Ernst Leonard (Len) Athfield, a foreman box-maker for booksellers Whitcombe and Tombs, and his wife, Ella Agnes Taylor. They lived in Spreydon, in the south-west of the city. The boys learnt as teenagers that they were adopted, although Ian chose not to seek out his birth parents.
Athfield excelled at art and mathematics and knew from an early age that he wanted to become an architect. He grew up admiring Christchurch architecture, including the Brutalist buildings designed by Miles Warren and his peers in the mid-to-late 1950s. While at Christchurch Boys’ High School (1954–58), he also worked part-time for architecture firm Griffiths, Moffat & Partners, and was full-time for two years after he finished his schooling.
In 1961, Athfield moved to Auckland to complete three years of the four-year Diploma in Architecture at the University of Auckland; he had been excused from the first year as a result of his prior work experience. His creativity and originality were apparent from the outset, in designs that Gerald Melling called ‘Mies-Gaudí collages’ because they demonstrated an admiration for the German modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Athfield was also impressed by Mediterranean hill towns, which were varied yet unified, and by the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck’s ideas about ‘the in-between’. For Athfield, the spaces between buildings, and between buildings and streets, were as important as the building itself. Warren and Mahoney had further influence too, as Athfield spent the 1961–62 summer break working for the firm in Christchurch.
During his three years in Auckland, Athfield met Nancy Clare Cookson who taught art and worked at the Auckland Art Gallery. They married in Kawakawa on 22 December 1962.
Following the completion of his diploma at the end of 1963, Athfield worked briefly for Stephenson & Turner in Auckland and then accepted a job at Structon Group, a large corporate firm in Wellington. There he worked on commercial projects and was made a partner in 1965. Three years later, in 1968, he suggested that the firm should introduce a retirement policy. The senior partners were outraged and voted for his instant dismissal.
The very next day, Athfield started work from home, calling his practice Athfield Architects. Home was in the northern suburb of Khandallah, where he and Clare had bought a large, steep section in Amritsar Street in 1964, overlooking the city and the harbour. There Athfield had designed and started building a house which was different from suburban norms, with multiple component parts and concrete drainpipes projecting above the roof as skylights. Scavenged building materials were concealed by a heavily textured pebble-dash exterior and plastered interior. He hoped the house would advertise his skill and originality and attract potential clients wanting a similarly unusual house. The strategy worked and his practice grew, initially to include draughtsmen and, later, more architects. The family home doubled as the office, even though zoning rules prohibited working from home. It got more crowded with the arrival of the couple’s two sons, Jesse in 1969 and Zachary (Zac) in 1970.
Athfield Architects built their early reputation with houses, many of them stepping up or down Wellington hillsides. Among the best known are the McIntyre House in Plimmerton (1969–72), the Porteous House in Khandallah (1969–75), the Logan House in Eastbourne (1974–78), and the Cox House in Horokiwi (1975–77). They questioned the open plan of New Zealand’s post-war modern houses, introducing relatively small spaces interconnecting across different floor levels and complex roof forms combining hips, gables, skylights and pyramids. Athfield Architects worked in the additive tradition of New Zealand’s nineteenth-century cottages, adding revivalist balustrading and finials to some of their buildings. Athfield's peer, Wellington architect Roger Walker, was doing similar work. Athfield’s most instantly recognisable houses had white plastered walls and roofs, but there were just as many in brick and timber. In keeping with contemporary counter-culture ideals, he encouraged self-building among his early clients, as well as the use of demolition materials before it was accepted practice.
As Athfield Architects grew, so too did the Athfield House and Office. The 1971 lookout tower epitomised the firm’s freedom and imagination. Athfield was frustrated by bylaws prohibiting commercial activities in residential areas and determined to bring tensions with the Wellington City Council to a head by buying a neighbouring house on Onslow Road and adapting it for studio use. Council raids necessitated a retreat back up the hill to Amritsar Street, meaning the construction of more studio space there, followed by a swimming pool and various apartments. The complex became a well-known Wellington landmark as well as the project that Athfield ultimately considered his most important and overt challenge to suburban norms. It dissolved the boundaries between home and work, along with demonstrating higher-density living than could be found in the traditional suburb. It also fostered community (by being both varied and unified) and maintained privacy (through the careful placement of windows, pathways, courtyards, balconies and useable roof spaces). Athfield designed a different type of collective housing at Awaroa, in Abel Tasman National Park, where he, Clare and a group of their friends developed a holiday settlement that was effectively a row or terrace of sleeping quarters for each family with shared social areas, services and facilities.
As the Khandallah and Awaroa initiatives suggest, Athfield was more interested in housing than houses. He embraced opportunities to design medium-density housing for both private clients and public bodies. The Pearce Apartments in Mount Victoria (1968–80) were the best of the early private schemes, and Arlington Housing and George Porter Towers in Te Aro (1970–78), designed in association with King & Dawson for the Wellington City Council, the most important of the public ones. Others remained unbuilt, most notably his competition-winning design for low-cost housing in Manila, in the Philippines. The design was published in periodicals internationally and was exhibited at the United Nations’ Habitat conference in Vancouver in 1976, which Athfield attended. His commitment to the complex project was documented in a full-length film directed and narrated by Sam Neill in 1977. Ultimately Philippine President Ferdinand and his wife, First Lady Imelda Marcos, opted to build a quite different housing scheme on the chosen site.
To ensure the practice’s financial viability, Athfield was determined to break into commercial work. Athfield Architects adapted several old buildings for commercial reuse to help generate more non-residential commissions. They also collaborated with established firms – not only King & Dawson, but also Structon Group – before securing contracts for their own high-rise office buildings in Wellington. These included Colenso House (1980–84), the Hewlett Packard Building (1983–86) and Telecom Towers (1986–88). Bold, inventive work continued, epitomised by the whale-like First Church of Christ, Scientist on Willis Street (1980–83). Clare Athfield was actively involved in many of these projects, particularly for interior design, vivid colour schemes and collaboration with artists.
In 1987, Athfield Architects secured the commission to design Wellington’s Civic Square, a new public space enclosed by the City Council offices, town hall, concert venue and library. It was a crucial project both for the city, giving it a civic centre, and for the practice, signalling a shift to more public, urban and institutional work. It led directly to the commission to design the city’s central library building and encouraged the opening up of the Wellington waterfront, a major project that benefited from Athfield’s input at the ideas stage and from several Athfield Architects’ buildings. Victoria University of Wellington was another important client of this period.
Athfield often worked on old buildings, including heritage buildings. Some commentators found some of these projects too interventionist, or too radical, such as the adaptation of Palmerston North’s DIC store as the city’s main public library (1992–96) and roof-top additions to Wellington’s State Insurance Building (1996–98), but such projects consistently earned architecture awards.
The proportion of projects outside of Wellington increased over time, among them houses, wineries, educational buildings, local authority offices and sports facilities, sometimes designed in collaboration with other practices. The company established a Christchurch office in 1994 and an Auckland office in 2006. Growth, along with a commitment to future-proofing the practice, prompted a restructuring in 2000 and the appointment of a series of younger directors over the ensuing years, of which Zac Athfield was one.
Athfield enjoyed working collaboratively and recognised the input of all the staff who contributed to particular projects. He also valued collaboration beyond the practice. This included working with other architecture firms (from King & Dawson to Vial & Bellerby and Architectus) as well as landscape architects (notably Wraight & Associates) and artists (among them, Paul Dibble, Fane Flaws, Neville Porteous and James Walker).
Recognition and giving back
The abandoned Philippine housing competition established Athfield’s international reputation. He was subsequently included on various British and American lists of the world’s best architects (Macmillan Press, 1980; Architectural Digest, 1991; Grove Dictionaries, 1996). He made the cover of the British Architectural Review in 1982 and was the subject of a further article in the RIBA Journal in 1984. The Athfield House and Office was one of only eight New Zealand buildings published in the Phaidon atlas, 20th century world architecture (2012).
Athfield was also being honoured at home. This included a prominent place in David Mitchell’s television series and book, The elegant shed (1984). Athfield earned a New Zealand Commemorative Medal in 1990 and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1996. The University of Auckland recognised him as a Distinguished Alumnus in 1997, and Victoria University of Wellington made him an Honorary Doctor of Literature in 2000. The New Zealand Institute of Architects awarded him its highest honour for an individual practitioner, the Gold Medal, in 2004. The Designers Institute of New Zealand honoured him with a John Britten Black Pin for services to design in 2012 and he was made an Icon of the Arts Foundation of New Zealand in 2013.
Having achieved recognition and profile, Athfield increasingly sought to share his knowledge with other practitioners. He became more involved in teaching at the Victoria University School of Architecture following an American lecture tour conducted in 1986. From 2005 to 2014, he focused his attention on the professional development of architects, hosting a series of New Zealand masterclasses at Awaroa.
From 2006 to 2008, Athfield served a term as President of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. In this capacity, he focused on the professional development of architects in the areas of heritage, urban design and sustainability, and on educating the public on built environment issues. In 2010, the institute invented the role of Architectural Ambassador to quake-damaged Christchurch and appointed Athfield to it, although he was frustrated by the role’s lack of governmental authority.
Athfield also served terms as a member of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust’s Board of Trustees in 2009–12 and of its Maori Heritage Council from 2010. The heritage recognition of his own work had already started, with the Trust (known as Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga from 2014) listing the Buck House in Havelock North (1980–81) as a Category 1 historic place in 2005. The Athfield House and Office and the Wellington Public Library were also recognised as Category 1 historic places in 2017 and 2021 respectively.
Athfield died in Wellington on 16 January 2015, at 74, as a result of complications from prostate cancer. He was given a funeral at home in Khandallah and a public memorial service in the City Gallery Wellington. He had been made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to architecture shortly before his death. Clare and their sons subsequently accepted the knighthood on his behalf.
Athfield is one of the best-known architects New Zealand has produced. His legacy includes many remarkable buildings across the country, particularly in Wellington, as well as the realisation of his ideas in urban design projects such as Wellington’s Civic Square and waterfront, and a thriving practice. At the time of his death, some 40 people worked in the Khandallah premises and 25 lived in the complex, among them extended family and Athfield Architects employees.
In addition to all of the above, Athfield was a great personality of New Zealand architecture. He enjoyed social interaction, was sharp and quick-witted, and used levity to make a point or to calm a tense situation. Through his public voice, he brought greater visibility to the architecture profession and influenced people to rethink their assumptions about the built environment.