Isth­mus’ work

Coast. Coun­try. Neigh­bour­hood. City. Edited by Michael Bar­rett Pub­lished by Six Point Press. RRP $60

Element - - Contents - By James Rus­sell Main photo: One­hunga beach; inset top: Sir Barry Cur­tis Park; inset mid­dle: the plan for Vine­gar Lane.

It’s a solid brick of a tome – off-white, with four words stamped with author­ity on the cover – Coast. Coun­try.

Neigh­bour­hood. City. From the top flut­ters a sin­gle black rib­bon – an in­di­ca­tion that the reader will re­turn to its 450-odd pages again and again, or per­haps read it in in­stal­ments.

The four words of the ti­tle de­lin­eate both the chap­ters of the book and the spa­ces and places in which Auck­land land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture com­pany Isth­mus has op­er­ated for al­most three decades.

The op­ti­mism with which Isth­mus came about – formed in a Re­muera garage in 1988 by ide­al­is­tic Lin­coln Univer­sity grad­u­ates David Ir­win, Gavin Lis­ter, Garth Fal­coner and Mike Jones – is still very much to the fore in the work done by the com­pany; think of the Vic­to­ria Park Skate Plaza, the Dr Seuss-style chil­dren’s play spa­ces in Wyn­yard Quar­ter and My­ers Park, or the ‘turn­ing back to the sea’ of New Plymouth, with the open­ing of its mag­nif­i­cent Coastal Walk­way.

Al­though Isth­mus may not be a house­hold name, there would be few New Zealan­ders who have not seen, or en­joyed, its work – the com­pany has been in­volved in projects around the coun­try, from the Devon­port Wharf, to the cosy trio of Welling­ton’s Oriental Bay beaches, to the West Coast’s Mok­i­hinui Gorge where, rather than chang­ing the land­scape, Isth­mus was in­volved in leav­ing it well alone. The Gorge was the site of a pro­posed hy­dro-elec­tric dam, and Gavin Lis­ter was en­gaged in de­fend­ing the idea of pre­serv­ing the area. Merid­ian has since aban­doned the project.

It’s a stance which per­me­ates all of the 25 projects in Coast.

Coun­try. Neigh­bour­hood. City. Front and cen­tre of each and ev­ery project are the mer­its of the ex­ist­ing land­scape, how it is en­joyed by the pop­u­la­tion, and how that en­joy­ment might be en­hanced. Lis­ter him­self sums it up in the book: “De­sign is Isth­mus’ craft. Not de­sign for de­sign’s sake. Rather, de­sign that en­riches places and lives, whether that be en­rich­ing an econ­omy or en­rich­ing a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion to place. We value de­sign that pulls its weight.”

The scope of the work of Isth­mus has also marked it apart from its com­peti­tors. Along with the fea­ture works in the book are works of in­fra­struc­ture – such as the re­new­able en­ergy projects Tauhara II, a pro­posed 250MW geo­ther­mal power sta­tion near Taupo, to the (also pro­posed) Waita­hora Wind Farm, which if built will sit on the Puke­toi Range near Dan­nevirke.

Found­ing di­rec­tor David Ir­win hints at the rea­sons for this ap­proach in Coast. Coun­try. Neigh­bour­hood. City. “Of­ten, I have over­lapped and in­flu­enced in the realms of the ar­chi­tect, the sur­veyor, the en­gi­neer and the plan­ner. We cross th­ese bound­aries con­tin­u­ally; we avoid, where pos­si­ble, those stan­dard po­si­tions of ‘us’ and ‘them’.” It was there­fore in­evitable that Isth­mus would ex­pand to en­com­pass pure ar­chi­tec­ture – a re­cent move for the com­pany.

Ir­win also speaks about the im­por­tance of the land of New Zealand to all Ki­wis. “For us, on Aotearoa, land is the can­vas on which we are drawn to­gether... It is our cul­tural touch­stone and it is our de­sign medium.

“If we tread lightly and pay re­spect, we al­low room for other things to hap­pen.”

The Isth­mus ap­proach to hous­ing – the higher den­sity type favoured by the Auck­land Uni­tary Plan – is both rev­o­lu­tion­ary and tra­di­tional all at once. The Vine­gar Lane de­vel­op­ment slowly re­plac­ing the res­i­dent-dubbed “So-hole” – a play on its orig­i­nal ti­tle ‘Soho Square’ be­tween Pon­sonby Road and Wil­liamson Ave, is a prime ex­am­ple. The planned and un­der­con­struc­tion build­ings are low-rise re­tail and res­i­den­tial, yet de­void of the same­ness and monotony typ­i­fy­ing many devel­op­ments of this sort – due to the fact that each small site (80m2-100m2) has a free-stand­ing, four-to-five-storey build­ing, fi­nanced by in­di­vid­ual own­ers and de­signed by dif­fer­ent ar­chi­tects. It mim­ics the his­toric de­vel­op­ment of the city, al­beit greatly sped up, and ben­e­fit­ting from over­ar­ch­ing de­sign prin­ci­ples. The Vine­gar Lane de­sign is sim­i­lar to Ja­panese prin­ci­ples of build­ing dense sub­urbs on free­hold plots, yet also mod­elled on the way the in­ner-city sub­urbs of Auck­land came about. Says Lis­ter: “It’s not a big bulky build­ing that feels dom­i­nat­ing or out of place. All of our tra­di­tional sub­urbs – such as Pon­sonby and Devon­port – are quite fine-grained, with long, nar­row lots. This is sim­i­lar. By break­ing it up into dif­fer­ent sites you get more of a rhythm and lots of de­tail – such as a door ev­ery six to ten me­tres – than com­pared with an apart­ment build­ing which takes up a whole block and has sin­gle en­trance.”

Vine­gar Lane demon­strates that we can achieve a sus­tain­able ur­ban form with a den­sity of up to 280 dwellings per hectare, yet with rel­a­tively low-rise build­ings, and a char­ac­ter that cap­tures the spirit of the way we tra­di­tion­ally built cities in New Zealand. It is a home-grown ur­ban­ism.

As much as Coast. Coun­try. Neigh­bour­hood. City. is a look to the past and a cel­e­bra­tion of achieve­ment, it’s also a state­ment for fu­ture progress, ex­plains Lis­ter. “It takes stock of where Isth­mus has come from and, most im­por­tantly, high­lights the ap­proach and at­ti­tude that we wish to take for­ward. The 25 projects se­lected il­lus­trate the traits that we con­sider valu­able: love of places, com­mit­ment to de­sign, the power of ideas and a ‘no bound­aries’ ap­proach.”

The book is edited by jour­nal­ist Michael Bar­rett, who writes pre­dom­i­nately about New Zealand de­sign and its im­pact upon the built en­vi­ron­ment. He is a for­mer ed­i­tor of Land­scape Ar­chi­tec­ture New Zealand, In­te­rior and Prode­sign.

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