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