Finding, understanding, navigating and appreciating the impermanence of ground with Athfield Architects

The final lecture of the 2018 UQ Architecture lecture series hosted by State Library was presented by John Hardwick-Smith, Principal of Athfield Architects in New Zealand. Hardwick-Smith spoke on the topic of Practising Groundings: Tales of grounding architecture, and architectural groundings, through some recent (and less recent) works and practices of Athfield Architects. Hardwick-Smith describes how the practice and their projects engage with their surroundings in a physical, societal and cultural sense and the challenges they face while perusing ground.

With the important theme of the ‘ground’ in mind, Hardwick-Smith recounts a number of projects that hold true to the series’ concept of ‘in-terre-vention’. Each project described expressed a heightened sensitivity to their individual context, whereby Athfield Architects delicately negotiates challenges of landscape to determine and better appreciate the projects’ siting despite its scale.

In many projects Hardwick-Smith describes that finding ground was not an easy task, particularly in the context of New Zealand.

Due to the two recent earthquakes, ground has a sense of impermanence, with current projects floating above the hypothetical ground. Hardwick-Smith described the task at hand was more about creating, reclaiming, or inventing new ground. The architect states that when designing, establishing ground is as important as the buildings they create and is a priority throughout the entire process. He believes it’s Athfield architects’ responsibility to draw from references of the original datum to ensure the cultural ground still has a presence within the current context.

Hardwick-Smith introduces one of Athfield’s most notable works, the Athfield Complex, which was home to founding architect Sir Ian Charles Athfield for almost 50 years. This building has housed a number of family, community and staff members over the years and is still the base for the Wellington office. Athfield Complex, also known as ‘village on the hill’ or ‘the banana’ is nestled within Wellington’s steep topography. The organically-shaped heritage-listed building is an ever evolving series of physical and social experiments that is praised as being constantly ‘going and growing’. In addition to Athfield Architecture office, the village includes a number of residential and recreational programs, motivated with the desire to create spaces that bring people together. The ‘village’ is often a party venue, exhibition space, backdrop, crèche and most of all a neighbourhood nuisance.

The collection of buildings travel down through the obstacles of a steep hillside landscape which explores the relationship between ground and the physical movement between each built element. Working within the house is described by Hardwick-Smith as working within Ath’s head due to the multiple additions and interventions made within the complex by Ath.

The Athfield complex is an intriguing example of a hands-on experimental approach to architecture, through both the learning and understanding of physical development and the social experimentation within the Wellington community. It will be interesting to see how the site will continue to further evolve while maintaining its connection to the ground.

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