The new exhibit at the City Gallery in Civic Square presents a form of retrospective which also outlines a love story between a city and the people who helped to shape it. Athfield Architects is a firm which has been integrally involved in the design of the city that we live in. From Museums and public spaces to domestic houses, Ian Athfield and his associates have created an enduring legacy in Wellington which most of its citizens are thoroughly unaware of. This exhibit endeavours to change this and to reveal to the pedestrians and citizens of Wellington how its architects have fundamentally changed the way in which the city operates as well as the way in which it looks.
The exhibit is spacious and elegant, a neat harmony of scale models, photography and design drawings which bring the space of the gallery to life. The curatorial approach has an effortless feel which puts the viewer at ease and allows you to process the works scattered throughout the space of the gallery. This ease of interpretation is aided by the fact that whatever your relationship with Wellington is you will identify a lot of what is on display, at least visually. My recollection of driving out towards Lower Hutt as a child is coloured by what was inexpertly referred to at the time as “the lighthouse house”. What I was actually describing was the complex which Ian Athfield designed and instigated and which is still an ongoing project. Like many others I would hesitate before calling the white plaster top of the Athfield complex beautiful, but it is certainly distinctive. Getting to see the design process behind pieces of architecture which fill the skyline of Wellington allows the viewer an instant connection with the material. While this is a reassuring element in a large exhibit, the real strength of Athfield Architects: People and Place is its ability to reveal how intricate and painstaking architecture and urban design can be.
The most striking piece of this exhibit for me personally was a series of photographs which detailed the Wellington waterfront and the area where Civic Square now sits, before many of the major redesign projects of the 1990’s and 2000’s occurred. A friend and I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to work out where the modern buildings fitted into the original frame work of the waterfront are as it stood in the early 1990’s. This aspect of the exhibit is strengthened by the fact that while viewing the exhibit you are on the fringe of the massive redevelopment project which Athfield Architects as a firm were intensely involved in. The Civic Square structure and the urbanisation of the originally commercial waterfront area are facets of this city with which we are now all extremely familiar, but are in themselves relatively new. It takes a marriage of skill and perseverance to change a city so profoundly without it really noticing, and this is one of the features of Ian Athfield and his companions which shines through in this exhibit.
The retrospective is probably overdue, but really this exhibit is magnificently timed. The features of Wellington which Athfield Architects have created, including our very own Adam Art Gallery, have become integral components of this city, and Athfield’s firm is embarking on a new mission in another city currently. Athfield and his company have a strong voice in the discussion for the rebuilding of Christchurch, and will probably have a large role in the design of the new city on shaky ground. To stage an exhibition about the firm and its members now is an excellent move as it affirms the role that it has in the posterity of this country whilst also looking forward to what part it will play in the future.
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This exhibit is excellent and really worth seeing in order to gain a firmer sense of understanding about the relationship between individual, co-operative efforts, and the urban landscapes in which we live our daily lives.