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May 3, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Better By Design

Salient feature writer Elle Hunt left the comfort of Kelburn campus and explored the oft-neglected corridors of the Te Aro campus, home to Vic’s Faculty of Architecture and Design.

For most of those who study at Victoria University, the Te Aro campus on upper Cuba Street might as well belong to a separate institution. Those trendy design students dressed in black; the wannabe architects spending sleepless nights with their scale models: they’re a different breed. Hell, they don’t even use Blackboard down there.

For all its eccentricities, Victoria’s centre of architecture and design is home to some remarkable work, which is being recognised at both a national and an international level. Just a few weeks ago, for example, a team of postgraduate architecture students were chosen to compete in a Solar Decathlon competition organised by the United States’ Department of Energy: the first successful entry from the Southern Hemisphere, ever. Needless to say, this is kind of a big deal.

What’s more, despite the degrees’ competitive nature and the arduous hours of work required to succeed, design and architecture students seem to relish their study. Of all of Victoria University, it is plausible that Te Aro alone is home to the fabled ‘campus culture’, where students make lasting friendships in lectures and tutorials; and where uni is both a social hub, and a hothouse of creative ambition. With its sprawling structure, geographical detachment, and dismal communal areas, Kelburn can only dream of such solidarity.

Leading the Southern Hemisphere

The Solar Decathlon team is comprised of Anna Farrow, Nick Officer, Ben Jagersma and Eli Nuttall. Their response to the competition’s brief of designing, building, and operating an energy-efficient, attractive and affordable house was a reinterpretation of the humble Kiwi bach. Their proposed timber structure impressed judges, who selected them to compete against 19 other collegiate teams from around the world.

“I researched the bach typology, and thought that it was a good starting point for a remote structure that could be solar-powered,” says Farrow.

“We thought it categorised New Zealand’s unique identity,” adds Nuttall. “There are some things in the bach that we thought represented our way of life and culture—the outdoor living, the open-plan social hub…”

“Simplicity,” puts in Jagersma. “Nothing too fancy!”

All four are pursuing their Master’s Degree in Architecture.

“It’s the worst time of your life, and the best time of your life,” says Officer of studying architecture. “You spend five years with the same 80 people; it’s like high school all over again.”

“You spend heaps of time at school, but there are cool things about that,” says Farrow, who has noticed the lack of engagement at Vic’s other campuses.

“I did a couple of papers up there [at Kelburn]—you turn up to class, you don’t talk to anyone, and you leave again.”

Jagersma believes that Te Aro’s cooperative spirit could be a result of the “nature of design”.

“We do a lot of work together, and we chat about our designs,” he says. “Because you spend so much time thinking about what you’re doing, you just naturally get to know each other a lot more. An essay’s more of an individual thing—you don’t really go and discuss it so much.”

Nuttall hopes that the number of students involved in their Decathlon submission will help them to bring Vic together. The team are working with students of media, communications, law and commerce, among others, in order to ensure that their bach excels in the competition’s ten contests—only one of these exclusively pertains to architecture. Some of the other factors that their construction will be judged on are its market appeal, its affordability, and how comfortable it is to live in.

Farrow, Officer, Jagersma and Nuttall will travel to Washington in October 2011 to build the bach to scale on the National Mall. It will be exhibited alongside the 19 other teams’ houses for a period of ten days, during which around 150,000 people are expected to visit this temporary ‘solar village’.

There’s so much work in store for them between then and now, it’s understandable that the team hasn’t thought much of their plans for the future, post-Decathlon.

“I guess it’s going to open a lot of doors for us at some stage,” says Officer. “I think I’ll stay in New York and never come home. That’s the dream.”

A Competitive Advantage

I ask Thomas Ibbotson, a Master’s student, whether architecture is as difficult, and as competitive, as Kelburn and Pipitea students consider it to be.

“Unfortunately, it’s exactly that,” he says, ruefully. “There’s usually a love-hate relationship with architecture.”

He attributes students’ high standards of work to the open nature of assessment at Te Aro.

“From day one, projects are presented by critique—meaning you present your projects to your classmates, tutors, and guest critiques, which forces students to take responsibility for their design decisions,” he explains.

“Having to stand up and present your projects means you have to be happy with your effort or attempt,” he continues, “which ultimately means doing the best you can, by putting in the maximum effort and time.”

With their work subjected to such scrutiny, it’s no wonder that design and architecture students spend so much time perfecting their submissions.

“Competition has been drilled into us,” says Ibbotson, though he allows that this has its advantages. It encourages the exchange and discussion of ideas, and even brings students together. “We’re always keen to critique, question or help out friends, as this is the best way for us to learn. Our friends have the most contemporary perspective and ideas available.”

Ibbotson agrees that Te Aro seems to “differ greatly” from Vic’s other campuses. He says this is due to the long hours students spend working alongside each other.

“We become pretty tight, and there are always a few laughs in the studio.”

Te Aro students are also encouraged to enter competitions, in order to further their practical skills. Ibbotson won second place in the Monument to a Memorable Event competition, organised by the Commonwealth Association of Architects, with a structure that commemorated the Wahine disaster.

Of his entry, Ibbotson says that it was “interesting to research, and offered a lot to work with”.

“Over the development of my submission, I learnt a lot about my own design process: where I start, and how I tackle certain challenges. It made clear my strengths and weaknesses.”

Ibbotson believes the study of architecture “could be applied to a variety of careers”, but at this stage, he has “no idea” as to his plans for the future.

“I have to finish this year first.”

A Change of Focus

Certainly, Karie Higgins and Megan Oliver used their Bachelor degree in Architecture, specialising in Interior Architecture, for something other than its obvious purpose. Shortly after graduating in 2004, they began to dabble in jewellery design—“for no particular reason, other than a bit of fun,” says Higgins.

Their brand, d_luxe, has gone from strength to strength. Higgins reels off a list of their successes to date, which includes collaborating with fashion designers twenty-seven names at Fashion Week; finding stockists for their designs in Australia; and establishing an online boutique.

Higgins describes studying at Te Aro “a completely different experience to Kelburn campus”.

“There, it’s more of a ‘get to the lecture and then get out of there’ type of deal. I assume perhaps at the other Vic campuses, you’re usually in far larger groups, and you don’t communicate with your peers so much… Te Aro students hang out on campus even when they aren’t working!”

And it’s true—it’s hard to imagine that happening at Kelburn (“Hey, wanna go smoke and ogle construction workers?”).

“There’s a real community that develops at Te Aro, mainly because of the studio teaching and work,” says Higgins. “You’re always collaborating with the people in your year, and sometimes with those from other years and disciplines—so it’s a great way to meet and get to know other people.

“By the end of your degree, most faces in the building are familiar, and because of the hours you need to actually be on campus, it does begin to feel a bit like a second home.”

Again, this seems nothing like the Kelburn experience—though perhaps if we didn’t have to leg it up a hill to get there, we’d spend more time at uni. And this could have been a reality.

In 1902, when the Victoria Council was yet to settle on a location for the university, the preferred spot was a 13-acre plot of Crown real estate in Mount Cook. However, then-Prime Minister Richard Seddon refused to part with it.

Had he been more amenable, the rest of Victoria University could have shared in Te Aro’s central and creative location, which has a lot to answer for in drawing the masses to study on the weekend. Certainly, Higgins appreciated “all that Cuba Street has to offer in terms of culture and convenience”.

“It is true though that, as a result, design students probably spend a disproportionate amount of money on coffee!”

Midnight Espresso must do a roaring trade on the night before hand-in.

Both Higgins and Oliver credit their time at Te Aro for their dedicated work ethic, their conceptual thinking skills, and their responsiveness to innovation, while their knowledge of interior architecture is apparent in their work. As d_luxe’s website states, “The move to jewellery design was simply a shift in scale.”

“People often say that you can tell that we’re trained in ‘interiors’, as we love composing our images and objects in a way that utilises our background in spatial design,” says Higgins. “We consider the whole environment as integral in our imagery.”

Sleepless in Te Aro

Patrick Thompson is an award-winning student of architecture, having won awards in the Habitat 3E Housing Competition, the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ Graphisoft Student Design Awards, and the Team Architecture Scholarships.

He believes that architecture and design is such hard work because it’s not a cut-and-dried process. “I think one of the main factors is that it’s very hard to ‘finish’ design,” he says. “It can always be improved upon, or looked at differently, no matter what stage you’re at.”

It’s fortunate, therefore, that the Te Aro academic staff are so accommodating.

“If you have any questions, they’ll always give you time to have a chat,” says Thompson. “Also, there’s lots of tutorial time, which, over five years, can create some great relationships with staff.”

Ibbotson agrees.

“I imagine students at Te Aro campus have a very different relationship with staff. They’re often not just lecturers, but also tutors, who spend one-on-one time with students.”

A recurring theme in interviews with Te Aro students is the late nights spent at uni.

“I’ve lived with students from other campuses every year,” says Thompson, “and the only difference is a lot less sleep.”

Workplace Romance

Jordon Wisniewski, however, sees some benefits in wiling away the midnight hour (well, almost—it shuts at 11.30pm) at Te Aro.

“During project time, the campus becomes your life,” he says. “The faces you see the most of are your classmates, burning the night away rendering, sketching or sanding, so you form pretty strong bonds with these people. I’d say out of all the campuses, we definitely have the highest rate of couples getting together at school.”

Wisniewski has a Bachelor of Design, majoring in Industrial Design. Along with fellow graduate Matt Fraser and senior lecturer Jeni Mihova, he has helped build ten models depicting detailed sections of the Parthenon and Acropolis. The models were on display at Te Aro last week, and will soon be exhibited at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Wisniewski’s role was to interpret drawings and sketches of the site, and to create two of the larger scale models of the Parthenon.

“I’m not an architecture student, so the opportunity to be involved in an architecture project has been really interesting—especially one that looks at one of the most important buildings in the world.

“The challenge of building a classical structure using modern construction techniques was one of the most frustrating and enjoyable projects I’ve done.”

Wisniewski believes that a Bachelor of Design or Architecture incorporates skills that are applicable to any field, “depending on what spin you put on your degree”.

“The campus is constantly in flux; already, the degree I’ve completed has changed, so it will be really interesting to see what graduates in the next five years will be doing.”

He credits the campus’ continual evolution with the assortment of students that study there: he maintains that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Te Aro student.

“Our faculty is made up of the practical, the academic, the fashionable, the deros, those who are logical and those who daydream,” says Wisniewski. “Having all the different flavours in close-knit creative quarters is what produces innovative work. This also makes the atmosphere really interesting to work and socialise in.

“Seeing other people doing well really pushes you to produce something great, and although you’ll eventually be competing with your classmates in the big bad world, they’re your most useful resource, and become some of your best friends. Or your potential husband or wife!”

Having said that, Wisniewski is quick to point out the limitations of his argument: he estimates that he’s spent a total of 12 hours at the other Victoria campuses over a four-year period.

“Despite that, I’d have really liked to have split my studies between campuses, and would definitely recommend anyone interested in taking a paper at Te Aro to give it a go.”

Indeed, several of the courses offered at Te Aro are open-entry, so go on: listen to Wisniewski’s advice. Discover that artistic inclination. Soak up the atmosphere. Make some friends. And take some of that community spirit back to Kelburn with you.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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