David Irwin talks Auckland’s future
with the NZ Herald (December 2015).

David Irwin wanted to be a boat-builder when he was young, before a tax dashed that idea — now his urban design group has put out a book celebrating its uniquely New Zealand projects.

1. Should urban designers know how to build?

Absolutely. I’ve always made stuff. Growing up in Howick I built boats, bikes, trolleys and windsurfers in my father’s garage. Cutting pieces of wood or sanding things I learned the hard way which way the grain goes or what saw to use.

It’s important to learn the materiality of things. Good design is more than aesthetic. It’s got a “feel”. I made an electric guitar with my daughter recently. For her 14th birthday, we built a bike together from a 70s racing bike frame which I got from a friend for free.

2. When did you realise design could be a career?

From age 12 I wanted to be a boat designer. I was sailing boats with the Sea Scouts at Shelly Park. I feel a strong connection to that coastal edge. Then Mr Muldoon put a boat tax on and that was the end of the boat building industry for a while so I switched to landscape architecture and set up Isthmus Group with three of my fellow graduates in 1988.

3. Is urban design a relatively new term?

It’s been around for about 20 years. It’s an umbrella term for all the professionals working in the urban space like landscape architects, planners and surveyors.

It’s become “sexy” as we’ve become more urbanised and aware of being able to spend time in a quality environment.

4. Designing a suburb from scratch at Hobsonville Point must’ve been a dream scenario. Where did you take your influences from?

In this case we studied successful suburbs of the same density like Freemans Bay, Ponsonby and Devonport to see if we could extract their essence and apply those qualities of “New Zealandness” at Hobsonville. Those suburbs are based on a main street with residential streets off the side. They were designed before cars so you can walk to get the newspaper and a coffee, catch the bus or go to the doctor. Doors and windows are oriented towards the street so everyone’s got a relationship with their neighbour. With that goes a sense of safety, as opposed to 80s suburbs where you drive in behind your big wall, close the garage door and bam you’re gone.

5. Can main streets be resurrected after having the life sucked out of them by big shopping malls?

We’re not anti-mall. We just think if you’re going to do a mall, do a good one. We worked on Sylvia Park. You can go to the mall for chain store stuff. In the suburbs you’re going to see more boutique shops, like specialist bakeries and gluten-free shops.

6. You’ve incorporated another Kiwi ideal — freehold ownership — into that massive hole in the ground in Ponsonby formerly known as Soho Square. How was this possible?

There’s historical precedent for Vinegar Lane, it’s just that everyone’s forgotten. We studied Parnell with its tight little streets and narrow frontages. They look like terraces but there’s a little gap between each building so if you knock one down it doesn’t affect the other. Progressive Enterprises bought Soho Square for its supermarket and subdivided the land left over and sold it off in lots, which allows smaller developers to get involved. I get frustrated with this idea that to get inner city density you have to go high. Vinegar Lane is really dense and it’s only 4 and 5 storeys tall.

7. Is terraced housing like Stonefields in Mt Wellington the answer to Auckland’s housing shortage?

We don’t have a tradition of terraced houses. We need to find our New Zealand way of doing medium density housing that reflects our values, like individuality and DIY. You might say a Ponsonby street is full of villas, but most have been altered. Yet there’s consistency. That’s the Hobsonville story. The houses have the same floor plates but there’s room for individuality. My analogy is if you spill red wine on a Persian rug it’s much less likely to be noticed than on a modern, minimalist one.

8. Are we going to see good design in the new Special Housing Areas?

Not necessarily. SHA just means they’re going to get consents quicker. We’ve been engaged for a wide range of them including a big Housing NZ one. Whatever we do first has to be done well. The higher the density, the more important design is. I’m really keen to show what design can do at lower price points. Too often design is hooked into the high end. Design is not just about beauty. It’s about balancing all these needs and that’s much harder to do at a lower price point.

9. When looking to express Kiwi identity, how do you avoid resorting to cliched Kiwiana?

Designers like me spend a lot of time reading the landscape and working out what’s important to us. It’s not just visual. It’s distilling the values, the feelings and the geometry of the space to extract and interpret its essence. That’s the magic bit. It’s hard to talk about, but it’s really easy to see. You can see it in New Zealand painting, literature and film. It should be in our design. It doesn’t have to be all korus and plastic tikis. Our work is always a specific response to a specific space.

10. Have you ever had people surprise you by using spaces in a way you didn’t anticipate?

On our New Plymouth foreshore project I saw some guys doing bicycle trial riding, leaping off those big rocks on one wheel. It’s always cool when you see our spaces chosen for wedding photos or TV ads or used in a piece of art.

11. What do you think of the alternative New Zealand flags?

They seem like trademarks. A national flag is a very difficult brief. It has a series of functions which those don’t deal with. Red Peak got the closest. We need a really solid rationale for change to inform the brief and drive the process. That will deliver a better outcome.

12. What are your hopes for Auckland’s future in urban design terms?

Auckland has potential to be one of the best cities in the world. We have one of the most interesting landscapes to build off, a growing population and some good infrastructure. It’s an exciting time to be dealing with intensification. Designers like us can’t influence it without good people on the council side. It’s really important to keep everyone on the same boat with the vision for Auckland. We’ve had a bit of the old silo mentality recently. It’s much harder to work across traditional boundaries but that’s where you get the really good outcomes.