There’s more to this historic building than meets the eye.
What do you do?
I’m a Registered Architect, Director at Peddle Thorp. I also teach at Auckland University, and am running an internship programme at our office with Unitec students. I’m involved in the NZ Institute of Architects and I sit on the Urban Design Panel and the Property Council.
What have you made here?
We have used a very ancient technique called ‘sgraffito’ to embellish the Takutai Square façade of the Nathan Building at Britomart (part of Australis Nathan). ’Sgraffito’ shares the same etymological (word origin) root as commonly used words ‘sketch’ and ‘scratch’, and ‘graffiti’ of course. The Tiffany & Co people liked the idea of being at Britomart, but felt that the façade to Takutai Square was perhaps a little plain. This is understandable; originally the building’s front was to Customs Street, and that’s why it’s richly embellished in the Victorian style. The back, which now fronts the square, faced a railway yard.
I was in Umbria a few years before we took on the project and saw ancient sgraffito in Spoleto. Originally this was done by plastering the building with one colour of plaster and then layering over another and scratching a pattern into it before it dried. When we looked at the Australis Nathan project, we knew that Heritage New Zealand require anything new to be obviously so, so we literally copied the pattern of the Customs Street façade, and applied to the Takutai Square one, using our version of sgraffito. We just applied it ‘as it fell’, so you’ll see that in places the pattern runs over windows, or is interrupted by existing features. We worked with a specialist plasterer to develop the new sgraffito plaster, which is lime-based, like ancient plasters were, before Portland cement (our modern version, which is harder) was invented.
Why is it special?
We used an ancient technology to reinvigorate an ’ancient’ building. It was born of informal research — travel, which I think is very important for us to do from our far-flung land. The process of research into the patternation, the development of the plaster with the plasterers, the templates to set out the pattern, and the outcome which, aside from being beautiful, is meaningful. It is an important contribution to the discussion around heritage and the treatment of heritage buildings in New Zealand. We always have to strive to make these building relevant — museum pieces, frozen in time, just don’t excite people any more.
What will you make next?
We’re working on a six-story timber-structured office building. The entire structure is made from recycled timber. The choice of the timber is random, but is generated from historical research we did on the site, so it’s a way of bringing authenticity to the project. We know that people love character office buildings, but they need the size and genuine amenity that modern office buildings provide. Too often this is, again and again, shiny and mod, or just ‘vanilla’. We hope to develop a new model for the office building. The recycled timber, as well as being ‘green’ gives the building what we call ‘free character’, and importantly, authenticity.