Four new benches designed by teams of landscape architects are occupying Takutai Square for the Nohonga design challenge in October. Here, we speak to two of the teams about how they decided to respond to the theme of Climate Resilience. 

Designed by James French, Holly Stitt and Lin Ma of WSP.

JEREMY HANSEN Tell me what made you decide to enter this competition together. 

JAMES FRENCH I’m a committee member on the local branch of the NZ Institute of Landscape Architects, and I regretted not entering the previous competition two years ago. I knew who I wanted to work with and who would have time and give good inputs. Our first kickoff concept discussions had very senior people and quite a few brainstorming sessions to understand what we wanted to achieve and what our approach would be. And then from that, the core team of the three of us moved forward to produce the design.

JEREMY HANSEN Holly and Lin, what made the two of you want to be involved?

HOLLY STITT We always say we're going to enter these competitions and we’d never done it, so it was a really good opportunity. It's designing something at a smaller scale than what we’re used to – I do a lot of wider-scale suburban planning, so it's nice to get into a seat design.

LIN MA It's something that's completely different to what I usually do. A bench is something you see and deal with on a day-to-day basis, but it's like "How can you do something else with it or play with it?" To me that was really interesting and intriguing, which is why I jumped at it.

JEREMY HANSEN The theme you were required to respond to is climate resilience. How did you go about doing that?

HOLLY STITT We had a Miro board that I think about 10 people had access to, and whenever people got a moment, they would put images there or write something, or add a quote in that meant something to them. And as we had a few more meetings, we started to dig a bit deeper into what we wanted to look at to do with climate change.

JAMES FRENCH And I think through that process there were a number of different ideas – every person had a different idea of what the response should be. There were probably three things that were really important for us. Number one was coming out of COVID: we wanted something that brought people together rather than kept them apart. Number two was it had to be really beautiful and it had to tell a story. And number three, and this is my personal one, is trying to challenge the idea of what a bench was – that it's not just something you sit on, it's not just a lump of concrete or chunk of steel. And I think through workshopping that and going through a number of iterations and ideas, we were able to distill that really, really well. 

Obviously the concept of balance is strongly expressed through the bench. In our initial conceptual submission we had very clearly represented Papatūānuku on one side of the bench and Ranginui on the other side. We spoke about balance and how if the bench goes too far to one side, you're getting to Te Pō, which is darkness, and then you shift to Te Ao Marama, which is the place of light. Then if you're going too far the other way you’re back to the darkness again. Some of the feedback we got from the event was that they felt that that was too literal, which is totally understandable. So, in our work you'll see that we've toned that back and gone for a much more conceptual representation of land and sky in the artwork applied to the bench.

JEREMY HANSEN How much time has it taken you outside your regular jobs to create this? And have there been frustrating moments along the way? I can already see you’re laughing.

HOLLY STITT Obviously the industry is so busy right now and everyone's very, very full on with their jobs. So this has definitely been hard. 

JAMES FRENCH Working on any competition is always difficult from a time point of view. 

JEREMY HANSEN On the theme of climate resilience in general, I wondered if as landscape architects you feel optimistic about the way we can work in the built environment and the city in general to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

JAMES FRENCH I don't want to sound like I’m advertising for WSP, but we have this amazing process called Future Ready, and it's something that we roll out on most of our projects now. It’s basically an initial look at any project through a sustainability lens prior to even starting work on it. And I think that's something that we do inherently as landscape architects, but it's really good to see a framework that really spells that out. Certainly the way that we design is always taking that into account now and it's expected that it gets taken into account. Generally I think all industry players are moving towards a more sustainable view and hopefully that momentum continues. 

The WSP team would like to thank WSP New Zealand and Hunua Park Furniture.  

Designed by Charlotte Grieve, Joseph McCready and Erin Phillips of Thomas Consultants

JEREMY HANSEN What made you all interested in the competition?

JOSEPH MCCREADY Well, we’re quite a new team out in the wild west of Henderson. And so I guess it was a combination of things: about raising profile for us as designers, but it was also something cool to work on,  quite different from our day-to-day work on subdivisions and the like. So it was an opportunity to kind of stretch our design muscles as a team.

CHARLOTTE GRIEVE It was something to build as well, because we don't have many built examples of projects on our websites – so this is something we can put up in a show that we've done. It’s also just fun to enter a competition because there aren’t too many that come along. 

JOSEPH MCCREADY The theme of Climate Resilience was also important. As landscape architects, the area of greatest opportunity is to make the biggest changes to the planet within our jobs. I think that's why we get into the profession and continue to work in the industry.

JEREMY HANSEN You mentioned you’re a new team. What is it about the firm’s purpose that distinguishes it, do you think, from others?

JEREMY HANSEN You mentioned you’re a new team. What is it about the firm’s purpose that distinguishes it, do you think, from others.

CHARLOTTE GRIEVE It’s actually an established firm, but better known for engineering and environmental services – the landscape architecture component is quite new. Three of us started towards the end of last year and we've tried to focus more on public realm work and boosting that profile. 

JEREMY HANSEN Part of your Nohonga seat is modelled on a hīnaki or eel trap. What made you choose it as a metaphor?

JOSEPH MCCREADY The location we're designing for in Britomart is sort of on the historical precipice between fresh water and salt water. That's the realm of eels, tuna. Māori would've harvested tuna at river mouths that would've exited into the Waitematā Harbour. Most hīnaki were actually constructed of quite relatively fragile pieces, but as a whole, through the amazing design and construction over probably generations and generations, all those quite fragile parts combined to create quite a strong structure that's designed to provide sustenance to people. So we’re playing with that form and cutting through it. If you cut a slice right through a hīnaki you end up with quite a round shape, which then gives us the chance to use a bit of designers’ licence to connect it to something bigger: cycles of life, birth, death, changes of season and that sort of thing. 

CHARLOTTE GRIEVE We wanted it to be playful from the start. So the net kind of lent itself to that, a play element inserted within just a regular thing. When you look inside the circle you notice the use of color, which has just been through application of paint. And then we've used the colorful net, so to try and give it some impact.

JEREMY HANSEN How does your design respond to the theme of climate resilience in its material selection?

CHARLOTTE GRIEVE We have tried to use recycled materials where we can – the that we've used for the seat is from off-cuts from our manufacturers. 

JOSEPH MCCREADY The first concept used concrete, and so we went through design iterations to try and reduce the weight and the embodied carbon in the seat. We landed on a folded sheet of steel and some recycled timber. It’s very simple. You have the volume and the permanent kind of look and mass without actually having to use the concrete.

JEREMY HANSEN How do you feel as landscape architects about your ability to mitigate climate change?

CHARLOTTE GRIEVE I reckon it's about making places usable, but not just for humans, for all types of species. You can make a space that humans can inhabit and socialise in and whatnot, but you can also introduce plants that can hold a whole ecosystem for other species. So it's just sort about making New Zealand and the world habitable for everyone, not just for us. 

JOSEPH MCCREADY When I first started out, everything was quite tortured and mono-cultured, with very manicured lawns and hedges and straight lines, with all the effort and maintenance and costs and inputs that come with that system. But I think over the last 15 or so years, people have started to relax a bit more. And so you see more meadows, more naturalised planting types.

CHARLOTTE GRIEVE That being with nature, not dominating it.

JOSEPH MCCREADY It's chilling out, relaxing a bit more and letting things sort be what they are rather than forcing them to be something they’re not. I kind of see us as that interface between natural systems and architectural form. I think landscape architects do a good job of providing for ecosystems and natural processes to happen in and around those buildings. 

JEREMY HANSEN  I've been asking you a lot about the environmental aspects of this design or the ecological aspects, but I also wanted to ask you about the social aspect and what you see as the potential of a structure like an orphan to draw people together. 

JOSEPH MCCREADY I guess just having a nice elegant round shape is inviting, and you can occupy every part of that seating edge. And what further helps enhance that social aspect is that idea of discovering something on the inside. And then with the net it's quite playful.

The Thomas Consultants team would like to thank Urban Effects, Playground Centre, Resene and Hamish Smith.  

The Nohonga design challenge is initiated and sponsored by the NZ Institute of Landscape Architects, Brick Bay, Resene and Britomart.