Andrew Patterson went from 'soulless suburbia' to designing NZ's best buildings

Gold standard

Architect Andrew Patterson has designed some of Auckland’s – and the country’s – most distinctive buildings. Now he’s being recognised with New Zealand’s highest architectural honour.

Auckland architect Andrew Patterson, not given much to modesty, believes all architects should sign their buildings. “I’ve done it on the Len Lye Centre,” he says, where the words ‘Patterson Associates’ are etched in Helvetica font into the stainless steel facade. Goodness. Has he done that before? He wanted to, on his 2010 Christchurch Botanic Gardens Centre, but the building’s project manager wasn’t having a bar of it. “I didn’t want to push the legal aspect, but I will go back and do it sometime.”

Patterson, this year’s winner of the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ (NZIA) Gold Medal for lifetime achievement, points out that the Copyright Act gives any author, including the architect, the right to be identified, and he’s perplexed that few architects claim this by signing their buildings. All architects should do it, he believes, because it could help New Zealand get a better built environment. “It’s just inexcusable really. Are architects embarrassed about their work? Do they actually not have a sense of ownership because they have been bullied around by council?”

Perhaps it’s because New Zealanders don’t like to skite. Yes, he agrees, maybe the tall poppy syndrome – although it’s clear this has no place in Patterson’s world. At 57, he’s a bear of man, towering above most and filling the room. When we meet at his Parnell practice he’s casually rumpled and cheerful. How’s he feeling about getting architecture’s most prestigious award?

“It’s funny, isn’t it, that a little medal can be so meaningful,” he says. “It’s really nice to get recognised by your peers. It’s just sinking in, actually.” Perhaps uncomfortable contemplating the accolade, he diverts with a story. “The most significant event for me in the last couple of years was walking into the lobby of the Len Lye and there was this old lady sitting on a chair and she was crying.” Patterson walked over to ask if he could help. “She said: ‘No, no, no – it’s just so beautiful’. It just blew me away.”

So that sort of accolade is better than any medal? Patterson responds with his reverberating laugh. “The Gold Medal is architecture’s highest recognition. Deep down we are all quite competitive, so it’s a really huge compliment and I’m just so grateful. It’s incredibly generous of the profession.”

Patterson’s body of work shows extraordinary range. He likes to name his buildings – Stratis, Axis, Anvil, Geyser, Mai Mai – and create stories, even myths around them. He readily attaches Māori and Pacific cultural references to them, sometimes literally, as seen in the woven basket of stainless steel that is the D72 building on Dominion Road, or the tapa pattern on the cladding texture of Cumulus in Parnell.

He remembers a moment at architecture school when his grandfather, a former King Country solicitor, told him that the “venustas” in 1st century BC Roman architect Vitruvius’s famous slogan, “firmitas, utilitas, venustas” (architecture should be ‘solid, useful and delightful’), did mean delight, but in a particular way – delight of the natural world. “I thought, that’s it, that’s the secret to architecture in New Zealand. Our architecture here has got to match the natural world.” It’s been an abiding theme of his practice ever since.

Is the naming and myth-making all about marketing? “No, I don’t market that much. I want people to appreciate the building, and sometimes appreciating beauty you need eye-of-the-beholder knowledge.”

But there’s no denying Patterson does put himself and his work out there. “Oh, really reluctantly. I’m quite a private person.”

He is. Ask about his personal life and he replies: “I’ll probably just leave that out.” Is he in a relationship? “I have been my whole life, well lots of it.”

How did he deal with becoming the news when he accidentally hit and dragged a cyclist under his Porsche in 2015? “Oh, it was horrific. It was the most violent moment of my life. It was just an awful thing to be involved in. It was just a terrible accident.” And the publicity? “I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know I was prominent until I opened up the Herald the day after the accident. I was just shocked.” He says the next six months were spent trying to bring his profile down.

Patterson seems a complex, sometimes contradictory man. He grew up in “pretty soulless” suburban housing in Hamilton. “Strangely, even then I wanted to be an architect. I realised I had a brain that was both empirical and scientific and also creative and free thinking. I was really good at physics and art and reasonably shite at everything else.” He had a bit of an epiphany during a holiday job smoko on the roof of the Horotiu freezing works. “The roof has enormous refrigeration units on it that can be as big as a house, all different shapes, gorgeous things. It was just a really beautiful place up there with all of these very contemporary volumes.”

Patterson was always determined to be an architect. His father, a doctor, wanted him to pursue medicine. “So, he sent me to Dunedin and it took very fine judgement to get the B+ to get into architecture instead of the A- to get into medicine.” Patterson returned home apologetic and was greeted with “the Rolls Royce of drawing boards” and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man sitting on top. “It was just delightful and he’s been super supportive of me ever since.”

During his last year at university in 1987 he got a commission for a house on Auckland’s west coast. “I was able to put my thinking into practice because the site faced the Karekare cave high up on the hill. I designed a house that was kind of a model of the cave so that there was a dialogue between them.” From there, he didn’t look back, winning the Young Architect of the Year in 1988 soon after starting his own practice, and going on to receive a string of other awards.

Oddly for a prominent architect, he didn’t enter his New Plymouth Len Lye Centre and adjoining Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, opened in 2015, in the NZIA Awards. This is arguably his most masterful piece of public architecture, a stunning piece that truly deserves the term iconic. He entered it in other awards. “I don’t think the awards are everything. It’s a big marketing machine in some ways – the Gold award isn’t of course,” he laughs, pointing out he did enter other buildings in the NZIA awards. In the design of the Len Lye Centre Patterson says he was setting out to create a building that would change New Plymouth, a building that would produce the so-called Bilbao effect of Frank Gehry’s celebrated Guggenheim Museum in northern Spain. “I didn’t quite expect the façade to be the selfie magnet that it is. It’s just a continual sustainable viral attractor.” True, the building’s undulating mirror façade has become an internet phenomenon.

Where to from here? There is more, much more, to do: houses, projects in China, a war memorial for the government of France in Wellington’s Pukeahu National War Memorial Park. Despite the gold medal, Patterson has no thoughts of easing off the pace. “I just like designing buildings. I just love it. My favourite building is always the one I’m designing now.”

Buildings by Patterson Associates