Safe danger



Architect Philip Johnson introduced the principle of “safe danger” into his designs.

He would design steps fostering a sense of imbalance or unease. He would also create the illusion of a potential fall due to a lack of a balustrade, but then include a concealed soft landing area.

Arguably, his best known completed design project was the Glass House in rural Connecticut. This was a 40 acre retreat containing numerous specialist buildings and a house with all four walls constructed of glass.

Johnson fell out with his arguably better known mentor Mies van de Rohe because of his insistence on including classical references within his mainly stark, modern designs.

Mies, the designer of the classic Barcelona Chair, was not amused by such excess.

Later, Johnson became a champion of post-modern design, a 1980s style incorporating obvious references to past classical styles.

Done well, this design ethos produced some interesting modern buildings, but there are a few unfortunate copies around New Zealand.

This was a difficult era in our construction history, leading up to the financial collapse of the late 1980s.

While the crash was not caused by this new approach to design, the post-modern style did reflect a more profligate time.


State of the industry

Someone recently questioned my right to use the title architect. The matter was amicably resolved by our registration board, who were only concerned that I was not directly engaged in design and construction — a requirement of my current status.

However, it has led me to reflect on whether my profession and, in fact, other members of the design and construction industry, take a too narrow view of what and who we are.

In 1979, the new Practice Division of the New Zealand Institute of Architects conducted a survey of the profession called Practice in the 80s.

This offered a useful benchmark for the profession, potentially helping them decide on the best way forward for architects and for the industry.

Unfortunately, the 1980s was like a small nuclear explosion, decimating my profession, and ultimately leading to a much reduced role for architects in the design and construction process.

The financial downside of this era didn’t help much either. I decided on a sideways move away from direct involvement in architecture, but many others stuck it out.


Game show USA

I recently spent time in the USA, during the reality show version of a presidential race. As one commentator said: “The two candidates are engaged in a race to the bottom.”

The divisive and personality-based approach of both major political parties has led many in the USA to question whether there needs to be a new look at the state of their nation — and how to move the debate away from personalities and towards policies that actually improve the lot of all Americans.



For quite different reasons, it’s time for our industry to take a hard look at itself — an industry still suffering from the fallout of the weathertightness issue and the broader issues of built cost and quality.

We not only have problems delivering buildings that people can afford and trust to retain their value.

We are also faced with a potential revolution in introducing new, exciting, but challenging, technologies.

I counsel all industry bodies, professional and practical, along with relevant government entities, to take the time to sit down and decide whether our industry is up to the task of meeting current and future challenges.

Essentially, is there a better way? I believe that my industry is too divided and too self-focused to take up such a challenge. I would love you all to prove me wrong.

The recent Constructive Forum was well meaning but, like all such conferences, nothing was decided, and the participants will, no doubt, go back to their jobs and forget about it for another year. Not good enough.


About time

I was pleased to see that Bob Dylan was given the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature. I recently read that Dylan never quite understood where his words and images came from.

Joan Baez recalled how Dylan once complimented her on the song Love is just a four letter word, oblivious to the fact he had written the song for her the night before.

Leonard Cohen, in conversation with Dylan, admitted his song Hallelujah went through numerous iterations over a number of years. In response, Dylan said some of his best songs took as long as 15 minutes to write. Genius.

Singer David Bowie liked to write individual phrases then scatter them on the floor and take a random selection to form the final lyrics.

And it is reputed that Frank Lloyd Wright designed his iconic house Falling Water in less than the four hours it took his client to drive to Wright’s studio from Chicago. But as Wright said: “My designs are only recorded on paper.”


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