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Q+A: Judi Keith-Brown

Meet Judi Keith-Brown, President, Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects

At the AGM of Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) on 19 May, Wellington architect Judi Keith-Brown assumed the office of NZIA President. She talked to the NZIA’s Communications Director, John Walsh, about her career and her aspirations for her new role, which she will fill for the next two years.

Where did you grow up, Judi, and when did you decide that architecture could be a career for you?

I was born in Wellington. Mum and Dad built a good, basic, sunny house in Johnsonville, and then, when I was two, we left for Boston, along with my six-month old brother. Dad was a law student at Harvard and Mum worked as a mid-wife.

We moved into a Modernist apartment block – for married students! – designed by the Catalan architect José Luis Sert. Our first apartment had one blue wall – all the rest were white – and floor-to-ceiling glass with long views along the Charles River. Our second apartment, on the ground floor, had one red wall. Dad took one of the doors off its hinges to make a table, and my parents bought one butterfly chair. Mum dragged home a huge cardboard box, and Dad and I used to sit inside it and draw on the walls, desk, typewriter, kitchen cupboards…

Two years later, we got back to New Zealand and Mum and Dad painted all our walls white. Dad laid cork tiles and hung up rice paper shades. Dad’s mother worked at 246, a department store on Queen Street in Auckland, and sold Danish furniture and fabrics. She made curtains for our house, using linen printed with large modernist shapes – very cool.

Mum’s father was a manager at [timber and hardware supplier] Odlins and the two of us would go into the huge slatted timber storage sheds in Petone. The sun came through, making ever-changing patterns on the stacks of timber and the floor. This, along with the smell of the pine and the huge volume, made for an amazing space.

Next, when I was seven, it was off to New York – another apartment. Every weekend we went into to Manhattan. Dad was working for the United Nations, so on top of José Luis Sert, my next introduction to architecture was the UN building in Manhattan designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier! And then there were all the other architectural riches of New York City.

Getting back to Johnsonville was a bit of a shock. My clogs, bell bottoms and peace sign necklace were all in huge contrast to gingham dresses and roman sandals. I was saved when I went to a Raroa Intermediate, which was a brand new ‘model’ school. We had an art teacher called Neville Porteous who, with the help and designs of Ian Athfield, was building his home using demolition materials from the Wellington motorway. A group of us got to go to the house and then down the road to Ath’s place. This was the first time I met Ath. He was the first architect I had ever met – how lucky!

All of this made me want to be an architect.

 

Where did you study architecture? Did you enjoy architecture school?

I studied architecture at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). The VUW School of Architecture hadn’t been going long and our class was small – 30 students, 20 guys and 10 girls. The programme had been set up along scientific lines. Because it was in its infancy, there was a bit of a disconnect between lecturers, and the set of buildings it operated from didn’t help.

There were some classes I loved but there were two that made no sense – structures and professional practice. It still makes me cross how badly we were taught in these two areas, and that nobody at the university ever caught up on the fact that this was happening.

Our design and communication lecturers were good, though, and we got involved on projects outside of the school which was fun. We even got into Architecture NZ magazine with a design a group of us did with John Daish for Wellington Airport. Our design got on to the front cover!

The main thing I got from the school was a great group of friends. Many of them are my closest friends now, and one is my husband, Ewan!

 

When you were studying, who were the architects whose work you admired?

It was the 1980s, so we were almost told to put the Modernist architects aside. Apart from Le Corbusier – Russell Walden, our architecture history lecturer, made sure about that.

The popular architects then were Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Richard Meier, Aldo Rossi and Stanley Tigermann. Added to this list would be an eclectic mix, thinking back: John Scott; Charles Rennie Mackintosh; Eileen Gray; Roger Walker; Gordon Moller; Jon Craig; Miles Warren; Burwell Hunt – I just did some work on one of his houses; Jim Beard; Ernst Plischke; Mies van der Rohe; Lily Reich; Louis Kahn; Frank Lloyd Wright; Tadao Ando; Shin Takamatsu, Aino and Alvar Aalto…

Probably the two architects I admired most, and who I continue to admire, were Ath and Bill Alington – Ath for the humanity of his designs, and Bill for his carefully considered and modest designs. Plus, Bill, along with Sue Skerman, taught me how to draw. Bill has always been here for us, a true mentor for many.

 

What did you do once you graduated?

I worked for Dave Launder for three years on a wide range of projects in a small office. It was great to finally be in practice, and I learnt a lot. It was good to work alongside someone who had a logical way of working through a design, and a wonderful way of communicating with clients. But it was a strange time, the late 1980s, and Dave left the firm. So, it was time to go…

Ewan and I headed via Japan to Scotland, landing in Glasgow on a gorgeous spring day. We decided we liked the place. I got a job with Mike and Sue Thornley and stayed there for three years. We worked on public housing projects in some of the roughest estates – my first project was the demolition of five tenement blocks in a working-class area called Nitshill.

After that, I worked with tenant groups on the refurbishment of their homes. I also got to work on a Grade A-listed mansion house at Erskine, which had been built on soil imported from Ireland (!) for Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters. There were no existing drawings, so I had to measure and draw this extremely ornate stone building piece by piece, including the large slate roof.

Things were tough, then, and we had a lot of unemployed architects come and stay. We made good friends while we were in Glasgow, and value these friends even more now, keeping in touch about their lockdown, and how they are. Mike Thornley, on hearing about me being made President-elect of the NZIA, immediately got hold of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) President Robin Webster, and told him all about me, which I later heard all about during a phone call with Robin!

 

On your travels, what buildings or sites left an impression?

Ewan and I have travelled a lot – we’ve decided we travel for buildings and food. There is one building that I have loved since I was a 10-year-old – the Queen Margaret Chapel at Edinburgh Castle. It’s tiny – on the outside, rustic and rectilinear; on the inside, barrel vaulted, white-washed with three small windows with coloured glass. It has the same feel as Ronchamp, another favourite.

I think there are just as many rooms as buildings that I love – the main bedroom at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House, for example, Aino and Alvar Aalto’s living room; the mosque space in the previous Pakistani Parliament by Louis Kahn…

I love the temple next to the stone garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto and the Rose Seidler House in Sydney; Oscar Niemeyer’s blue church in Brasilia; the Chagall chapel at the UN; St Magnus Cathedral at Kirkwall in the Orkneys (pictured); the Eames House and garden in Los Angeles; the main concourse of Grand Central Station and the MoMA sculpture court in New York; Aesop shops. And, talking of sites, I love the Serengeti Plains.

Most recently, I’ve really liked an alteration that Liz Wallace designed for a house in Eastbourne. She bounced light off a turquoise-tiled pool on to the ceiling – which also has clerestory windows allowing for views up to the bush-lined, bird-filled hills – of a dining and kitchen space for a disabled client who lives with her parents and spends a lot of her time on the floor. It’s such a beautiful space.

 

Is there a field of architecture that interests you most?

Houses and housing. Having worked on alterations, additions, and new houses and public housing, I think more architects need to have input into our housing stock. The percentage of new houses designed by architects is still very low. One of the most sustainable things we can do is to fix up, adapt and add to our existing housing stock. This means increasing the density of use of our existing houses and sites.

For example, I worked on a project a few years ago where we added a granddad flat on to an existing house with a shared dining/family room connecting the two parts. On one side of this ‘bridge’ is Don, with his study, bedroom, open-plan living area, kitchen and dining room, and on the other is Rachel and Craig and their two children. And, in a similar vein, I’m now adding a separate apartment to the basement of a tall skinny Victorian villa in Brooklyn.

We need to make better use of what we have, rather than literally cutting into our precious landscapes, and building houses further and further away from any real communities. The Glasgow demolition project I mentioned came about because the buildings were of poor quality and were a long way from any facilities. Nobody should have to live in housing like that.

 

How has your career progressed?

I have always worked, even when Zak and Nathan were small – many of my old students know my two sons! After Scotland, I had Zak and then worked with John Daish part-time. After Nathan was born, John asked me if I wanted to work as a tutor at VUW. This led on to me being appointed a lecturer and I worked at VUW for 10 years before going back into practice.

I loved teaching, and I loved my students. The shoe shop project I came up with, which squeezed into a 2-metre-wide space in Lambton Quay, was a favourite for many students. Vida Christeller and Clare Sharpe chose to design a shop for snowboarding boots and made their 1:20 model out of ice! Another great project was when we cooperated with St Thomas’s Hospital in London on a museum for Florence Nightingale, who had a number of significant New Zealand connections.

In 2008 I set up a collaborative space called The Drawing Office in the Hope Gibbons Building, an iconic Wellington 1920s office building. There are now nine of us – interior designers, urban designers, landscape architect – working in the space. My work is all residential. Other than practice work, I have been a New Zealand Registered Architects Board assessor for 12 years, and I often do crits at VUW.

 

The progress – or relative lack of it – of women in architecture is a concern to many in the profession. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Two words: progress and success. I have had a lot of young female architects ask me about what it means to be successful. As a sole practitioner, working closely with a group of like-minded clients and with a good group of builders, and looking at the work I have done and the work I am doing now, I feel pretty successful. During lockdown, I have emailed a number of my clients to see how they are doing and they have come back with many wonderful compliments about how pleased they are with their houses and how much they have noticed about the work I did to their houses while they have been home 24/7.

There are a lot of architects out there who will have the same type of experiences as me, under-the-radar, doing good work, many of them female and many of them sole practitioners. We all have choices. There were, until Covid hit, a lot more options out there for females – flexible working hours, maternity leave, etcetera. Let’s make sure none of that disappears with the recession we are now in.

 

What other challenges does the profession face?

Our main challenge is going to be pushing the importance of a design-led future. We need to make sure that, as architects, we are seen as problem-solvers who add value, that architecture is not a luxury, but a basic need. We need to push the importance of quality design, construction and materials. We need to communicate that we know about this, and that we know how to help.

There will be many opportunities at all levels to re-set our profession. This lockdown has given many of us time to reconsider where we are at, and to think about how we can work differently. We’ve had time to think about the importance of the design of our and others’ homes and workspaces, and our cities; about the way we run our practices; and about how we can adapt to different types of work and can begin to integrate sustainability into all of our projects while educating our clients and the public about its importance. We need architecture to be acknowledged as important and relevant.

 

Are there issues you particularly want to focus on as NZIA President?

Apart from what I have already said, I think it’s really important now for me to listen to what architects across the country need. It’s not a time for great statements, or empty rhetoric. It’s a time to look after each other, and to make sure that architecture is seen as a vital profession that makes a major contribution to our country, and will aid its recovery, through the design of buildings, big and small, that are of good and enduring quality.

To do this we will need to work with the other professions and local and national government. We need to collaborate and get the best of our experts together. Luckily, I know a lot of architects – so expect a phone call!