Our 2022 Gold Medallists talk about honing their craft on beautiful houses, their passion for social and public architecture and being obsessive in complementary ways.
This award celebrates your work in partnership, so let’s start with the origin story of your collaboration. How did you meet and come to work together?
Gary Lawson: Nicholas was at his stepbrother’s wedding and got talking to Jack McKinney, who I was working with at the time at Patterson’s. Jack told me Nick was looking to hire someone, so I sent in my CV. I went up to Mayfair Flats, where he lives, for a 5.30pm interview and we just talked for hours. We started this incredible wide-ranging conversation, which we’re still having 20 years later. It felt completely natural, not like a job interview at all. We were just on the same buzz.
Nicholas Stevens: It was an interview! But we just gelled. I’m casual about things like that, I’m not a box ticker. I just look for the right person, and I knew the right person had arrived. He might not have had as much technical experience as I thought I was looking for, but he was talented and passionate and everything else can be learnt.
Gary: That’s my perception of Nick – that he’s run on instinct most of his life. It’s still our employment philosophy now, in the practice. We look for the right passion and the right attitude, and we prioritise that. It’s intuitive.
What do you remember about those early days working together? Did it work straight away?
Nicholas: The collaboration evolved quite naturally. I wasn’t looking for a business partner, but it worked so well. We had these great discussions about lifting the game, getting into public architecture – what we could accomplish in the practice. So after a couple of years it was very natural to formalise it as a partnership. And it was a winning move – one of my best decisions. I’d spent 10 years building a platform from which we launched Stevens Lawson Architects.
Gary: It was an amazing opportunity for me so early in my career. That first 10 years together we had a run of residential commissions from wonderful trusting clients we shared fantastic relationships with. There were beautiful sensitive coastal sites, inland sites with amazing landscapes to respond to, intriguing inner-city sites – a huge array of really distinct commissions. That run of houses was incredible – it sustained the practice and allowed us to grow.
In talking about your work, you emphasise the collaborative nature of your practice. Do you work together on every project?
Nicholas: Yes, we both work on most projects. There’s no formula. Exactly how it comes together is different every time and something we almost don’t want to analyse too much in case we kill the magic. We’ve worked together so long, our thinking has become sort of enmeshed, so we don’t know who thought of what on which project. And it doesn’t matter.
Gary: We’re completely different people, yet we complement each other – Nick’s world and my world are very different. But the practice sits in the middle of the Venn diagram. Within our design process and studio there’s a common understanding of how we go about doing things – a kind of unspoken design language. There’s a hum of understanding between us that percolates through everything we do together.
Do you ever have trouble reaching agreement on ideas?
Nicholas: There’s been surprisingly little conflict. Our approach is to just progress the ideas we do agree on. We’re similar enough but different enough that it adds richness. The differences add to a more complex, more thought-out, more integrated idea.
Gary: We learnt early on that if one of us was unhappy and didn’t voice it, the work was never as good. So we keep working until we’re both happy. Sometimes it’s annoying, and a bit tense, but what’s magical about it is that we always end up in a better place.
What are some of the ways you complement each other?
Nicholas: We’re both a bit obsessive, but obsessive about slightly different things – the specifics change from project to project. But by the time we’ve pored over all those different aspects, got all those things resolved, the project’s really firing on all cylinders.
Gary: We’re equally obsessive about planning, though. We both obsess at different times in the process about making the floor plan really beautiful – getting the spatial relationships perfect. When the plan’s singing, we know the design is on track to be good.
Tell us a bit about your shared process.
Gary: It starts with conversations, throwing around ideas and ‘what if’s. We’ve always designed using models – what I call ‘sketch models’, ideas sketched in card. It’s something I’ve done since uni and naturally brought into our methodology. The models literally sit between us and we shape and manipulate them as we explore. The models are really fast and loose – they’re often pretty rumpty – but there’s a beauty in that. It’s fast ideas testing.
Nicholas: There’s a plan and section before there’s a model – typically a rough drawing, with a lot of smudgy pencil. Because you’re not modelling in an abstract void, you’re modelling something specific.
What is it about physical modelling that you like?
Nicholas: A model, even very rough, is a better representation of a building than a sketch. It has a certain object value and you understand it holistically. A model you can look at from all angles, where a sketch is only ever from one perspective.
Gary: You can play with things like light and shadow, solid and void. Between us we’ve got very good at reading space and potential into a model, even if it’s very abstract or rough – it’s like a visual shorthand we can both read. It’s fun, too – you feel like you’re actually doing something with your day. And it’s nice having all these half-made experiments in the office – it feels like a design studio, not just a production house. We’ve moved away from the modelling a bit as the practice has got bigger and busier and we’ve done more large-scale multi-residential projects. But I’m on a bit of a personal crusade right now to get back to more of the hands-on design modelling – that natural game we play.
Let’s talk about your individual backgrounds – how did you each come to architecture?
Gary: I was born in Dunedin and grew up in Timaru. My parents gave my older sister and me a really excellent, fun childhood. I was a super average kid at school, but I got into cycling and was quite good at it. Mum was a nurse and my Dad was an insurance loss assessor. He got a job transfer to Auckland, which was an opportunity for me to take the cycling further. I won a couple of national road titles and I represented New Zealand in America. But while I was hellbent on being a professional cyclist, Mum and Dad were in my ear telling me that sports life is fickle and I needed something to fall back on. That turned out to be prophetic because later I had a very bad training accident that put an end to my competitive cycling.
I’d always been interested in architecture and buildings – my granddad and uncle were both builders. But my school careers advisor said I didn’t have the grades for architecture, so I did my drafting certificate instead. My second love was playing the drums – I was always, and still am, really into music – but that’s a hard career as well! So I was drafting part-time and cycling, and then after my accident I applied for the new architecture school at Unitec. I turned up to the interview on crutches! I was part of the first-ever intake for that course. The Head of School was John Sutherland and my early tutors were Tony van Raat, Lindsay Wood, Peter Wood and Amanda Hyde de Kretser.
Did you take to it straight away?
Gary: The first three years I was like a fish out of water. It was quite abstract design thinking, I couldn’t really draw well, I found it quite daunting. Then Peter Wood taught us sketch modelling and I loved it – it suited me. After that something clicked. At the end of my fourth year I entered my project into the Cavalier Bremworth design awards and won the student category. I’d designed a pavilion to display a Len Lye sculpture in an exhibition in the Auckland Domain. Winning that just blew me away. So I went into my final year far more confident. I met my wife Julie at architecture school too!
Unitec back then insisted on students getting part-time jobs in architecture practices, and Andrew Patterson’s studio took me on one day a week. It was really hard because I didn’t know anything – I was hand-feeding the ammonia printers, taking consents to Council, scratching ink off tracing paper, that kind of thing. But I loved the chaotic creative environment. After graduation I joined full-time. I got to do a lot of design work with Andrew and that was incredible – learning to just throw out ideas, not be precious, not worry about ego. After a couple of years I decided I needed to learn more of the hands-on stuff like detailing and working drawings, and that’s when I sent my CV to Nicholas.
And a creative partnership was born. What about you, Nicholas?
Nicholas: I was born in Morrinsville and we lived there till I was six. My father was a doctor and my mother went on to become a renowned documentary filmmaker. I was interested in architecture from an unusually early age. When I was at kindergarten in Morrinsville my mother, who was on the committee, hired an architect from Auckland to design the adventure playground. He made this climbing frame that was a hyperbolic paraboloid – a twisted plane made out of straight elements. I thought from then that an architect from Auckland was the thing to be. Later we did move to Auckland and I’ve lived here ever since.
I was always drawing and designing buildings. My father would take me to Wellington to visit my grandparents and we’d look at these early buildings by Roger Walker and Ian Athfield – the Wellington Club, Walker’s townhouses, Athfield’s own house. I thought these were magical and extraordinary – like children’s fantasy models of architecture. And my mother would travel a lot and bring back books about modern masters like Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto – I adored the humanist modernists. So for me it was always going to be architecture.
You studied at the University of Auckland. What was pivotal about that time?
Nicholas: The teacher who was most influential was probably professor of design John Hunt. There was a lot of fashionable theory going down – it was all post-modernism and deconstructivism – but Hunt wasn’t swayed by fashion. He was intellectual and analytical and taught us a lot about process – the how and why, not just the what. While I was there, I designed two studio projects for the Museum of New Zealand, which ultimately became Te Papa. They were engaging and thought-provoking projects that really expanded my horizons with regard to cultural production.
Three years into architecture school I escaped for a couple of years and travelled through Europe with my friend Tim Greer, who’s now an architect in Sydney. We searched out the great buildings – Aalto’s churches and houses and concert halls in Finland, Le Corbusier’s buildings in France and Carlo Scarpa’s exquisite constructions in Italy. I spent six months living in Rome absorbing renaissance and baroque architecture, and travelled to Greece, the crucible of western architecture, to find where it all began. These were really formative experiences – an architectural pilgrimage. At this time I also travelled through France and Britain with my mother making her seminal documentary on Katherine Mansfield, dropping in to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation along the way. In between these adventures I lived and worked in London.
That’s where you got your first job?
Nicholas: Yes, I hadn’t graduated yet but I got a job at Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, a highly respected London practice with some significant public commissions. At the same time I was exposed to extraordinary exhibitions and lectures at the Architectural Association and RIBA – speakers like the young Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid who hadn’t built anything yet but were about to become megastars. It was an extraordinary cultural awakening to the role of architecture in the world. After two years I returned to New Zealand to complete my degree and following that I worked at Lane Priest for three years. They were young innovative architects who were getting great commissions – it was a buzzy environment and an exciting time to be starting out.
What made you decide to go out on your own so early?
Nicholas: I always knew I wanted to do my own thing, it just seemed self-evident really, and the sooner the better. I was fortunate to get some small house commissions which won awards quite early on, which gave me a good start. I also designed some shop and hospitality interiors and quite a lot of furniture, mainly bespoke pieces for houses and shops I was working on. In 1995 I won the Moët et Chandon art fellowship, staying in a château near Paris and researching furniture design and interiors. It was an enchanted time. I had the privilege to design the Pacific Lifeways hall at Auckland Museum, working closely with the distinguished ethnologist Roger Neich, who was an extraordinary man. I spent 10 years in practice with just three or four employees. Then Gary came on board and slowly we built up to better commissions with bigger budgets and more beautiful sites. We were trying to get a foothold in public architecture, but it’s very hard when you’re starting out. As a young architect it’s relatively simple to get house commissions, but if you want to create public architecture you have to either join a big established practice and slowly work your way up, or you start your own practice and progressively build up the scale of the work. It’s very difficult to break into without a track record, but rare design competitions offer a way to cut through. We won the Remarkables Centre competition in 2003, and that was a game-changer for us.
That’s the Queenstown cultural centre that was sadly never built. Tell us about that.
Nicholas: It was an extraordinary brief, almost every cultural and civic building for Queenstown – concert hall, library, art gallery, playhouse, conference centre, council offices – all in one complex. It was an open competition and we went all out to win it, and to our shock we did! It was a visionary project and we worked extremely hard on it for a couple of years. Things got a bit political and the project stalled, and then just as we thought it might be greenlit again the Global Financial Crisis hit and wiped it out. There was no public funding anywhere, and Queenstown was very hard hit.
Gary: I think there’s a lot of pain in any architectural career – paths strewn with crushed dreams. Unimaginable things happen that are just totally out of your control and that skittle things. It’s hard, you put so much of yourself into these projects and then they get away. Though actually, we should get on the phone with the new Queenstown mayor and remind him we’re still here!
How was that project a game-changer for the practice?
Gary: It garnered a lot of attention and raised our profile. We just learnt so much – about working with iwi, about stakeholder management, running briefing workshops, all that kind of thing. We learnt about the power of listening, understanding people’s wants and needs and then working extremely hard between us to deliver an imaginative design response. It was all about building a rapport with people – that’s a real strength Nicholas has.
Nicholas: It was so big and we were flying by the seat of our pants. But those relationships we built were really important. That’s how we made the shortlist for The Blyth Performing Arts Centre at Iona College – our first public commission that actually got built. We’d worked with theatre designers Dorita Hannah and acousticians Marshall Day on the Remarkables concert hall, and when our names were mooted for The Blyth, Chris Day vouched for our ability to handle the complexity. We won the commission for the concert hall and were also asked to design the school library. One of our clients told us later that the real reason we got the job was because we had long hair and pointy shoes and we were the only ones who actually looked like architects. They wanted to feel like the creatives had turned up, not the suits. I think he was half joking, but I guess he was also half serious!
So you moved from bespoke houses into public projects. How do those different strands of your work cross-pollinate?
Gary: They definitely inform each other. We share a common belief in the power of architectural form to inspire and engage people. Most often you get that expressed in bigger buildings where there’s more scope to create volume or textural interest – architecture of gravitas. But as with Iona College, these medium-scale public buildings are an opportunity to bring in some of the design nuance of our houses. We’ve always quipped that our houses are like mini public buildings, and we want our bigger buildings to have the comfort of houses.
I think many of our houses distil down our understandings and readings of bigger buildings. I don’t mean a civic quality that makes them ‘unhomely’, but maybe we’re pushing what a house can be beyond the domestic.
Nicholas: I think we try to make the public buildings more humane and more intimate and maybe give the houses a more abstract formal quality. The houses allow us to practise our craft at a very high level and we’re incredibly grateful for the generosity of the clients who allow us to do that. We give everything to those projects. Then when we turn to the public and social projects, we feel very deeply that architecture, the built environment, is of fundamental importance to everybody. Multi-residential is the other main strand of your work.
Can you talk about the evolution of the practice into that area?
Nicholas: We’ve always wanted to be involved in the ‘challenges of our time’ – issues like the housing crisis, density and affordability. We feel strongly that architecture shouldn’t be the preserve of the wealthy – great design should be driving all housing. The developer design-build model had taken over and there was some public concern about the quality of what was being produced. At the time New Zealand architects weren’t often involved in this kind of housing but we really wanted to be part of the solution to the housing crisis. It wasn’t going to be solved one house at a time!
We originally got involved through my connection with urban designer David Irwin in our time on the Auckland Public Art Panel. I asked him who should we talk to about multi-residential projects, and he said, “Talk to me!” He was the master planner and chair of the Design Review Panel for Hobsonville Point, and they were planning 2500 houses out there.
Gary: Around the same time I attended an Auckland Future Leaders hui. Rod Oram gave a presentation on Auckland’s projected population growth and the massive shortfall in housing that was coming. So we knew there was a huge opportunity to look at new housing models and new ways of doing things. Then David introduced us to a couple of companies working out at Hobsonville, and we ended up partnering with Jalcon Homes.
You’ve had an incredible partnership with Jalcon Homes – 1500-odd homes across 22 developments built together over 11 years. What’s been behind that success?
Gary: It was always a great fit with Jalcon. They might have been a bit sceptical at first about the idea of a couple of architects coming in and telling them how to do things, but we had a great first discussion. Their design manager turned out to be a guy I went to school with – I’d cycled with his brother – so that was helpful in maybe breaking down some barriers.
It’s worked because there’s a huge overlay of shared values. They’re good people. We all want good-quality neighbourhoods, to produce homes that stand the test of time and do better by the environment. We can discuss things openly and push back on each other if necessary because we all just want to deliver the best quality. We’ve created a relationship between our two businesses of respect and trust – that’s so valuable.
Medium density is hard, though. There are all sorts of limitations and economic factors that mean you have to work really hard to come up with something of quality. We’ve done that by working closely with the builders to understand how things are built, what the constraints and economic imperatives are – what’s actually possible and makes economic sense.
Nicholas: At the same time there’s an opportunity to expand their awareness of the possibilities and get them excited about creating beautiful architecture. That’s the beauty of the long-term relationship with Jalcon – it’s evolved, we’ve learnt from each other, and the projects have got better and better.
HomeGround, your recently-completed project for Auckland City Mission, is an enormous achievement. Can you describe that project and what it’s meant to you?
Nicholas: It’s our most significant project to date in terms of scale, complexity and social impact. It’s an innovative model of supportive housing, community and wraparound care all on one site. There are 80 apartments and studios to permanently house people who have been homeless long-term. There’s a medical centre and addiction clinic, community dining room, commercial kitchen, roof gardens, a sacred space – it’s a village in the city. For us it was really important to create a sense of home – not an alienating experience but an experience of warmth and welcome.
To be able to give quality of life to people who have had the least, it’s been one of the great privileges of our career. And to work with an organisation as extraordinary as City Mission has been one of the great privileges of our entire lives. The people we’ve met and worked with are just incredible. It might be the most significant thing we ever do.
Gary: The whole energy behind the building, the Mission itself – it’s just love in action. It’s something seldom seen, and really powerfully undertaken.
On a practical level, it changed the practice. It’s a huge mass timber building with an incredibly complex brief – it was a huge step up just to draw and document it and manage all the consultants. The scale of the decision-making meant Nick and I really had to divest responsibility to other people in our team. We had to rely heavily on our amazing project architects and that allowed us to explore and nurture more capability within our team.
HomeGround almost didn’t happen. Tell us about winning the project and the subsequent journey.
Nicholas: It began 15 years ago. There was a visionary design competition in 2007 which many architects entered. We had to put together a multi-disciplinary team and a very tight expression of interest. We made the shortlist and then won the full design competition in 2008. We must acknowledge our collaborator Rewi Thompson, who’s sadly no longer with us. We worked through an extensive consultation and brief-development phase and developed the design to resource consent stage.
At that point the GFC descended and all available funding streams dried up overnight. We thought the project would never happen. It went into hibernation for several years, but long story short, it rose from the ashes in 2016 with a re-energised City Mission board, an inspired new City Missioner and a buoyant economy.
The original competition featured some stiff opposition. Why do you think your design was chosen?
Nicholas: We were very interested in the idea of housing with dignity – that it should be generous, not just basic and functional. For example, giving the apartments beautiful north-facing balconies. It was, I think, quite an ambitious expression of humanism in a large civic building. Our design created a urban square between the church and the new building, an act of public generosity, and this also had benefits from a funding point of view.
You’ve said that humanism is a common thread in your work. What does that idea mean to you?
Nicholas: Humanism in architecture is really about how buildings are experienced by people. It’s about how people feel about a place more than what it looks like – is there a sense of welcome and connection, does it lift your spirits, does it charm or delight you? It should engage multiple senses – not just the visual, but sound and touch and smell as well. Texture and materiality are really important.
We think a lot about the cinematic experience of moving around our buildings. The building isn’t a static object, it’s a sequence of events – what you see at any given point, what you reveal or hide to create spatial drama and intrigue. That’s a very human-centric idea.
Gary: Another important aspect is scale – having a sense of what’s an appropriate size. In our experience double-height spaces are just too big for residential – they’re not actually comfortable to be in. But 1.5 height is perfect. At HomeGround, because it’s a large building we have used double-height space to achieve the gravitas the building needed. But just because it’s a big building you don’t turn the volume up across the whole thing. HomeGround needed to retain some intimacy because it’s literally a home for people.
Nicholas: It’s encapsulated in the title of John Wardle’s book, This Building Likes Me. The idea that it’s friendly and empathetic, it’s got the texture and warmth and materiality that say, “Please come in.” Graham Tipene, the artist and mana whenua collaborator we worked with on HomeGround, says a wonderful thing about that building: that it’s like running into your mother’s arms.
What other elements are fundamental to your philosophy?
Gary: We’re very interested in context and response to context. There’s this idea of ‘genius loci’, meaning spirit of place. It’s a question we return to again and again in our work: why this building in this place for these people? What are the cultural forces, how can we express regional difference? To us a suburban house in Auckland shouldn’t look or feel like a holiday home in the South Island.
Nicholas: When we start a project we look around for something relevant or local to respond to. We think deeply about how we relate to context, what the building is saying. We want the architecture to resonate with association, to be unusual – sometimes startling – and yet totally right at the same time. New and yet strangely familiar. The relationship to the physical environment is really important. Ultimately we want our buildings to sit in the landscape – or the suburbs or the city – with grace.
Can you give us some examples of ‘genius loci’ in your work?
Gary: You can see it in The Blyth concert hall – it’s a conceptual response to landscape and also the idea of an instrument in a case. Also in the Iona College library, where we had to work out how to nestle a contemporary work of architecture alongside a Spanish Mission-style heritage building. And The Chapel of St Peter – a building that’s about upholding the Catholic faith and instilling that into young men in a visceral sense. It’s both drawing on the identity of a religion that’s 2000 years old and making that connection with the present.
Nicholas: We think HomeGround really holds up to scrutiny on that, too: its place beside St Matthew’s, the idea of the ‘big house’ in the city, its evocation of the whare – all these things are totally about the spirit of place. That’s in a very urban context, but other times we might be talking about landscape, what we build in Wānaka, what we build in Hawke’s Bay – wherever it is, we translate the same thinking.
Would you say you have an architectural ‘style’?
Nicholas: A fundamental thing about our work is that it’s very specific to each project, because of our interest in context. We’re not a formulaic practice that has a house style where we do a version of the same thing in each place. Having said that, there are some similarities. Within our body of work there are a number of streams – we’ve done a series of black houses, for instance, and a series of concrete houses. There are sub-lineages of angular and geometric houses, and organic and curvaceous houses. We say that our buildings are like siblings – distinct but related.
Gary: There’s a design language we’ve evolved, or maybe several languages. There’s the cinematic approach we talked about earlier – those moments of drama and reveal. The use of light, too. All our houses feature some form of manipulation of light – we enjoy finding unexpected ways to introduce it: using dramatic skylights, creating deep shadows and trying to generate shafts of light that change throughout the day. Materiality and light together – they need and enliven each other.
You’ve talked about the influence in your work of concepts from te ao Māori, ideas of place and people and spirit. How do you do that respectfully – incorporate those principles while acknowledging the context of land and history?
Nicholas: It’s about our relationships with mana whenua, which only get deeper with time. Building a strong relationship with Ngāi Tahu was fundamental to a public project like Queenstown. There was the very important deep engagement with Ngāti Whātua over the Kāinga Tuatahi housing project on Kupe Street. That moved to a whole new level with HomeGround, through our collaboration with Graham Tipene. Working with Graham we’ve been able to integrate beautiful concepts like kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga, which are central to the kaupapa of Auckland City Mission and that dovetail with our own spirit of place philosophy.
Gary: We start from a place of trying to really deeply understand the histories and resonance of the place, the things that are important, and then to create an architectural response that speaks to those things. For our most recent multi-residential projects in Ōwairaka, we’ve worked up this really beautiful design process that integrates Graham’s core ideas of holistic design. One practical example is that all the exterior lighting in the complex will be only a metre high and facing down, to preserve the night sky and people’s connection with Matariki. It’s about taking our cultural referencing and our part in honouring the Treaty of Waitangi beyond just patterns on the pavement to a deeper understanding and a deeper expression.
Nicholas: Like the idea that you’re not designing just for the here and now but for your mokopuna – it’s a totally different concept of who you’re doing this for. The permanence of the materiality is part of it, but it’s actually more of a philosophy of purpose.
Gary: Graham’s point is that it’s all interconnected. What Graham says to us about the Treaty is that it’s a partnership. If we’re honouring the partnership of the Treaty we have a duty to learn and think and talk and understand. Graham has really unlocked that for our team. He’s been very generous to us.
You’ve often been seen as trailblazers for architecture in Aotearoa. Are you consciously innovating in your work?
Nicholas: We’re interested in innovation if it serves a purpose, but not for its own sake. Architecture is always evolving, it’s a continuum and we’re just part of it.
Gary: In some ways we’re traditionalists in terms of understanding architecture of all eras and periods. Understanding space deeply and materials deeply, not always thinking new, new, new. Using the history we have behind us to build on is a marvellous part of architecture. I’m definitely conscious of being on a search for form and space that is somehow unusual, though. We’re restless in that sense.
Nicholas: When you use historic references in your work, you end up with a richer experience. We’re inspired by those innovators in the past. But we always want to keep evolving and trying new things because that’s what’s exciting for us creatively.
What’s been essential for you in being able to produce great work?
Gary: The trust of our clients. It’s been a remarkable thing. People choosing to work with us, bringing such open minds and just trusting us to do our thing. Our clients have had our backs, they’ve been so supportive. Also our staff and builders and structural engineers – architecture is definitely a team sport. And of course our wives. They’ve been amazing in allowing us to build these careers and this practice.
Nicholas: Finding the right idea that a client is invested in is crucial, allowing us to defend the pure concept when fending off the forces of mediocrity. In terms of the difference between doing good work and great work, I think you have to really want to do it – there has to be a desire to do something that’s maybe a little more obsessive, a bit fresher and less orthodox. I think that’s one of the strengths of our partnership, that we do push each other in that way – it could be the key thing, really. It would be easier to rest on your laurels if you didn’t have someone pushing you all the time to do better.
Tell us about the experience of running the practice. How do you balance producing your architecture but also running a business?
Nicholas: It’s a juggling act. Architecture is a juggling act anyway – there’s all these balls in the air at once and the trick is to make it look effortless. The practice is like that too – on the one hand you have all these high aspirations for great architecture and on the other the reality of what it takes to produce it. It’s an art and a science and a business and these drivers are not easy to reconcile.
Gary: What we do is only possible through the fantastic group of people we have around us. We’re blessed with incredible staff. People tend to stay with us for many years, and that’s been really pleasing. I take a lot of pride in trying to run a practice that nurtures people’s careers, trains them well, and tries to be respectful of their other life commitments. At the same time we do demand a lot of focus and effort. Being a boss and an architect, you’re trying to be everything and you don’t ever really balance those things perfectly – you just oscillate between them. And you do get pushed away from the design coal face. Like I said, I’m currently working to get back to more of the hands-on stuff.
What else stands out for you about the practice?
Gary: Something that brought me immense joy was when we did The Blyth at Iona College and appointed our senior associate Yvette Overdyck as project architect. Being able to support a talented young woman to step up to lead our most significant job, and for her to do it so wonderfully and inspire a whole bunch of young women in the school – I think things like these are not insignificant because often they’ve been slightly ahead of the curve for the time. I’m also very proud of all the young architects we’ve helped to become registered – I love that legacy, giving back to the architecture community of the future. Those moments are really important in what Stevens Lawson stands for – a particular blend of architecture and practice and lifestyle that might be unique. The practice isn’t perfect, of course – we’re still struggling with trying to do good buildings, making money and meeting deadlines and all that stuff. It’s a constant battle.
Are there ways you’ve innovated in the practice to suit your ethos?
Gary: On HomeGround we did this innovative leadership thing where we assigned a pair of project architects to lead the project with us – Joshua Warne and Sasha Hendry. It allowed them both to step up in a supported way. I believe that a load shared is a load halved, and when things are shared they’re not as daunting. So the practice in a way mirrors Nick’s and my collaborative model.
Nicholas: Another interesting aspect is that at Stevens Lawson we work a four-day week – we have for 20 years. It’s flexible to suit individuals, but most of us do 10-hour days Monday to Thursday. The idea is to keep Friday as a day to recharge the creative batteries, to restore and replenish, to engage with culture a bit. It’s good for work-life balance, having a three-day weekend every week.
What have been the toughest times for Stevens Lawson?
Nicholas: The toughest times have been sharp economic downturns like the GFC. There are ups and downs in any project, that’s the nature of the work. But it’s devastating when you have a major project that almost the entire office is working on and it’s suddenly halted in its tracks. At times we’ve hung on by the skin
of our teeth.
Gary: It’s been a hairy ride. One of my frustrations with architecture is the sense that you never actually arrive – you never get to a place where the commissions flow in, you do the work and the business ticks along. You’re always competing for work, scrambling to get jobs, rushing to meet deadlines… it’s incredibly demanding.
Nicholas: We’re not the world’s greatest businesspeople. We love creating the architecture and we prioritise everything for that. Because our buildings are bespoke they have a lot of unique details and that means everything takes more time. The fee is the fee and we just spend more time.
Gary: That translates to: we spend all the money doing the work!
How do you see the practice evolving from here?
Gary: I think we’d like to explore design collaboration possibilities with our staff and associates more. The first 15 years it was just us two, really; in the last five years we’ve opened up to more voices and more engagement, and it would be great to explore that further. Empower our staff throughout the design process.
Nicholas: It’s an interesting transition to maybe relaxing a bit. Realising we can create the environment for amazing things to happen rather than doing it all ourselves. We’ve found that in our external collaborations – you get layering and depth and the project becomes more complex and resonant and satisfying. We need to maybe turn that approach inwards more to our own practice. Architecture is a hugely demanding career.
How do you balance that with home and family life? Gary, you’ve got four kids – how does that work?
Gary: My busy chaotic lifestyle is just marvellous. Again, I have my wife Julie Wilson to thank for that – she holds it all together. She’s taught me so much about creativity, community, love and faith. She’s a remarkable woman in the way she’s created this super independent and resilient family unit, while also creating a career in architecture in her own right: co-founding Architecture + Women NZ, teaching design, writing, exhibiting drawings, contributing to the new Making Space book… it goes on. But having such a busy family life means I just can’t take work home. Work’s work and home’s home and there’s a healthy, distinct line. And what’s interesting is that more often than not, work is such a calm place!
Nicholas: Oh, the irony.
Gary: It’s a different energy, and the two kind of work somehow. On Fridays I walk my youngest daughter to school and I go for a bike ride. I still love riding bikes of any kind! Then I do some work at home – I try to do positive things like send a fee proposal or deal with tricky emails or a bit of design work so I’m ending the week on a crescendo. Then I’ll pick up my daughters, the boys arrive home and it’s kids mode – I can’t do anything else except be committed to the family. Our four children are just wonderful – we truly enjoy them.
Are you still drumming?
Gary: Yes, I’m in a covers band called the Door Jambs with good mate Dave Strachan, another architect Cameron Pollock, and Dan Wrightson. We play quite regularly – in fact we played the Architecture Week party this year.
What about you, Nicholas? What’s life outside work like for you?
Nicholas: I live in the Mayfair Flats with my wife Deborah Smith, and we have an extraordinary life together. She’s an artist and photographer and creative dynamo and all-round inspirational person. We’ve had this creative partnership for more than 30 years that’s been a real strength in my life – Deborah’s curiosity and creativity have really fuelled my knowledge of and interest in art. We love to travel to ancient cities and visit house museums and historic gardens. We love climbing over Auckland’s maunga and kicking back at our bach at Te Henga. We adore music – I played in bands in my youth – and are inspired by our friends who are gifted workers in song. Fridays start off with tai chi in the Domain, so that’s a real shift in my week. My main activity outside work is helping Deborah run Cloud Workshop, which offers art workshops for bereaved children. It’s Deborah’s creation but I’m chief support person and I get involved hands-on with the lessons. It’s something we’ve done for 14 years – we see it as a guerrilla act of love.
You’ve said elsewhere that if you weren’t an architect, you’d like to be a painter.
Nicholas: Yes, I do a bit of painting. I just dabble – mainly just paintings of my wife and dog. I think if I weren’t practising architecture I’d take it more seriously. I can see it’s something I’ll do more of one day, though – maybe when architecture has finished with me.
What does receiving the Gold Medal mean to each of you?
Nicholas: It’s a surprise! A very pleasant surprise. In architecture, you’re immersed in what you’re doing at any given time. You’re thinking a lot about the future – new jobs, how to get them, what to do with them – and when you look back, often it’s a bit tainted with the projects that got away. The beauty of this is looking back and reflecting on a whole body of work with a kind of golden glow on it, which is immensely satisfying. It’s a wonderful thing just to take stock and think yeah, we did okay.
Gary: It’s a huge honour for me at the age of 49 – to get this accolade at this point in my career I feel pretty red-faced. I’m seriously grateful to Nick because he gave me a huge step up at a young age. Now it’s a chance, if this award gives us a bit of a platform, to think about what we can do with it to advance architecture – what we can do that’s a positive influence. It feels like we almost have a duty to just push, to try and create more magic.
So what would you like to do next?
Gary: We’re thinking a lot about the big questions – how we honour the Treaty of Waitangi within our architecture, how we think about architecture and the environment. We want to engage deeply with those questions and think about how we can make inroads into answering them. We’re also coming to realise we’re experts in complex, high-need, specifically demanding projects in sensitive environments – whether that’s working respectfully with the needs of homeless people, or meeting the specifications of a concert hall, or working in a noise-sensitive environment like the zoo. We’d like to keep doing that sort of work.
Nicholas: We want to think more about how we create great cities, too – not just individual buildings, but how they aggregate together to create the living, pulsating organism of the city as a whole. We’re excited about upcoming projects in affordable urban housing with a strong focus on sustainability and community. And we’d be keen to be involved in a design for a cultural centre on the Auckland waterfront – just saying!
What do you hope for the future of architecture in Aotearoa?
Gary: We hope there’ll be more working in true partnership with Māori. It’s an amazing opportunity to be creative collectively in a way that hasn’t been seen before – to create an architectural expression that’s unique in the world. We’d like to see our cities thinking in terms of hundreds of years, not just short term. We’d love to think there’ll be more demand for quality and more demand for deep-thinking architecture. And there’s a remarkable band of craftspeople and tradespeople in this country – it would be great to support that part of the industry to grow, not disappear. Making things with others is a really fun part of the journey we’re on.
* Te Kāhui Whaihanga has published this interview, plus profiles of award-winning SLA projects in a 68 page book celebrating our Gold Medallists. Click here to purchase from our shop.