Pete Bossley - In Vision

Pete Bossley is proudly, almost fiercely, Kiwi. Yet his architecture avoids the cliché and jingoistic. His passion for travel and interest in wider cultures contributes a healthy perspective and expansive philosophy. Bossley’s investment in culture and place, contribute to an acute response that has seen him develop into one of the world’s best designers, even if geographical circumstance places him just under the radar.

Despite this, his reputation is spreading through publication, lecture series and study tours. His is one of15 practices selected for Masters Of Light (Images Australia) to be published in mid-2007 which distils some of the world’s most important residential architects of the past decade. He was awarded one of four Supreme Awards in the NZIA 2006 competition.

It could be argued that this Auckland-based architect is blessed with fail-safe rural settings. Plenty have tried, yet been unable to make the great landscape connection. He has though, demonstrated a special touch in his effort to treat place much less as commercial opportunity than as luminous landscape.

New Zealand may be regarded as climatically cool, but it is emerging in the upper end of the design thermometer. Not everyone has the skill or competence to push the opportunity. What can distinguish architecture from building so often is the skill to refine and reduce mass to the point that the idea emerges from the clutter.

The whole sub-tropical inspiration that informs Bossley’s work results in a seductive lightness inclined to release, rather than enclose, occupants. Notable for its nuances as much as the cinematic, his architecture allows light to enrich the full experience of time and place. He speaks with Vision editor and Masters of Light author Peter Hyatt:

Is there a Pete Bossley trademark?
I’m not really interested in the consistency that produces immediately recognisable work. I’ve always thought of each project as an individual exploration of site and client - especially with residential design. This means that projects tend to be quite different from each other. The worst thing I would like to happen is for people to drive down the road and say ‘oh that’s another Pete Bossley’ or ‘that looks like all of the others he’s done’.

You’re work is exceptionally open and transparent.
Open-‘ness’ is something that’s always interested me. I like to work with flowing space beyond the expression ‘indoor/outdoor flow’ but more in terms of the horizon and looking beyond the immediate site boundaries. I like them to draw in significant landscape elements or to deflect towards views.

You certainly appear to have an aversion to walls.
Some of my clients have an arts adviser who complains that there is never any space to hang paintings. That is one of the disadvantages of using me. I like to contrast internal spaces and more open, external opportunities when I can.

Your houses rarely seem to be ‘islands’. They often fragment and trail into their settings.
I really like the idea of the encampment which is used with many of the larger country holiday houses. It is an idea that suggests an enclosed space without actually providing it. I do that by ringing it with a bracelet of carefully placed smaller components of the building. It’s an attempt to work as a Kiwi response to landscape which is about being comfortable with open space. There is a transitional zone between land and sea which can be easily neglected. In Europe for instance, they would more often build a strongly walled rectangular courtyard, whereas here I like to suggest it.

You could be rushing after developers - like many of the larger firms - making much more money and yet you’ve chosen this potentially life-shortening, one-on-one residential intensity, that can be so problematic. Should you be applauded or are you a subject for psycho-analysis?
When I left large commercial practice I began as a one-man, then two man and now 15-strong practice. While residential is a big part of what we now do, there’s other work; a maritime museum extension, a resort, hospital extension and a hotel but it’s true we don’t go looking for development driven projects. The real attraction for me about housing is that you can push harder architecturally.

Is it possible that New Zealanders are better than average buyers of design?
New Zealand clients are definitely among the most adventurous and that makes a big difference. We’ve had comments from numerous Australian architects who have said that they couldn’t believe the projects we’ve been working on. Their comments are that people don’t entrust large houses to young architects and that they would prefer to wait 6 years for a Glenn Murcutt to do it. New Zealanders aren’t so patient. If you say they have to wait 6 months they’re not interested. They will go down the road to someone else. So they’re keen to get on with it, but you have to take them with you.

But you have specific ground-rules to help avoid disappointment on either side.
I encourage them to bring along images of examples of what they like and try to discover what it is that works for them. If after all that they say “but we want it to look like that” I will simply say “there’s no room for me”. I always make it quite clear that I cannot tell them exactly what they will end up with. It is always an adventure and not at all like buying a BMW. If they are open we can push quite hard. I’m still looking for clients who tell me to push harder. It would be a Godsend to have a few more of those.

Isn’t there a degree of celebrity attached with your name now that makes it easier to get your way?
I suspect there is but I think we have the advantage that there are enough architects who repeat themselves often enough and that makes us a pretty good commercial. I would say our reputation is that people have difficulty pinning us down and that scares some people off.

You appear to be a great exploiter of the ‘invisible’ space or anti-gravity?
If you’re talking about glass it’s the greatest material of the 20th Century as far as I’m concerned. I love to match material despite their status. For instance we mix plastic with the most expensive glass. Marble, for example, doesn’t do much for me but glass is phenomenal because it takes so many forms and you can do so much with it.

Glass helps to liberate space and to deliver so much and yet there can be real penalties if you screw it up.
There are, but that’s true with anything. In the ‘80s and ‘90s a lot of buildings in Auckland that people believed to be good buildings were rotting from the inside out. There are penalties using every material and I would have thought glass would be the least dangerous because it’s pretty clear you can see what you’re getting. With walls built up from various materials there can be ‘stuff happening’ inside and you’re not aware of it until it’s too late.

Is the emergence of global warming going to shake-up the industry?
I hope so. The big issue about whether humans have caused it is not my major interest. We can all flagellate ourselves about that but we have to accept that the climate is changing and there are those in the scientific world who say it was changing anyway and we just happen to be here at this time. Whether we contributed to it is an argument that needs to be had but certainly we should be looking at ways addressing it. I was at a talk the other day and somebody said that 70 per cent of pollution is caused by building. That includes the production of materials as well as the cooling, heating etc. so it is a huge component.

As a practice what are some of the issues you will consider?
We’ve always worked on the basis that buildings should be naturally ventilated and not air-conditioned and that’s a small attitudinal thing but in climates like ours it’s certainly feasible. It’s a huge field of misinformation. We try to ensure that sustainable materials are being used and people put it in writing and then a year or so later you discover the timber you specified involved the destruction of a couple of hundred hardwood trees in order to get the ones required. The principles of architecture are going to remain – space, light and proportion.

It’s that tapping into the psyche that extends beyond aesthetics but rather an integrated set of solutions for a way of life.
Attitudes do have to change. Smarter technology will have to also help solve it. Without the technology for attitudes to hook into, all we’re left with is going off and growing our own pumpkins. We can sit in Australia and New Zealand with relative ease and make a change because we’re in the relatively fortunate situation of having fairly small populations that have made some pretty terrible environmental stuff-ups. If you consider the situation in China or middle Europe it’s incredibly hard to see a way out.

So what might be a specific solution by way of example?
There are inventions such as a new solar panel designed in South Africa which has been picked up by the Germans and should soon be commercially available. It involves totally different technology and the panels are just a hair’s thickness, cost about a quarter of the normal price, are three times as efficient and produce more than all of the power required for a normal home. You have to say that ultimately it’s technology that will solve it and that we should be pumping as much money into every mad idea everyone has to see if it can be made to work.

What has shaped you to be the person you are?
I’m fascinated by ideas and people. That’s a pretty good combination. I love understanding other parts of the world and how they live - whether that be in big cities or small villages.

Curiosity is the key?
Definitely. The nice thing about being an architect is that you come to realise how hard it is. So you look at other work that’s good and you realise how hard it was to achieve. And how easy it is for a good idea, or good buildings, to go off the rails which is much more common. When I see a good building that has failed, at least I understand it. I’d rather see a building that was a good attempt at a brave idea, even if it wasn’t totally successful, than a dull completion of a dull idea. The failed completion of a brave attempt is well worth it.

Isn’t it ultimately about buildings that are uplifting and that leave you feeling more optimistic than when you entered?
My partner Mia and I led a group of students from Auckland Unitec on a study tour recently that included ‘Corb’s Ronchamp Cathedral. We happened to be there on Sunday morning when the 11 o’clock service started. We were seated at the back drawing and taking surreptitious photographs and just taking in the whole experience. The priest knew we would be there and when the congregation learned we were from New Zealand everyone turned around, applauded and smiled. It is the most fantastic, intense Medieval space with these shafts of light forcing their way through those little apertures. During the service one of the parishioners got up and opened the pivoting door covered in ‘Corb’s painted mural. Suddenly light flooded across the floor and it changed from this dark Medieval space to this extraordinarily lit version. It just made your heart pound and it brought tears to everybody’s eyes. The priest came up to us and spoke to us in French and told us just to remain as long as we liked and to enjoy the light. That demonstrated to me such a beautiful understanding of architecture.

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2006


Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.