Andrew Barrie

Andrew Barrie, Professor of Design in the School of Architecture, talks about how his time “doing other things” critically influenced his journey bridging academia and the architectural profession.

Andrew Barrie, Professor of Design in the School of Architecture
Andrew Barrie, Professor of Design in the School of Architecture

Beginnings

I grew up in the Horowhenua among an extended family of farmers, though both my parents were accountants. My favourite subject at high school was Technical Drawing so it’s not surprising that when I came to Auckland, I studied towards a degree in architecture and another in commerce. For me it was a left-brain/right-brain thing. Accounting seemed wonderfully straightforward in that you could learn the method, do the exercise and know straight away whether you’d got it right or wrong. Architectural design was the opposite. It required learning to create and judge ideas, which could be both really frustrating and tremendously exciting.

A number of  important things happened while I was at the School of Architecture. In the final year of my undegraduate degree, I was part of a group that prepared an exhibit of the School’s work for the Venice Biennale - the world’s biggest architecture exhibition. We had to exhibit alongside all the famous schools from Europe and the United States, and as one of the very few schools from south of the equator we thought we were in danger of appearing like real hillbillies. We went all out to put together a good exhibit, and as it turned out we won the very prestigious prize – called the Venice Prize - for that section of the show. It was a bit of a shock – we had won a sort of “World Cup” for architecture schools!

I started a masters degree in architecture, but progress was incredibly slow because I was busy doing other things. One of those projects, which came as a consequence of our success at the Venice Biennale, was an invitation to participate in another very important international architecture exhibition, the Milan Triennale, this time representing New Zealand. A team of School staff, students, and graduates spent six months working on that installation.

Tokyo

I also managed to get a scholarship to study for a semester at Sophia University in Tokyo. They didn’t have an architecture school so I studied business, but spent all my spare time walking around the city visiting fantastic buildings by Japan’s very many world class architects. Here in New Zealand we don’t have a lot of high-quality public buildings, whereas in Japan, particularly Tokyo, there is a great deal to see. As a tourist, I would only havebeen able to make a quick visit to those buildings, but as a resident I could go back again and again, seeing them in sunny weather, rainy weather, when full of people, when empty, and so on. That exposure to such great buildings very quickly developed and deepened my understanding of architecture, and had a huge affect on the work I was doing towards my masters thesis.

After returning to New Zealand I resolved to try to get back to Japan,  so I applied for a Japanese Government scholarship and managed to grab one. I finished my masters thesis and travelled back to Japan to study at Tokyo University’s very famous architecture school.It was a fabulous scholarship. I did my initial time as a researcher and decided to stay on for a PhD. As with my masters, I spent a lot of time doing other things: putting together competition entries, participating in exhibitions, and writing for architecture journals. There weren’t many foreigners in the architecture field in Japan, and so I was often asked to write for speciality architecture journals in Europe, Australia and the United States. This allowed me to ring up important architects and ask: “Could I interview you about your latest building?” This was exciting, as it allowed me to meet folk with rock star status in their field, including many of my personal heroes. The people I met were often very generous in offering help and friendship, and some of the younger architects have become close friends.


One project that came out of this work was the opportunity to organise a series of exhibitions and a lecture tour here in New Zealand by Toyo Ito. He’s one of the world’s leading architects, and had just finished building one of his masterpieces - the Sendai Médiatèque. It was incredibly hard work, taking about six months, but helped me establish relationships that became very important.

I eventually got my PhD finished, and set about looking for work. I was very fortunate to be offered a job at Toyo Ito’s office, something only a few foreigners have ever done. Ito’s office is one of the most exciting in the world. I started there not long after completing the Sendai Médiatèque, which was one of the most innovative and important buildings of its time globally. The office was fueled by incredible ambition, in that all the staff wanted to create Médiatèque-level innovation with every project they worked on. The work environment was  tough - the staff worked very long hours and were expected to be enormously productive. However, it was an extraordinary environment in which to develop as a young designer - I thought of it as a kind of ninja training for architects, but turning oneself into a weapon of mass creation!

NZIA

I eventually returned to New Zealand, but wanted to maintain that Tokyo-level of energy – Japan had taught me that you can do a lot of things. I began working for Pip Cheshire, one of New Zealand’s leading architects, lectured about Japanese contemporary architecture part-time here at the University, and got involved with the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) organising events and visiting speakers.

I carried on writing, and with Pip and some other colleagues, took over producing the newsletter of the Auckland Branch of the NZIA. I took that project on because of a lack I felt in my own knowledge: while in Japan I’d spent a lot of time studying Japanese architecture, but on returning to New Zealand felt that by comparison I didn’t know much about architecture here.

In Japan there was a wealth of books and magazines. In particular, there are fantastic architecture guide books that allow architects to locate particular buildings so that you can visit and study them. In New Zealand it was tough, there weren’t those resources. So I set about trying to teach myself about New Zealand architecture, in the process making guides to the work of particular architects that were published in the NZIA newsletter. We’ve done a whole bunch of those guides now, some of which are the best records published on the work of those architects.

University

Eighteen months ago I was invited to apply for the position of Professor of Design at the University of Auckland, and have been here for a little over a year. One of my key roles is to act as a bridge between the School and the architectural profession. In attempting to do that, I’ve been influenced by my experience in Japan, where students are often heavily involved in the profession.

One idea I’ve borrowed from Japan is the “Open Desk scheme”, which allows our students to have time working in professional offices during the University holidays. The experience and the contacts the students gain could prove really crucial in the development of their careers. This year we have set up a new programme called the International Architect in Residence, which brings a globally important architect into the School to teach for a semester; and I’m looking forward to further internationalising our programme.

Joining the staff at the University has been very exciting. The School is in good shape, with good leadership and a strong student base. I think that the present moment is the best time in a generation to be here.