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A passion for heritage buildings

JAMES Blackburne was an inquisitive child, always wanting to know how things worked.

“I used to pull things apart,” says James, whose career in architecture took him in quite the opposite direction.

“I got into trouble with my father when I took his valve radio to bits and had no idea how to put it back together. And I was always hanging around dad’s workshop at Machinery and Tractor with engineering fabricators Bill Love and Gene Williams.”

Born in Gisborne and growing up in Kaiti, James attended Te Wharau and Ilminster Intermediate before heading to King’s College in Auckland.

He considered doing a double degree in engineering and architecture but the creative side prevailed and he opted for the latter. He studied architecture at Auckland University, graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1992.

“I hit the job market in the post-share-market crash era when the economy was recovering but certainly not booming,” says James, now a partner at Architects 44.

“Farming was in bad shape which impacted on the building industry so there was a shortage of architecture jobs around.”

At university, James had written a paper on the history of grand homes in Gisborne including Opou, Acton and Waiohika estates, kindling an interest in historic buildings. So in the absence of a job with an architecture firm, James took on the role as researcher for the Gisborne branch committee of the Historical Places Trust which proved to be fortuitous as it led on to a life-long passion for heritage buildings.

“I was employed by the trust for three months, researching places for registration. My research took me all over the district from the homestead at Ohuka Station inland from Wairoa, to the former hospital at Te Araroa, and St Mary’s Church and St Paul’s Church at Matawai and Motu, respectively.

“It also included researching some of the region’s landmark buildings including Toko Toru Tapu Church and Opou Homestead at Manutuke, Waiohika Homestead and Acton Estate at Hexton and Waipare Homestead at Anaura Bay.

“It was a time-consuming job back then because nothing was online and I had to do lengthy searches of papers and microfiche records at the library.”

Registered with the trustThe work involved analysing the significance of each building and its historical, personal and technical context. All the buildings he researched were ultimately registered with the trust.

“In the old days, a lot of buildings were classified on appearance only,” says James.

“A registration panel would come to Gisborne, drive past a few properties, say ‘nice place’ and it would end up registered. However in 1990, a change to the Historic Places Trust Act and the introduction of the Resource Management Act meant that the process of registering places needed to be backed up with sound reasoning and research.”

In 1993, James began work for Nicoll Architects where he had to get to grips with technical drawing which was largely not taught at architecture school.

His first job was designing kitchen alterations for the aged care complex Te Wiremu House, in Aberdeen Road, but he soon moved on to more challenging projects.

A highlight as a young architect was preparing all the drawings for Professor Jack Richards’ house at Wainui.

“The great thing about working in Gisborne was the huge variety of work I was exposed to as a young architect.

“After graduating, you need to do at least 140 weeks of practical work covering all aspects of the job. Then you have to sit registration exams before you can call yourself an architect. That’s another three years on top of a five-year degree so it’s a long haul.”

James became a fully-fledged architect in 1995 at age of 25, and since then has worked on hundreds of projects from private homes, churches, schools and marae to large commercial buildings.

Chapel for Hukarere Girls’ CollegeJames is currently immersed in designing the new chapel for Hukarere Girls’ College in Hawke’s Bay. When the 141-year-old school relocated from Napier Terrace to Eskdale in 2003, the chapel, overseen by Sir Apirana Ngata in 1952-53, could not be moved.

“In a project like this, it’s important to tread carefully to understand the client, the culture, and the history behind the chapel and the school.

“The chapel’s interior was fully decorated with kowhaiwhai and tukutuku panels which are to be reused — so the new chapel will encapsulate the old heritage pieces. It will be a beautiful blend of old and modern, recognising the kaupapa of the school.”

Architects 44 got the contract ahead of Auckland and Hawke’s Bay firms largely due to the many church projects James has done including Toko Toru Tapu Church at Manutuke.

“I also listened to the clients and did not try to deliver something that was not appropriate,” says James.

Toko Toru Tapu Church is a project very dear to his heart. He did the initial research on the church in 1992-93 for its registration as a historic place and then worked on the restoration project for 15 years.

“Seeing Toko Toru Tapu restored to its former glory has been an amazing and very emotional project.

“While I was the project architect, I spent a large amount of time labouring alongside a group of volunteers over a number of weekends to strip and polish the floor at the end of the project. The church is such a special taonga and it was important for me to give my time to help protect and restore the building.”

Last weekend the church received a New Zealand Institute of Architecture Award. James sees that as recognition of the huge amount of work the community has put into the project, rather than just an award for him and the team at Architects 44.

James says there is a reward in everything but the projects he enjoys most are where he is able to bring positive change to many people’s lives.

“Kaiti School’s new classrooms are a good example of this. I’ve designed two new classrooms based on the Ministry of Educations’ Innovative Learning Environments guidelines. The design recognises the culture of the school and community, and it’s very satisfying to see them finished and in use.”

Designing new buildingsWhile working on heritage buildings has become an important part of the work James undertakes, he also really enjoys designing new buildings. Waikanae Surf Life Saving Club has been one of these exciting projects, he says.

“The club has a very prominent position on the beach front and the commission provided a great opportunity to design a key piece of architecture for Gisborne. While not all of the design elements were ultimately able to be built due to budget constraints, I’m pleased with the final outcome.

“It’s always rewarding to drive or walk by successful buildings you have had a role in creating like the Waikanae club,” he says.

“I love my work because it involves helping clients realise their dreams . . . sometimes that also means reconciling those dreams with their budget. It can change lives and it’s an opportunity to create life-long friendships.”

As the current president of Historic Places Aotearoa and chairman of Historic Places Tairawhiti since its inception in 2012, James believes the heritage of New Zealand is “incredibly important”.

“It’s part of our cultural make-up and what shapes us. There’s lots to learn from architecture, what works and what doesn’t. Some modern buildings don’t last 20 years and yet much older structures stand the test of time.”

James is not a fan of trying to replicate old buildings or “faux heritage” architecture like the Emerald Hotel façade.

“It’s not appropriate — it’s fake. There was an opportunity to create something that complemented the older neighbouring façades but was also a truly modern piece of architecture that integrated well into its surroundings, but unfortunately that opportunity was missed.”

In his capacity as president of Historic Places Aotearoa, James has spent considerable time in Christchurch during the city’s post-quake rebuild.

“There’s some really good things happening there, especially with how they are redeveloping the city. The façades are well-articulated and respectful of the surrounds, and the spaces that have been created between buildings are appropriately scaled and in proportion.

“That’s one of most important things about architecture — creating good spaces to be in and around.”

A legacy for generations to comeQuoting the New Zealand Institute of Architecture, James says: “Great architecture enriches our lives physically, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally — and leaves a legacy for generations to come.”

Looking ahead, James says the Te Ha 250 commemorations in 2019 offer Tairawhiti “a huge opportunity to leverage off our heritage”.

“What was done in 1969 was very ‘Eurocentric’ and Cook-focused. This is certainly not something the Te Ha trustees want to see happen in 2019,” says James, who is a trustee of Te Ha.

“As a community we have an opportunity to use this event as a catalyst for something far greater than a fleeting celebration. We can do things that truly recognise both the Polynesian and European voyages, and build on our common history since 1769.

“History is not always about positive events. Last year, we remembered the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli which were a disaster but it brought us all together.

“The events of 1769 were not all positive but they shaped New Zealand into what it is today. This is an opportunity to learn from our past and to work together with a better sense of understanding and togetherness.”

James believes architectural design should never be done by computer.

“The connection between the brain, hand and eye is critical and more intuitive. A design might look right when hand-sketched but when it is converted to the computer, it sometimes doesn’t quite look right — when checked the pitch and angles have been changed to a ‘convenient’ angle.

“It’s important to use your hands. Many young architects have developed the habit of going straight to the computer screen to design but hand-drawing is best,” he says.

Looking back on 23 years as an architect, James says architecture is not the sort of job you leave behind at the office.

“It’s around you all the time. I’m constantly designing in my head, even when I’m mowing the lawn, or critically looking at details on buildings around me.”

He relishes being part of a team at the office and on site with clients, builders and subbies, but says it’s a career you do for the love of it, not the money.

“The average salary in New Zealand for an architect is $45,000 to $50,000 and that’s after eight years’ of study. Plus every year, you have to do around 30 hours of study to maintain your registration.”

James is also on a review panel which assesses university architecture courses to make sure they are appropriate and following international guidelines, and he’s a former member of the New Zealand Institute of Architects Practice Task Group which formulates guidance notes for architects in New Zealand.

Sport and waka amaOutside work hours, James loves sport and competing.

“I used to do duathlons but I damaged my knee while running The Goat which goes from Whakapapa to Turoa skifields.”

So in 2010, following his wife Lynda’s lead, James took up waka ama and since then has been to the 2012 Worlds in Calgary where his team won silver in the W12 and to Rarotonga in 2014 where his team came first in the 12km race and second in the 36km around-Rarotonga event.

“I love the camaraderie of waka ama and the many friends that I have made through the sport,” he says.

He also instructs spin classes at Taha Fitness twice a week. Last year, James and Lynda took on their own heritage project when they bought an historic house.

“Pohatu runs down to the Waimata River, so Lynda and I can launch our waka from a pontoon at the bottom of the garden and spend time paddling together. Son Sam, 14, and daughter Charlotte,12, are involved in competitive kayaking and train just down the road, “so the property is ideal for us”.

“It’s a major project though, which will involve many years of work.”

Now 46 and one of three partners at Architects 44 along with Graeme Nicoll and Dan King, James feels he’s packed “a hell of a lot into life”.

“After all, you get out of life what you put into it. I’ve always tried to have a positive frame of mind and I look forward to the years ahead, living and working in Gisborne. This is a great place to live, one of the best. It has so much to offer and it is a privilege to wake up each day and have the opportunity to make it even better.”


AT PLAY: James on the Waimata River with wife Lynda, son Sam, 14, daughter Charlotte,12, and dog Belle.
AT WORK: James Blackburne working on a model of the new Hukarere Chapel.
Toko Toru Tapu Church is a project very dear to James’ heart.