Postcard from the edge: Henry Crothers of LandLAB

Text by Justin Foote

Along with being Chair of the Auckland branch, he was a design collaborator on one of the city’s most lauded and recognisable projects... Henry Crothers of LandLAB has had a busy year. 

Henry Crothers of LandLAB was one of the award-winning Kiwis at the World Architecture Festival, picking up a win in the Transportation – Completed Buildings category in conjunction with Monk Mackenzie Architects, for Te Ara I Whiti.

We caught up with Henry on his return to New Zealand to talk WAF and his award-winning project. 

JF: Tell us a little bit about Te Ara I Whiti.
HC: Te Ara I Whiti, which was a design collaboration between LandLAB and Monk Mackenzie Architects, translates, basically, to ‘light path’.

It transforms a redundant piece of motorway infrastructure into a playful and sculptural piece of cycling infrastructure threaded through Auckland’s inner city motorway junction.

The design intent of the project was to create a bold, graphic intervention at the city scale that contains a hybrid space for cycling, exploration, discovery and occupation at the human scale.

Episodic experience and movement is reinforced through the expansion and compression of the wider landscape by the surrounding network of motorway bridges and structures.

Three hundred individual LED light bars are distributed along the path creating a living and breathing interactive urban light sculpture that responds to varying patterns and intensities of user movement.

JF: What does it mean to win at WAF?
HC: In the transport category we were competing against very shiny, billion dollar airports and train stations.

So we tried to pitch our project the opposite way – as a simple, human and fun project that highlights walking and cycling as transport also. Light Path has been a bit of a catalyst and flagship for cycling in Auckland, so to have the judges recognise the importance of that was great.

It’s also recognition for everyone who helped make the project happen in a very short timeframe and who supported an idea that challenged convention.

JF: Other than picking up an award, what was the best thing about being at WAF?
HC: Watching other designers preparing for and presenting their work, in a variety of ways, was pretty fascinating — the good, the bad and the ugly.

The best projects had simple yet strong ideas, addressed something rigorously and innovatively and were backed up by great presentations. Also, hats off to Isthmus for winning the Landscape Category — it’s good for all of us.

JF: What is the cultural significance of Te Ara I Whiti – Light Path?
HC: The project re-establishes a connection through a part of Auckland that prior to the intervention of the motorway had supported a series of important walk- ing connections across the isthmus.

Artist Katz Mahi provided a series of works that reference this journey through the landscape. The hot pink colour is both a tactical and whimsical reference to the diversity and vitality of the surrounding Karangahape Road community. But, it’s more about having fun and celebrating movement than being deep and meaningful. 

I think that there are lots of opportunities in the city for similar projects that are simple, tactical and that can seed change in terms of the way the city looks and functions – either quickly or strategically over time. 

JF: How does the project contribute to the built en- vironment of Auckland?
HC: At a basic level it’s about connection but we like to think it has also provided some momentum for Auckland’s current cycling revolution.

It makes its contribution by day as a form and as an important piece of infrastructure but it comes alive at night. The lighting component was always conceived as providing a framework that can support adaptation and curation by others. It’s a dynamic and constantly evolving piece of urban art for the city.

JF: Revitalisation of redundant infrastructure is ob- viously win-win. Do you think, as a city, we’re doing enough to transform our built environment, and, what other opportunities do you believe exist?
HC: Auckland’s motorway network severs the city from the surrounding fringe suburbs that can best support walking and cycling.

There are issues with connectivity and scale that need to be addressed to repair this. I think that there are lots of opportunities in the city for similar projects that are simple, tactical and that can seed change in terms of the way the city looks and functions - either quickly or strategically over time. Bigger things can be built around these interventions. But really we’ve just got to stop building more roads and embrace public transport, walking, cycling and people through the lens of design.

JF: How do you see the future of landscape architecture in Auckland and New Zealand?
HC: I hope landscape architects are continuing to expand the breadth of their scope and skills to take on projects outside the traditional definitions of landscape.

It’s important to have opinions about design, to collaborate with and challenge other disciplines. If Auckland is to be the world’s most liveable city then we need to understand and work with it as a field, an ecology and as our biggest designed landscape.

Landscape Architects are best placed to lead and make this happen.

JF: Which local/national projects from 2016 are particular stand-outs in your opinion?
HC: All of ours are quite good!

I think NZTA and the council’s work on the Auckland Cycle Network is exciting in terms of the range of projects coming through. It’s one big project being delivered in lots of interesting pieces.

JF: What one message would you hope that users of your created spaces take away from their experience?
HC: Have fun. 

Opinion, UrbanJustin Foote