Has Architecture Lost its Mojo?


Above: Richard Neutra’s Kaufman House (1946) in Palm Springs, California. Located at 740 W. Chino Canyon Road, Palm Springs. Richard Neutra designed this house for the Kaufman family. The house is considered a prime example of modernism, and was made famous by the photograph by Julius Shulman. The Kaufman house was restored by the architecture firm Marmol and Radziner of Santa Monica, California in the late 1990s and is privately owned. Photo taken November 2000. Image copyright Barbara Alfors 2000.

A recent Forbes magazine article argued that the general public has a very low opinion of the architectural profession. We tend to think that’s because architects have lost touch with the common man – or woman. Why is this? “A lot of those who graduate want to be the ‘rock stars’ of the architectural world,” says Dan Heyworth. “They prefer clients with pots of money so they’ll get to create the ‘house porn’ they see in the glossy magazines.” At Box™, where there’s an all-in-one team, one focus is on making the design work alongside the practicalities of building. This allows a more cost-effective result that is affordable for a larger chunk of the market.

Dan: “All too often the model operates from the top down. The architect designs something then heads off to the quantity surveyor for costings and finally, at the last moment, the builder is brought on board. There’s little cohesion, almost no collaboration and the client ends up paying for it.”

Prefabrication also plays its rightful role to bring costs in line. World leaders in this approach are Huf Haus (from Germany) and Marmol Radziner (in the US). “It’s not that making parts of the house in a controlled environment is in itself less expensive, but that this system allows a standardisation of elements that can be re-used again and again,” explains Dan. Having a kitset of parts to call on, means parts of the building become easier to repeat so that time spent on design and documentation is saved.

By designing to a modular grid, Box™ also saves on costs – ‘cashing in’ so to speak on the standardisation of materials.

The Forbes diatribe also claimed that architects were trying to sell the public buildings they didn’t particularly want, in a language they didn’t understand. While, to a certain extent, architects should be experimental that should not be at the expense of a building that ‘fails’ in terms of functionality. The leaky buildings of the 80s and 90s are a not-forgotten case in point. Dan: “Those from the 50s and 60s are pretty much solid and modernism also has an enduring simplicity and elegance that suits the New Zealand context.”

It is part of the Box™ ethic to choose building products that have proven longevity and will age gracefully. That’s tied up with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi – the acceptance of finding beauty in imperfection. The key is a use of natural materials, expressing them as they are: a cross brace is a cross brace all on show and, while it will not rust, it will stain. Cedar, which is regularly used for cladding has stability and integrity but will discolour over time. Similarly, concrete floors are celebrated for their raw nature. “All these materials will develop a patina of age that’s beautiful, but they’re not ‘pretty or decorative’,” says Dan.

A relevant, enduring domestic architecture – and one that has a Kiwi heart – is what the team is hoping to create. “The Europeans have got it right. They’ve learnt, over time, what works, not just in terms of the techniques and products used to craft the individual buildings, but the over-arching impact of the collective on the built landscape.”

Whether modernism becomes the face of the future across New Zealand remains to be seen.

Read the full article in Forbes magazine here »


  1. Herbert Hildreth on March 3, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    The first page photo of a two level house set on a steep slope appeals very much.
    But the task of cleaning this expanse of glass is breath-taking!
    What are your thoughts on this?
    We are seriously asking you for a house like this on a coastal site. Any chance of suggestions? We are keen (but elderly).

    • Dan Heyworth on March 3, 2015 at 12:32 pm

      Hi Peter,

      You raise a good question. The best way to plan for this is to make sure the windows are accessible via a deck that wraps around, of that the window configuration allows you to get the ouside pane without endangering yourself – so often our ‘slot’ windows work well for this.

  2. Daryl Nielsen on April 30, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    Interesting article thanks. I have just been reading about Building Information Modelling (BIM), it’s advantages in construction, and how it is being promoted a lot in NZ now… Sounds like you guys are ahead of the game!!!! Having all people (designers, QS, Builders etc) in at the very beginning of the project can save considerable time and expense as often the people at the coal face can suggest practical innovations to designers on the way through the process reducing rework or design change…. Just wish I could afford to build a box!!!.. keep up the fab work.

    • Dan on May 1, 2015 at 9:25 am

      Thanks Daryl, it ain’t easy but we’re giving it our best shot!