Daryl Cockburn – Architect with a sustainable passion

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

– Winston Churchill

Daryl Cockburn, architect and town planner, has worked on over 500 projects in Wellington, New Zealand. Concerned about the environment and building sustainability, he has fought many a battle with the Wellington City Council, NZTA, and other government and industry organisations. His mission is to pursue alternatives to motorway construction in cities and encourage non-motorised transport. He has also fought to save Wellington’s heritage buildings from demolition – with mixed results. Alina Suchanski visits the architect to hear his story.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

– Winston Churchill

Daryl Cockburn, architect and town planner, has worked on over 500 projects in Wellington, New Zealand. Concerned about the environment and building sustainability, he has fought many a battle with the Wellington City Council, NZTA, and other government and industry organisations. His mission is to pursue alternatives to motorway construction in cities and encourage non-motorised transport. He has also fought to save Wellington’s heritage buildings from demolition – with mixed results. Alina Suchanski visits the architect to hear his story.

There is very little blank space on the walls of Daryl Cockburn’s central Wellington apartment. Paintings, photos of people and buildings, drawings, copies of architectural sketches, designs and town plans, and much more, cover the 3.3-metre-high walls from floor to ceiling.

Daryl in his Palazzo apartment
Photo: Alina Suchanski

Cockburn designed the apartment block himself, adding a three-story lightweight wooden structure on top of the existing solid-concrete building standing on the corner of Vivian and Tory Streets. With his typical wry sense of humour, he called it ‘Palazzo’ (a palace).

The Palazzo designed by Daryl Cockburn and built in 1999
Photo supplied

The man himself – slender, with lively eyes, hunched shoulders, and hands of a pianist – is charismatic, good looking and surprisingly fit for his 82 years of age.

Daryl’s parents, Cecil and Vivienne Cockburn in their dancing days, early 1940s
Photo supplied

Daryl was born in Dunedin on 2 August 1939. His father, Cecil Cockburn grew up in Glasgow, Scotland and came to New Zealand at the age of 18 as a farm labourer. Daryl’s mother, Vivienne was a Kiwi girl. Cecil was a keen ballroom dancer, while Vivienne trained in classical ballet. They met at a party in Dunedin when he was 21 and she just 17 and started dancing in the corridor.

Soon they developed a unique routine that combined both dance styles, which they performed on Saturday nights at His Majesty’s Theatre in Dunedin. At one of those performances Cecil proposed to Vivienne on stage in front of the audience. They married in 1935 and had four children. Daryl was the second one, having an older sister and two younger brothers. His father was employed at Cadbury chocolate factory in Dunedin. The family moved to Wellington in 1946 when Cecil was put in charge of marketing for Cadbury.

Young Daryl was a devout Methodist, committed to a life of study and work. He says that he was partly deaf, so he didn’t do well at school, but at age 12 he was top of the woodworking class. “The woodworking teacher said I should be an architect but my father recommended that I didn’t go to university full time. When I was 17 he arranged an apprenticeship interview for me at the office of W. Gray Young, and in 1956 I was the successful applicant to become his apprentice.

“Gray Young was the greatest architect in Wellington at the time. He didn’t buy into the modern aesthetics, focusing instead on building efficient, functional buildings based on a successful precedent. He had very high ethical standards, to the point of returning Christmas presents he received from builders not on his wavelength,” Cockburn says.

Between 1957 and 1961 he was a full-time apprentice and a part-time student at Wellington Polytechnic. In 1959 Michael Fowler became a partner at Gray Young, which had a profound impact on 19-year-old Daryl. “He was inspirational, a superb teacher, and trusting delegator. He took me to all important meetings. Most days we lunched together at the ‘California’ in Willis St, during which I listened in adulation. I will forever be deeply grateful,” he proclaims.

The single most influential event that shaped Cockburn’s development as an architect was a lecture given by English-born architect Duncan Winder on window design, in which was explained the importance of the movement of the sun and solar light on building design. This is what inspired Cockburn’s signature narrow, tall windows.

In 1961 Daryl was asked to design and make working drawings for the new Inter-Island Ferry Terminal. This led to a job as Concept Design Architect for the Overseas Passenger Terminal for the Wellington Harbour Board, which became one of Wellington’s most iconic modernist buildings.

In the years 1962-63 Daryl studied full time at the University of Auckland. As a final year student, he was selected to undertake the first real design job the school of architecture had ever received. The project was to design Hotel d’Taharaa in Tahiti, location site of the film ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ starring Marlon Brando. In 1964, Daryl graduated with a Diploma of Architecture and resumed full-time work at Calder Fowler & Styles (ex-Gray Young).

His next job was to design the façades of the Reserve Bank headquarters near the parliamentary Beehive. This was followed by the 15-story office building for the Presbyterian Church Property Trustees, St Andrews Church in Blenheim, and the Nurses Home & Tutorial Block at St Helens Hospital in Wellington.

After five years in this job, Cockburn decided to go to Scotland to study urban design and planning. In the reference letter his employer, Michael Fowler wrote: “Daryl Cockburn (…) has displayed a masterful ability to successfully integrate the buildings within their surroundings, and also to work purposefully and happily within a team; we have no doubt whatsoever that he can assimilate fully the post-graduate work he leaves here to study.”

He went to Edinburgh and was employed by Sir Robert Matthew to design Block E for the University of Ulster, Coleraine, North Ireland. But he wanted to be a city planner, and through a mixture of luck and perseverance, got an opportunity to create plans for three new 1 km2 districts at Livingston New Town, west of Edinburgh; a project that would take four years to complete (1968-71). He then went to Glasgow to become the leader of the group tasked to make the quinquennial review of the City Centre District Plan.

During this five-year period, Cockburn completed the thesis for his M.Sc. degree. His final offer of work in Britain was with the Department of Foreign Affairs as an urban adviser in Recife, Brazil but as his father had recently died, he decided to return to New Zealand with his wife Claire and children, Adam (4) and Rachel (1).

He re-joined Michael Fowler as a partner, and thus Calder Fowler Turner & Cockburn Architects & Planners was born.

Daryl’s building projects and designs are too many to name here. A few examples are several central Wellington office buildings, including Greenock House, Equinox House, and Legal House, all three on Lambton Quay; ‘Saatchi & Saatchi’ on Courtney Place; numerous private residences; Astelia Hotel on Willis Street; and Omaio Village in Nelson – the largest Salvation Army home in New Zealand.

A Salvation Army church and hall project in Wellington was one of the jobs Cockburn is most proud of. The brief was to demolish the old church for a new one and alter a factory for a hall. He rewrote the brief to convert the factory into a church and convert the old church into a hall. This succeeded in saving the old buildings, reducing the cost by 30%.

In architecture, Daryl is passionate about sustainability, heritage preservation, and colour. He is an advocate for active (or “soft’) transport in an urban setting and for limiting or eliminating cars to reduce pollution and increase safety.

Daryl’s views –

On colour: Daryl laments the recent fashion to make cladding black. He believes black buildings are “macabre and dour.” His designs use the traditional pastel colours of Wellington: clay cream, bush green, and cloud white. “We are creatures whom evolution has blessed with colour vision. We should celebrate the gift of colour whenever possible.”

On heritage: “Being in Edinburgh was a real eye-opener. A city without heritage is like a man without memory. Our heritage is misplaced. We should allow old buildings that can’t be cost-effectively saved to be reproduced in cheaper materials. No building should be demolished if it can be saved. The cost of demolition is huge.”

On glass as a building material: “In New Zealand, there is excessive use of glass in buildings, often wall-to-wall. Environmentally, glass is probably the worst material to clad buildings. It has poor insulation performance – double glazing loses seven times the heat of 100 mm-thick bats. It’s dangerous in earthquakes, turns into cold black mirrors after dark, requires expensive curtains, takes away wall space that could otherwise be used for fine art or furniture, and does not offer privacy. Glass has its place in one-off special buildings with solar orientation.” He recommends tall, narrow windows to send daylight deep into rooms, because “the sun shines from above.”

In 2016 Cockburn received a James Beard Award for Sustainable Architecture for developing Wellington’s first Light Rail Plan 1992. His most recent achievement was writing Wellington’s Architectural Centre’s Review of the National Policy Statement – Urban Development (NPS-UD) gazetted on 23 July 2020. The NPS-UD aims to ensure that five of New Zealand’s cities are well-functioning urban environments that meet the changing needs of our diverse communities. It recommends a greater density of housing to reduce suburban sprawl.

His review shows how that can be applied to all settlements, making them more attractive by using best international practices. “As a profession, we, as architects and designers, have a real responsibility to guide our clients in the direction of good, logical and sustainable design. What we create now will have a lasting effect on future generations long after fashion trends have changed,” he says.

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