Holistic Architecture: Going Far Beyond Just Buildings

Holistic Architecture: Going Far Beyond Just Buildings

The traditional view of architecture is that it’s all about four walls and a roof. But as Nat Cheshire and his firm, Auckland-based Cheshire Architects, prove, architecture can go far beyond just buildings.

I recently had the pleasure of welcoming Nat on the Spaces podcast, and it certainly got the synapses firing. Nat and his interdisciplinary team are really at the cutting-edge of architectural thinking. It’s an approach that goes beyond the traditional view of an architect’s role. In fact, Nat and his team design everything from entire city blocks to complete restaurant fit-outs, playing a part in everything from the lighting to the restaurant’s website to what the waiters wear. It’s what Nat refers to as holistic architecture.

So how do you define holistic architecture and why should we care about it? Over to Nat: “Arguably this is what architecture should be, in my mind. Over time and particularly now in a highly litigious, highly defensive construction and development environment, it is increasingly kind of straight-jacketed as a service consultancy for the design and documentation and observation of the building of buildings. Cities are just not made of buildings, right? They’re made of so many more things than just buildings. So I guess what I’m trying to do is assert the primacy of those other things, and the act and art of architecture,” Nat says.

Do Spaces Influence People, or People Spaces?

What I love about the Cheshire Architects’ story is that it shows that it takes more than just architects to design a city, which led to the question, is it spaces that affect and influence people, or is it people who influence spaces?

“I think those two things are inextricable,” Nat says. “But I do think that the architecture is what the work does to people, it’s not the work itself. And everything we build is just a tool for shaping and focusing that impact. It sounds like I don’t care about buildings, but really I do see them as tools for that bigger end goal,” he says.

“If you have that continual frame for your work, I just don’t know that there is a better foundation than that. I think it’s a very slippery road to go down to start obsessing about the mechanics and parts of your own industry. There’s an enormous amount of introspection within architecture. I know why that comes about. I’m born of that world. But I think you’ve absolutely nailed it. It’s our ability to affect, profoundly affect the lives of our own people that is what drives our practice,” Nat explains.  

The Driving Force of Singular Focus

With working across so many diverse elements, and crossing so many professional borders, is there a danger with the holistic architecture concept of falling in the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none trap? Nat thinks quite the opposite. In fact, he sees it as a benefit both for his team and their clients. 

“We’re really hyper aware of the hubris of trying to be good at all things,” Nat says. “But what we’ve observed is that if we come at it full-tilt, full-hearted as genuine partners of the people that we work alongside, and we bring design thinking and design focus to all of those activities, then, by and large, the projects benefit enormously from that focus and that singular source of energy, and they benefit from not having that focus diluted by a whole heap of voices around the table. It’s not diluted through multiple hands, it’s not a brand agency over hear and a graphic design agency over here, and a costume designer over here, and so on. It’s usually just us and the client, and that’s really, really powerful and exciting,” Nat says.

You can hear the entire conversation with Nat Cheshire here.