A Conversation with Heritage Architect Lianne Cox

For the latest of our guest articles by students and graduates of the Museum and Heritage Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Rebecca Ford talked to award-winning heritage architect Lianne Cox.

‘Significance’ is a heavily used term in heritage management. It can sometimes be hard to remember that it’s not an abstract term. Not so, it would seem, for Lianne Cox, heritage architect at Studio Pacific Architecture. Significance, human and material, is integral to our conversation about her career, the National War Memorial strengthening project, and the essence of being a heritage architect.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 1.22.01 PMInitially, I make the mistake of saying ‘conservation architect’, but Lianne’s emphatic that she doesn’t get involved in the “scientific detail” that a conservator would. So, what is she? “I’m basically an architect who has a lot of experience with, understands, and enjoys older buildings.”

Lianne defines her strength as being able to integrate changes to heritage buildings. Her job is to understand ‘where change can happen, where change should happen’. How does she develop that understanding? ‘It’s going into the building and feeling what excites me – what do you notice when you first move in?’ She’ll then turn to the archives – reading the history, looking at drawings, checking photos, and conversing with those who already know the building. She regards the hard graft of research as both critical and enjoyable, saying that it’s important to delight in the hunt for old information.

This is the process she went through at the National War Memorial, the landmark that Studio Pacific has been involved with since 2007. ‘The more I got to know about it’, Lianne says, ‘the more I appreciated the original design’. The project involved strengthening, maintenance, and ‘huge responsibility’. It encompassed the Hall of Memories and the Carillon tower (which is both a building and a massive musical instrument).

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The dedication ceremony for the National War Memorial Carillon on Anzac Day, 25 April 1932.

Lianne’s clarity on the buildings’ most important aspects informed the design approach. She explains that the Carillon’s significance was exterior, whereas the Hall of Memories’ impact lay inside. Studio Pacific tailored their strategies accordingly, respecting these significant areas and directing visual changes elsewhere. Hence, they went inside the Carillon to install intermediate floors, using the original rough, industrial language of exposed steel. The perforated mesh flooring system improved safety without reducing the spatial volume or disrupting the Carillon’s sound. For the Hall of Memories, visual changes were made on the outside, rather than interfere with the subtle detail of the interior. It was clearly an appropriate approach. Last year, the project won the NZIA New Zealand Architecture Award for Heritage.

I’m interested to know how she’s supported by Studio Pacific. They have a policy that she’ll have some involvement with every heritage project, and allow her time for professional development. The strong in-house design team is another support, so design solutions are developed collaboratively. It helps, too, that her colleagues are largely enthusiastic about heritage, even if Lianne is Studio Pacific’s keystone heritage professional. For the Studio, there’s a benefit in having heritage expertise in-house. Lianne’s able to understand the job right from the beginning, and attract projects because of it.

No heritage professional is an island. Lianne will often get other heritage architects to peer-review her work, as well as working with Heritage New Zealand and local councils. Lianne values this wider heritage community to, as she puts it, ‘make sure I’m on the right track with things’.

I ask Lianne about communicating heritage significance and rationalising strategies. She emphasizes that the key is to make it personal, create a connection for people. Here again she utilises a deep understanding of the building. She highlights relatable, human stories as much as material features.

Lianne has plenty of anecdotes, about past projects and especially the Carillon. I enjoy hearing about the first Carillonist, the origins of the bells, and historic hikes up unstable stairs (there was no lift for many years).

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She’s also got her own stories. Apparently, the windows on the office floor were never waterproof. When scaffolding was installed to address the problem, Lianne recommended going all the way up. They found that lightning strikes had peppered the copper roof with tiny holes, and addressed this issue at the same time. This point goes to the heart of Lianne’s philosophy: ‘For me, heritage is not just about putting things back as they were – it’s also about the opportunities for positive change for buildings’.

In a sector supposedly divided into pragmatists and puritans, Lianne makes it work both ways. True, her role is focused on change. But the goal for any building is to, in her words, ‘keep it the same so that those people that it’s important to, it’s the same place for them to come back to’.

She says that she’s ‘fallen, by choice’ into her niche. She continually pursues courses and keeps up-to-date with international projects. ‘What you bring is your whole breadth of knowledge’, she reminds me. It’s clear that Lianne brings both breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding. Well prepared, she’s able to be both architect and advocate. ‘Sometimes,” she affirms ‘you have to get a bit passionate about why it’s significant’.

Images: Main image: Anzac Day 2011, New Zealand Defence Force, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  Historic Image:  Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: 1-1-037958-F
Bell image: Bargas and Shoebridge, the Messines Bell at the National War Memorial, New Zealand History website, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/messines-bell-national-war-memorial, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-May-2016

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