Interview - Den Aitken


Where or what is your first memory of place?
My first sense of place, like most kiwis, is my hometown. Leigh is a small fishing village a little over an hour north east of Auckland’s CBD and though different today, growing up in the early eighties it was a great playground.

What do you think of the term ‘placemaking’?
I think successful placemaking is more closely related to an atmosphere rather than specifically design. For example a large group of people gathered for a similar interest such as a sporting or music event can together contribute to a very strong sense of place for a specified period of time.  Once those people evacuate that space it might be left feeling isolated or exposed or a number of other emotions that have considerable implications to individual users. With that thought in mind, my interpretation of placemaking is one that relies as heavily on human engagement than it does spatial configuration or design intervention.
In saying this, strong design interventions can set the scene for social engagement and become paramount for the longevity of successful placemaking, particularly when referencing more intimate scales. There are numerous great examples of this typology in play, such as a summer evening spent on the Spanish steps in Rome, where groups of people descend to socialise, interact or simply sit on the stairs, still warm from the day’s sun, and share a meal. More often than not the best public spaces around the world operate by way of very simple interventions that key into the existing culture of the city.

When thinking of place, how do you approach the process of design?
Every place has a certain unique characteristic that I believe needs to be engaged with, in order to develop specific design responses. As we head toward an increasingly urban environment these characteristics can be difficult to capture, particularly in placeless situations such as parking lots or super centres, but for the most part there is almost always some potential that can be exploited in a positive way. Tapping in to this potential in a manner that is relevant to contemporary design ideals is a difficult task but for my thinking is always going to be necessary for creating something that is as engaging and aesthetically pleasing in 100 years as it is today.

What do landscape architects need to understand about New Zealand to practice here?
Scale. By nature our urban environments are developed around mechanical systems; vehicles, infrastructure, shopping malls, etc. Balancing the human scale within these systems, and providing intimacy when required, is paramount to creating successful spaces.
Population. Designers have developed a habit in recent years of producing imagery where proposed designs are densely populated by a large and diverse selection of people, but as a small nation we do not yet have the population to continuously activate our public spaces 24/7.  Although we have passion and belief in the designs we produce, if we are to capture the human scale in our public spaces then we need to be realistic about the numbers and types of people that will consistently use the given spaces we are tasked with designing.

Place is not always urban or within a cityscape. At what scale does placemaking begin?
Successful placemaking begins at the human scale, regardless of whether or not the context is an urban or rural environment. When starting a business you think first about who your specific customer is and then build your product around that clientele.  Successful placemaking relies on the same methodology; designing places for specific user groups of people.  

Does community consultation fit into your design process and where does the weight sit… client, user, design process or intuition. Pie chart perhaps?
The consultancy team I work amongst has considerable history with community and iwi consultation and this forms a considerable chunk of the design process. The weight of this is project dependant but working with community groups is a skill set that contributes heavily to the success of any design process.

Do you need consensus to make design decisions?
Need is a big word, but personally I favour peer driven design. Critique is not always the easiest pill to swallow, particularly as I am yet to meet a designer who is not passionate about their work, but in my mind it is intrinsic to a robust output.

It’s simple to focus on supporting or easy to sway stakeholders to generate input to satisfy a client’s desired outcome. How do you target consultation?
As landscape architects we are tasked with certain social and ecological responsibilities and as designers we are always looking to progress the projects that we are engaged in. How you tackle these ideals is a personal endeavour but part of our professional responsibility is to empower clients through information. More often than not the best opportunity for this is early within the consultation process and can really help influence the quality and legibility of the final outputs.

Do you analyse or critique past projects as to how well they function for people and create a sense of place or identity? Is this objective or subjective?
The success of anything in life is dependent on understanding your own strengths and weaknesses so critique does form a considerable component of my own methodology.  I also think there is considerable value in situating your own work beside local and global exemplars as a means of challenging your own skills and imagination.

How do we make a contemporary sense of place?
Jan Ghel is well known in architectural and landscape circles for his musings on urban development with the human scale in mind. Cities are under constant transformation and development, operating under multiple scales and systems at any given moment, but at the heart of it all, cities are for people.  The success of placemaking, historically and well in to the future, will always be pivotal on design that captures the culture of a given environment and an engagement with the human form.