Why Christina van Bohemen of Sills van Bohemen just says yes

Be inspired by the winner of the Chrystall Excellence Award in the latest installment of our Architecture+Women NZ series.

Christina, what led you to a career in architecture? I grew up as a child of Dutch and English immigrant parents in an interesting house designed by another immigrant, architect Len Hoogerbrug. Despite an underlying desire to be an architect, I wasn’t strong in the school subjects I believed were required to take me to architecture school, so while studying art history and architectural history at school and university, I toyed with the idea of writing about architecture and design.
Moving to New York and London, I spent a lot of time looking at architecture, thinking about the structure of cities and attending architecture lectures. In the end, it was the encouragement of two New Zealand architects in London that persuaded me to return to university. I began my architecture degree at 28, which seemed old to me at the time.

MAIN IMAGE Portrait photography by Neat Places. ABOVE One of Sills van Bohemen’s residential projects, Te Whau on Waiheke Island. Photography by Patrick Reynolds.

What does your practice look like today? Sills van Bohemen is a team of six, operating from our office in Auckland’s Karangahape Road and working in the fields of urban design and residential architecture. I established the practice with my partner Aaron Sills in 2001.
In the early years, we primarily worked for local and central government clients on urban projects, such as town centre design and public parks. On the residential side, we’ve continued to design individual homes for private clients, but in the past 10 years, we’ve found ourselves combining our urban and residential experience to design medium-density housing neighbourhoods.
Now, with the current housing-affordability issues in Aotearoa, we’re doing a lot of work on the design of residential neighbourhoods for Kāinga Ora, previously known as Housing New Zealand. These are very interesting projects, where neighbourhoods can be structurally improved for residents while also substantially increasing the number of people living in the area. 

What’s the common thread in your approach to your various projects? Whether we’re designing a public park or a private kitchen, we’re aiming to provide delight, so we take a humanist approach. We try to consider outcomes from the point of view of the diverse individuals who’ll live with our designs.
I think our urban-design background has made us especially aware of the wider effects and interconnection of individual design decisions at different scales — individual home, multi-unit building, garden, street, neighbourhood. There are some common threads in terms of what’s important in a city block or neighbourhood that apply when designing a house or apartment: how to create spaces that people can gather in or retreat to, spaces that connect and are beautiful, and spaces for storing stuff — the components of a house or city that need to work and support the aesthetic considerations.

ABOVE Urban design at Hurstmere Green in Takapuna, Auckland. Highlights of this public space include this playful, eye-catching aperture that cleverly frames the slope of the land behind it, and the wavy timber bleachers on which people can lounge in the sun. Photography: Simon Devitt.

Some thoughtful community projects make it into your calendar — is there one that’s been particularly meaningful? In 2018, we started working with the Rātana community in Raetihi on the restoration of their church, Whare Whakamoemiti. The building is very important to the parish and the wider Rātana community, the Mōrehu, as well as being of national significance as an example of Māori architecture. It’s a privilege to work with the community on a restoration plan and strategy for delivering the project and all it entails.

You’ve recently won the Architecture+ Women NZ Chrystall Excellence Award, which celebrates the rich career of a woman in the field of architecture. Is there a key lesson your career has taught you? My career/life hasn’t followed a plan, but I think I’m good at accepting the offers that have been presented to me. That is to say, I regularly say yes. I’ve often been unsure of my ability to do the job, but just get on with doing the best I can.
I’ve been supported by family, friends and colleagues; my opportunities have often been a result of a senior colleague recommending me. I’m grateful for that and now that I’m older, I’ve taken on board the importance of encouraging and promoting my younger colleagues. I think it’s incumbent on us established practitioners to share our knowledge and make way for the next generation.;

Interview Alice Lines

Filed under:

error: Copyright The Pluto Group Ltd 2022 - contact us for usage licence

Homestyle shares
modern ways
to make a home
in New Zealand

Sign up to receive the latest in your inbox

Thanks for subscribing to Homestyle's newsletter - we'll be in touch soon.