Meet our Friends . . . Isthmus 

7 months ago by

Meet our Friends’ series is where we take a moment to celebrate and share a little about the diverse studios who make up our DA Friends. Today we spoke to our friends, Isthmus, to learn more about their studio team, culture, and design philosophy. 

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Where are you based and what shape does the Isthmus team take?  

We are a tight-knit group of 110 people spread across the motu. We have three studios, based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, and Ōtautahi, as well as people working remotely to connect in the spaces in between. Regardless of where we live, we all work together as ‘one studio’ to harness the depth and breadth of our collective experience. 

Photo of Isthmus team standing by the waterfront.
Photographer: David St George

Can you share with us what a typical day at your studio looks like? 

It’s important for us to stay connected to each other as a whānau, we start the week together in our respective studios with E Tū—a moment to share news, and the comings and goings of people. Across the week we pepper in opportunities to get together, whether we’re hosting talks and events, learning waiata, or initiating vigorous (and heartily competitive) rounds of table tennis. A typical day is bound to look quite different from person to person, and project to project—some of us might be heading out to meet our clients and collaborators, visit sites, or take part in community engagement workshops, while others are in the studio designing, collaborating, and creating together.  

Photo of a few of the Isthmus team having a discussion around a table pointing to drawings and mockups
Photographer: David St George

What projects have you been working on recently? 

Working across the disciplines of Landscape Architecture, Urban Design, and Architecture, our projects are many and varied. Recent projects include the completion of the second stage of works at Maungawhau—a place of immense significance to Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau. The design restoring the culture and mana of the maunga, sensitively accommodating the growing pressures of tourism whilst repairing eroded tracks, and geological features. It treads lightly on the land, elevating visitors on a structure that floats above the maunga, contributing to restoring the mauri and wairua of this special site. 

Making space for water is front and centre within many of our projects. Building resilience into our stormwater systems by moving from expensive centralised infrastructure towards holistic solutions that work with nature to manage stormwater as close to the source as possible. January’s rain events saw the recently completed Greenslade Reserve in Northcote detain close to 12 million litres of water before it made its way more slowly along the daylit Awataha—minimising the effects on the nearby homes and town centre—before draining and returning to a usable sports field the following day. This is evidence of the benefits of an integrated and ecological approach to infrastructure, able to function both as a community asset, and critical stormwater management. 

Our growing Architecture discipline has been busy delivering Density Done Well in Tāmaki Makaurau, with a variety of apartment buildings underway across the motu, including Arthaus. Located on Parnell Road, amongst the galleries, cafes, and businesses, five boutique apartments above a new street-level commercial space have recently been consented. The building form has been influenced by Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Auckland Museum, located behind the site, the view shaft from the museum to Rangitoto intersecting with the site. The very real connection between land and culture is emphasised by the vertically banded façade—four-and-a-half stories of pale porcelain in a rhythm responding to the heritage-built fabric of the immediate surroundings, set on a heavy, basalt-like brick base—the horizon. This is our second project with Winton Group following the development of Jimmy’s Point Apartments currently under construction.  

Aerial photo of walkway over nature preserve
Photographer: Petra Leary
Image of people interacting with a placemaking design next to playing fields.
Photographer: David St George
Render of building by busy street.
Photographer: OTOH

What does the Isthmus design process and philosophy look like? 

Always front of mind is our kaupapa of regenerating Aotearoa by connecting land, people, and culture. We live and work guided by our tikanga:  

  • We are a group. 
  • We partner locally. 
  • We acknowledge the Treaty. 
  • We are generous and we care. 
  • We are continually learning. 
  • We leave the land and water healthier. 

Being grounded and guided by the strength of our kaupapa and tikanga enables a design solution expressive of the unique land, people, and culture of the place to come to the fore. Different every time, but expressive of the shared values, and a considered design process.  

We love an opportunity to pin up our work and share and discuss ideas, informally and formally through our Design Review Group—a weekly forum where design thinking and challenge resolving is shared.  

Favourite tools in the studio to help your team manage the day-to-day? 

One tool that takes up a lot of space in our studios (and our design thinking) is the humble bicycle, we use our bikes for commuting, to get to site, or for midday rides to clear our heads and get re-inspired. 

On-screen, we love a good collaborative Miro session. It’s a wonderful alternative to sitting around a table together with markers and paper—we can all contribute simultaneously, and the result is usually a vibrant capture of all the thinking behind our (usually quite impassioned) discussions. We use Teams for connecting internally—a lot of what we use is designed to close the physical gaps between us, and you can see that it works when we get together at our annual Wānanga and are face-to-face with people we have been working closely with and are surprised to remember have never actually met in person.  

Image of bikes being hung on a wall indoors
Photographer: David St George

What recent achievements or projects are you most proud of? 

We recently received an award from Auckland Architecture Awards for the interior architecture of our Tāmaki Makaurau studio. Moving to Studio 246 was our opportunity to rethink how the space we work in can guide us confidently into the future as a uniquely Aotearoa design practice. It was an opportunity to be part of the revitalisation of inner-city Auckland. We designed our own space, completely blurring the boundaries between client, designer, and project manager, to establish a space to grow and deepen our partnerships and collaborations. We are familiar with the deep thinking that comes from designing spaces for others–it was a wonderful experience to get to put that energy into designing a space for ourselves, ensuring that the studio space breathes and evolves over time, never static, always defined by the mahi we do.   

Image of an office space with coffee bar and seating.
Photographer: David St George

Where to next for Isthmus, what is your team working towards for 2023/24 

When we all got together for our Matariki Wānanga in July, this was the topic of many of our discussions. We looked at where we’ve come from, so we can see where we’re heading. Titiro whakamuri, kōkiri whakamua. Across the day, we heard from the breadth of our leaders, young and older. Looking ahead to 2040, and asking the question—what do we need to be doing today to help to forge a future we can be proud of? If we look far enough ahead and see ourselves standing proud at Te Tiriti o Waitangi’s 200th anniversary, we’ll know that we’re on the right track today.  

Lastly, where can people connect with you on socials? 

New around here? Consider joining the fam as a DA Friend for 2023.

We have membership types for all size designers – from the student through to large studios. Your DA membership helps to support the Aotearoa design community and gives you discounts to our workshops and events along with profiling opportunities throughout the year.

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