Just two years after finishing a Masters of Architecture at Victoria University of Wellington, Michael Lowe is juggling a job at Wellington’s renowned Studio Pacific Architecture and a burgeoning career as an artist. The Auckland-raised and Wellington-based 25-year-old sold his first work at age 16 and continues to paint finely detailed New Zealand landscapes that sell; the rest of the time, he’s designing public spaces for large-scale housing projects. The keen surfer tells Urbis how the two types of work complement each other.
Urbis: What came first, art or architecture?
Michael Lowe: My granddad was an artist so there was an interest in that from early on. By the end of high school, I had to make a choice. I enrolled for the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Art, Ilam, but leading up to start day I met [artist] John Pule in a gallery in Auckland. He said, “If you know what you want to do, you don’t need university to tell you how to do it”, and it was enough to throw me, so I enrolled in architecture school in Wellington. All the way through university, art continued to play a huge part in my life. It was my part-time job; in the holidays, I’d sell paintings rather than work in hospitality as my peers did.
U: Did studying change the way you work as an artist?
ML: Architecture taught me about design and thinking critically and challenging the status quo. Technically, my painting skills were good when I left high school but the theory and the way I think about painting has been shaped by my degree. Now I question why I’m painting what I’m painting. Now it’s about not taking a camera, absorbing the scenery and experience and then, in the studio, drawing from memory and painting what my experience was.
U: Studio Pacific Architecture hired you when you graduated – what kind of work do you do there?
ML: Studio Pacific pulled me out of being a full-time artist; I wasn’t sure I’d get a full-time job when I finished my degree. When I first started, I did a little residential landscaping job. From there, I moved quickly into two long-term projects that haven’t been finished yet. I’ve been working on Springpark public housing in Mount Wellington, Auckland, and I also work on Ormiston township in Manukau. I work four days a week and have one day just for art, which has been fantastic.
U: Does your art add anything to your architecture?
ML: Architecture is full of rules and quite restricted, whereas art is boundary-less. I tend to do a lot of conceptual work at Studio Pacific; maybe that’s because of my artwork, in that I think about things in a different way. Architecture is all lines and edges but I like to jump in with little artworks of what the project could be. They are quite abstract but I like them; I’m probably able to push the boundaries a little bit more in a naïve way.
U: What is fulfilling about your architectural work?
ML: I love that architecture is designed for and affects people. I’m from a family of medical people and I have a humanitarian drive in my consciousness and there’s something of the greater good in architecture. I love public architecture and public space.
U: Where do you paint?
ML: My studio is my lounge. I live in a small apartment on the top floor of a small apartment building on The Terrace. It’s very Wellington. My wife – she’s a policy analyst at the Ministry of Defence – and I have a flatmate but there’s always an easel in the room and art scattered around the walls waiting to be worked on. The larger pieces take 60 to 100 hours of painting. The work is quite strenuous on my eyes so I probably never do more than five hours of detailed stuff at once. It means, when you’re a part-time artist like me, that a big painting takes months. The way I work on art is by myself and it’s very quiet work, so part-time is perfect; it’s a very good balance. I’m very lucky to be able to do that.