It was by happenstance that Liz Seuseu became an architect. The school leaver had been accepted into Elam art school in 1998 when a friend suggested she reconsider. “It’s pretty daunting to decide what you want to do in life as a 17-year-old,” says Seuseu. “But I knew I wanted a career that was part of the creative art world and would continue to engage and challenge me. I had always liked to draw and paint and had a passion for the visual arts at an early age, studying art history, painting and photography. And I was capable at maths and problem solving but I didn’t want to do law or accounting.”
Architecture, with its peculiar mix of creativity and practicality, seemed the perfect solution, so Seuseu spent the next four years studying the subject at the University of Auckland. After graduation, jobs at Jasmax and Architectus – a large, multi-national practice – followed. In 2006, Seuseu, who grew up in Pakuranga, moved to London. By the time she left seven years later, she was a senior interior architect working on high-profile, high-end residential developments for Johnson Naylor, an interior architecture and design studio.
The 34-year-old returned to New Zealand and a job at Architectus eight months ago and is working on Wynyard Central, the residential development at Wynyard Quarter. The five-building project – developed by Willis Bond and designed by Architectus, Athfield Architects and Studio Pacific Architecture – will eventually include more than 500 homes. “I am interested in designing intelligent and enduring interiors with an honesty and truth in material. The way things are built and come together is important to the design process. I like playing with light and shade, touch and memory and this leads me to be quite preoccupied with materiality,” says the Westmere resident of her work. “I also like a good story, so you need a certain amount of layers and depth in detail to achieve that.”
Urbis: What did studying architecture teach you?
Lis Seuseu: I grew to love the way we learned to think and investigate and thrived on the dynamic mix of creating something meaningful which brings together the best of so many ideas, disciplines and specialist skills, while still achieving something beautiful. It’s a dynamic and ever-changing landscape to work within which definitely keeps you on your toes.
U: Travelling and working overseas must have broadened your skill set.
LS: My father’s Samoan and my mother’s English. That was great because I had no visa restrictions with whom I worked for. I tried different-sized practices. At Johnson Naylor, we did bespoke pieces. That level of attention is something I love. Attention to detail isn’t just an attitude; it’s what design is. Through drawing and visualising, you can design out all of those things that don’t work. But it takes time. All these layers influence the job, as does the client brief. That’s the strength of the design process. I really enjoyed being involved in that whole platform in order to achieve a cohesive result.
U: How did Auckland’s architectural landscape evolve in the time that you were overseas?
LS: Auckland’s grown up a lot! Britomart and Wynyard Quarter are precincts now; they have an identity worth talking about and, more importantly, worth visiting. The Auckland Art Gallery is a gem that all Aucklanders should be proud of; I’m not sure how many people know we have a World Building of the Year in our city but that’s something to celebrate.
U: You’re a senior designer at Architectus. Tell us about the Wynyard Central project you are working on.
LS: It’s a very exciting project to come back to. At my time at Architectus, prior to leaving in 2006, I worked on some of the master planning at Wynyard Quarter. Now we are working on the first residential project, 120 apartments across three building typologies – four-storeyed pavilions, three-storeyed townhouses and a 10-storeyed apartment building. It’s a few blocks from North Wharf and adjacent to the recently completed Daldy Street extension.
U: What will the residential buildings be like?
LS: Very high-end. The attitude is open-plan living; we’re maximising outdoor space and views. The demographic that we are hoping to attract is quite broad; the idea is to get a real mix. We’re going to be bringing people to the area permanently. It will become a vibrant, 24-hour place to live, work and play. After working on similar projects in London, it’s been a really nice transfer of skills.
U: Who inspires you and your work?
LS: Early heroes were Peter Zumthor and Carlo Scarpa, followed by John Pawson and David Chipperfield and Fiona Naylor and Brian Johnson. All have a strong attention to detail, minimalism, simplicity, effortless elegance. In terms of colour schemes, I’m conditioned to a palette that’s subdued and minimal. The vibrancy of colour and contrast here in New Zealand means I’m now being drawn to more dramatic schemes.
U: What does Auckland need to do better as a city?
LS: There’s so much potential. I think we need to continue to keep doing better and demand it of ourselves and our clients. We should promote public transport, bike lanes and protect and make more public space – that’s what will make the city livable. I’m also interested in the issue of affordability in housing and how this may be addressed. It’s not just about building good apartments. It’s about good communities and adding to the fabric of Auckland. It’s exciting, I think.
U: What do you appreciate about home, now that you are living back in Aotearoa?
LS: At an architecture firm in New Zealand, you wear more hats. The nature of the industry means you have to be more agile and pick up those challenges. I’m loving being near the water. It’s something I forgot about overseas and I didn’t realise just how much I missed it. Hence my new passion, sailing! I was brought up near the water. It was my backyard and it has a strong connection to the way I relate to space – the horizon, the sky.