Isthmus is an integrated design studio that removes the traditional boundaries between disciplines. We solve complex problems with integrated thinking guided by a clear set of principles and ideas. In our work we aim to celebrate and bring balance to the relationship between people and place. We work with people, helping to connect them to their environment by listening, understanding and interpreting their stories. In this way we create outputs with a distinctive identity, truly representative of the place and its people.
Established in 1988, our name references both our Auckland base—between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea—and our role as connectors. We work as a group harnessing the depth and breadth of our interdisciplinary team. 80 staff are spread across studios in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland and are driven by a collective passion for place, strong social and environmental agendas, and a belief in the importance of ideas. We embed social, environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability principles within our projects that span coast, country, neighbourhood and city.
Isthmus exists to create unique places. Our kaupapa (purpose) is based on deepening the relationships between land, people and culture. Our flexible studio culture incubates ideas; the closer and more collaboratively we work together, the more chance ideas have of spreading, growing, cross-pollinating and transforming. We call this way of working ‘no boundaries’ because we think in terms of opportunities rather than constraints.
As an island nation separated from the rest of the world by vast expanses of ocean, we have a particularly resonant relationship with the land. Aotearoa is a destination; you don’t arrive here by accident. We choose to be here, and as such we are strongly physically and spiritually connected to this place. The land is where we are from, it is where we stand, and it is where we will return. As designers we read the land, we listen carefully to its stories and we sense its moods; we tread lightly, pay respect and give it room to breathe. In this way we explore deeper connections to nature, working with its underlying inherent qualities to create places that inspire and endure. We respect the land.
Collectively, we have shaped our land, but more fundamentally, it is the land that has shaped us. We are passionate about creating inclusive, healthy, intergenerational communities. We work with people, helping to connect them to their environment by listening, understanding and interpreting their stories. In the process of designing places where people live, learn, and play we engage fully with human and spiritual dimensions, and constantly search for deeper meanings and richer connections. We create places with a distinctive identity. We take a human-centred approach.
Shaping land, making spaces and forming architecture are deliberate, cultural acts influenced by our collective relationships. Our design process places whanau (family) and whenua (land) at the centre and is creative, inclusive, collaborative, engaging, inspiring and meaningful. By working alongside tangata whenua (people of the land), and learning and understanding the stories of this country, the environments we create are enriched with the collective culture of place and community. Our places are built upon the histories, narratives and identities of Aotearoa and strong and enduring relationships. We are all people of the land.
Location: Auckland, NZ / Client: Auckland Council & Auckland Transport / Consultants: Tonkin + Taylor, Flow / Awards: Winner Unbuilt Visionary Award, NZILA 2019
Located at the waterline of Auckland’s downtown ferry basin, Te Wānanga is a significant new public space that forms a unique and innovative coastal connection between whenua (land), moana (sea/harbour) and tāngata (people).
Co-designed with knowledge-holders from mana whenua (local Māori tribes), Te Wānanga recognises the evolving nature of the working waterfront environment, remembers the former coastline and respects the people who lived here prior to colonisation. It brings to life Te hā o Te Tangaroa, the breath of Tangaroa the sea god; the natural rhythm and space between high and low tides.
The design creates an elevated ‘tidal shelf’, a porous public space constructed over, and connected with, the sparkling Waitematā harbour. A series of apertures like tidal pools allow people to safely connect with ebb and flow of the sea. Some of the pools have balustrades that extend down to the water. Others are covered with a woven kupenga (net) for people to sit or lie on. Others are edged with seating and filled with native planting, re-establishing a terrestrial ecology at the water’s edge.
Designed to adapt to climate change and sea level rise, the piled structure also offers habitats of prospect and refuge for people on the surface balanced with an enhanced habitat for coastal plants and fish below the waterline.
Location: Auckland, NZ / Client: Auckland Council / Consultants: Rawstorne Studio, Blue Barn, Consulting Engineers, Cato Bolam, Coffey Projects, Natural Habitats / Awards: Outstanding Award–Infrastructure, IFLA 2017; Award of Excellence–Cultural & Urban Landscape, IFLA 2017; World Landscape of the Year, WAF 2016
Kopupaka Reserve represents a design-led approach that integrates community amenities with engineering and ecology. What once might have been considered ‘space left over after planning’ has transformed into a park that challenges expectations around the design and use of stormwater reserves and illustrates how urban growth can be balanced with ecological restoration. This project represents the creation of new public space in tandem with the development of a strong sense of place informed by Māori cultural values.
The weaving of histories and overlapping functions together is the dominant design narrative of Kopupaka Reserve. This hybrid park integrates infrastructure with natural features; it’s part stormwater reserve, urban park, playground and skate park—made possible by dovetailing the masterplanning of new streets with the green infrastructure of the 22ha stormwater reserve. Headwalls, outfalls and retaining structures, are concealed under multiple layers of landscape, while the cultural aspects are visible—the curving timber ‘baskets’ integrated into the edges of three main wetland ponds abstractly reference harakeke (flax) woven into kete (baskets) and hīnaki (eel pots).
Location: Wellington, NZ / Client: Wellington Waterfront / Consultants: NZCEL, Tonkin + Taylor, Aecom, Toulouse, TDG / Awards: NZIA Winner Planning & Urban Design; NZIA Wellington Winner Public Architecture
The Kumutoto precinct, a former carpark, has been transformed into a precinct of contemporary mixed-use buildings and public space composed of two key spatial moves: pushing the city out and letting the sea in. The project extends Wellington’s grid down to the coastal edge providing new pedestrian connections—it also ‘declaims’ the buried mouth of the Kumutoto Stream, letting the sea in.
A triangular open space explores the interaction between water and land, a folded hardwood timber deck forms the ground plane, its triangulated angles speak to the ever-present tectonic forces that underlie this reclaimed waterfront site. Playful in nature, it creates a landform that floats above the coastal edge and opens up to allow coastal ecology to burst through. The bespoke timber pavilion was born out of the upward abstraction of the folded ground plane. Fashioned from a matrix of vertical cedar battens the building is symbolic of the much-loved coastal tree, the pōhutukawa.
The success of Kumutoto derives from its flexibility and the way it incorporates the characteristics and materiality of the pre-existing working waterfront. Although it is a new and unique space, it is also familiar and appropriate. Fitting in, and of its place, at the edge of the city, at the edge of the world.
Location: Auckland, NZ / Client: Hobsonville Point Land Company / Consultants: Nelson Byrd Woltz, Salmond Reed Architects, Thorburn Consultants, Soil & Rock / Awards: Planning & Urban Design, NZIA 2019
Hobsonville Point is a new suburb of Auckland designed to generate a socially successful and sustainable community. After a decade of development thousands of people are already living in new homes on safe streets connected to transport networks, schools, parks, playgrounds and public amenities.
Te Ara Manawa (pathway among the mangroves) is a 5km coastal park and walking and cycling route around the peninsula that connects the new neighbourhoods with the upper Waitematā Harbour. Along its length are clues, cues and interventions of what is, essentially, a giant play trail. Devised to create habitat for people and wildlife, encouraging children and people of all ages to connect with nature through play.
This coastal landscape is one of the big moves of the masterplan, led by Isthmus. The design creates, restores and connects natural habitats that offer respite from the built intensity of the residential streets, and has become a key enabler of building relationships between the land, people and culture of Hobsonville Point.
Responding to the ever-changing intertidal landscape Te Ara Manawa is a performative and transformative landscape that supports community building in multiple ways, enabling higher density and enhanced liveability through high quality, connected public spaces.
Location: Auckland, NZ / Client: Auckland Council, Waka Kotahi / Consultants: Tonkin + Taylor, URS, Bernard Makoare / Awards: IFLA 2017 Outstanding Award Parks & Open Space; IFLA 2017Outstanding Award Infrastructure; NZILA 2017 Te Karanga o te Tui (Māori Design Excellence)
A true ‘landscape’ project, Onehunga foreshore project creates land and habitat through three simple objectives: recreate the harbour edge, re-establish the mana of the coast by creating new places for people and new habitats for flora and fauna, and reconnect people with the sea by spanning the wide expanse of the motorway.
At Taumanu Reserve, the key design moves acknowledge the existing volcanic landscape, replicate the original coastal cliff alignment by displacing the line to the seaward side of the motorway, build a new coastal-edge landscape behind it and connect the coastal edge via a new pedestrian and cycle bridge. Throughout, the design references the volcanic and cultural significance of Onehunga and focuses on rebuilding the ‘natural’ characteristics of the coastal edge by using the geologies and coastal processes of surrounding areas to guide the new landform.
The 1.4km of new coastline encompasses 9 new beaches—three layered with sand 1m deep to encourage swimming, and one gravel and shell beach planted to protect the nesting birds. Taumanu has been sensitively designed to fit within both cultural and physical landscapes and has been recognised nationally and internationally for its design response.