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Nat Cheshire’s Story - Part 2

He has made such an impact on Auckland’s architectural character over recent years, but Nat Cheshire almost didn’t follow the path his renowned father, architect Pip Cheshire, had carved out. It may even be fair to say he’s made such an impact precisely because it was a path he almost didn’t follow.

One of the designers and owners behind the new Morningside Precinct, himself a local resident, Nat says he viscerally rejected the idea of architecture for most of his younger life.

‘My body rejected it pretty forthrightly,’ Nat told us over coffee towards the end of 2018. ‘I watched what Pip did and saw it as being almost impossibly difficult and with very little to show for that difficulty.

‘I said to somebody the other day that I think architecture is a barely legible art—most people don’t see it. Most people don’t understand it. And many don’t want it. I just grew up watching him working unbelievably hard, day after day, night after night, weekend after weekend. And in a really kind of adversarial environment.

‘It just didn’t correlate, there was none of the obvious kind of trade-off that comes with other creative endeavours, like acting and painting. And so I didn’t understand it at all, even though I grew up inside of it.

‘But I thought I understood painting, and I thought painting was the mechanism by which somebody who was socially isolated as I felt, could convert all of their latent energy into a single pursuit, with at least a faint possibility of triumph. I felt I was not even participating, and I thought it might be the platform by which I might.’

It’s hard to think of Nat being socially isolated. In our previous Under the Hood chat with Nat, we pointed out the high regard people have for him, not just for his work on projects such Britomart, Cafe Hanoi, 1885, the City Works Depot, Milse, but also for his public speaking and his writing.

The Spinoff (the online news site that last year became one of the first tenants in the Morningside Precinct) described Nat as a ‘wonderful writer, speaker, self-described “fake architect”, product designer, branding practitioner, and optimist’.

So to hear Nat describe himself as socially isolated is a surprise.

‘It was nothing extraordinary, just the usual teenage anxieties of being a little white liberal surfer kid, son of a guidance counsellor, born in technicolour Freeman’s Bay in the 80s, colliding with what was for me a fairly tough school, and a culture of testosterone that just terrified me.’

On top of all that, he found Auckland Grammar’s value systems alien and didn’t have the social tools to make the conversion — although he is quick to note that many thrived there. He spent his teenage years relatively alone.

‘Painting was a kind of refuge. The art room was a place I could hide at school and that was safe and where I felt I had a place to stand and something to contribute. It had been such a focus for so long, I had some kind of capacity for it.’

His experience is not uncommon—particularly when he describes it in terms of hunting for a way to participate. And not just to participate, but to make an impact, to punch a hole from one side of his experience to the other and so counterbalance the exclusion he was feeling.

‘It’s a really common story, right?’ Nat says. ‘The teenage kid doesn’t quite fit in, and finds refuge in drawing, writing, clothing, sewing, cooking, whatever. Smashes away, doesn’t think of high school. But at some point, all of that energy and all of that work and all of that toil adds up to something that kind of punches out the other side.

‘Most of the people I know that have seized their own destiny with two hands have fought really hard for it. They are sort of fighting against something as much as they’re fighting for something.’

When I ask Nat whether he has managed to punch through, he mulls over the questions, then turns to his friendships, the contribution his studio has made to the city, a sense of standing … but mainly the few precious relationships he’s been able to forge.

Inevitably, from there, the conversation comes back to Morningside. If there’s tangible evidence anywhere of Nat’s having punched through, it’s here. And the route to ‘here’, to the Morningside project, was via the very friendships in which Nat finally didn’t feel so isolated—reciprocal relationships of deep respect and value, arising from long periods ‘fighting side by side’, that told him he was making progress.

It’s out of that ‘triangulation’ that the Morningside Precinct was born—a not dissimilar path to the one taken by Crave and the collective 10 years ago.

‘The project that we’re doing in Morningside is partly about the place,’ Nat says. ‘But it’s also about taking a set of human relationships that are all kind of mutually important to us and finding a platform that’s kind of worthy of what we think that relationship is capable of.