A new focal point for Auckland's Tongan community

Photography by Patrick Reynolds

 A massive banquet is laid out for 1500–2000 people at the opening.Built with volunteer labour and opened with a banquet for 2000 people, a new building in Māngere provides a focal point for Auckland’s Tongan community.

“I think it’s quite unique. I’ve never seen a building with a frangipani mould.” Reverend Frederick Feki is talking about the gorgeous coved ceiling of the new Lesieli Tonga auditorium beside the Tuingapapai Free Wesleyan Church in Favona Road, M¯angere. It’s an impressive sight – a duck egg blue canopy of giant frangipani flowers enveloping a huge square hall.

Feki, general secretary of the Tongan church’s New Zealand district, became the building’s project manager when the church decided to run the multi-million project themselves. The frangipani ceiling came from the drawing board of architect Michael O’Sullivan. “He tied it into how we culturally use a lei of frangipani to welcome guests, but Michael had a different concept,” says Feki.  “It’s more of a blanket that wraps the guests who walk in with that warm feeling of belonging.”

King Tupou VI of Tonga opened the building in December and named the new hall Lesieli Tonga, after the first female dux of Tongatapu’s Tupou College in 1871 and the mentor-tutor of Queen Salote Tupou III. It was the first time the king had named a building after a commoner. At the opening, O’Sullivan said in his speech: “Your majesty, this hall is a testament to your people’s faith. It is a testament to their fearlessness. And I have symbolised that with a blanket of sweet frangipani that sits above you.”

"This building is big enough. Everyone fits inside. Having a building where you can be Tongan is quite special.”

The ceiling clearly signals a Pacific building, capturing the sense of enclosure inside a traditional fale, but the building also differs from the fale form by being square and with a deliberately defined entrance to the north, rather than being open all around. As Feki points out, there are about 60,000 Tongans in Auckland so whenever there are celebrations, there is always a big turnout. “We’ve never had a building that is big enough to accommodate the Tongan community. This building is big enough. Everyone fits inside. Having a building where you can be Tongan is quite special.”

The building is indeed big: 46 metres by 46 metres square, the 14-metre-high auditorium (O’Sullivan prefers to call it the “living room”) is flanked by a seven-metre-wide perimeter of service areas and a stage. It’s also fit for a king, with an elevated royal alcove with its own entrance and bathroom in a corner of the upper level.

What was the brief? “We needed a multi-purpose building for various church activities, mainly for our youth and for various other gatherings that are outside the church,” says Feki. At the opening with King Tupou VI, Queen Nanasipau’u and other royals in attendance, the building got its first real workout – a feast of epic proportions for 1500 to 2000 people involving row upon row of tables piled high with food, including some 300 spit-roasted pigs topped with three crayfish on each.

“For us Tongans it was a normal sight, but I did get quite a lot of feedback from visitors who were overwhelmed by the amount of food,” says Feki. “Food and sharing is very central in our culture. It also shows the festive spirit of the parishioners who donated the banquet and how much they appreciated the building.” The parishioners from all the 40 or so Free Wesleyan churches in New Zealand also paid for the building. “We never took a loan out on the building. We never took a mortgage,” says Feki. “The building was built with what we saved.” It took about two-and-a-half years to complete, assisted by volunteer labour from Tonga. Built without a main contractor, Feki says the biggest challenge was “co-ordinating contractors to work like a puzzle to fall into place when they are due.” He acknowledges the help of respected council building inspector Semi Pulu and a lot of divine guidance in getting through the process.

Feki also acknowledges O’Sullivan, whose involvement in the project spans seven years. “Michael has been quite pivotal in the whole journey. One of the reasons we chose Michael was that he was local and grew up in the area. He knows the people, and his ideas and his plans were quite unique. We felt that he knew the culture.”

Does O’Sullivan have a connection to the Tongan community? “Yeah, rugby,” he laughs. Born and bred in  ¯Ot¯ahuhu, he played for  ¯Ot¯ahuhu Rugby Club and is currently living nearby at the base of M¯angere Mountain. His boys play for Manukau. He’s undoubtedly a local boy. At the job interview his firm, Bull O’Sullivan, was up against several of the biggest architectural practices in the country, but he was surprised to find the interviewer was someone he had played alongside for 10 years at the club. At the end of the day rugby, and an arresting design, was the winner.

On the stage, where the king sat during the opening, O’Sullivan points out the charred Portuguese cork wall which his firm donated. His family donated the lettering (for which he created a special font) for the Lesieli Tonga name on the front of the building. “You’ve got to be seen to be contributing, which is a nice thing. It’s very un-Anglo Saxon,” says O’Sullivan.

What was the idea behind the cork? He says he wanted a material that looked like the inside of a coconut. “You offer the inside of a husk. You lay the woven mat for the king and then you create a living room. So, it’s really a domestic condition more than an auditorium.”

Opposite the stage on the north side, the hall is flooded with light by an intriguing translucent wedge, cleverly framed with a series of diagonal purlins between the rafters. The result is a kind of visual illusion whereby the flat underside of the translucent wedge appears to undulate as a series of shallow gables. Beneath the light wedge is the entrance, painted in the resolution blue that permeates the church’s understanding of the Methodist faith, and comprising two sets of 18 doors either side of an air-locked space. “I’ve never seen a building with so many doors,” says Feki. “That is a symbol of welcome.”

The low, narrow, zig-zagging roof above the door airlock is akin, says O’Sullivan, to a beachside fale.

The idea is to create a sense of compression at the entrance which heightens the arrival into the vast universe of the auditorium. “It’s a scale shifter,” he says. “It compresses you then pops you.”

So far, Lesieli Tonga is being used by a wide variety of church groups and has held several big events, including a royal wedding for one of Princess Pilolevu Tuita’s daughters and a memorial service for the Queen Mother Halaevalu Mata’aho, who died on 19 February.

“The building is open to everybody, really, although we do have restrictions. There is no alcohol to be served in there,” says Feki.  

O’Sullivan agrees that on first glance, from the outside, the building is fairly plain, largely driven by keeping costs down. “It’s a concrete box, a very rigid platonic square, getting the most for the least,” he says. “It’s not a big chunk of architecture. It’s a big building with little chunks of architecture.”

Already Lesieli Tonga is hive of church and other activity. “We already have bookings for Indian and Samoan weddings,” says Feki. “You don’t have to be Tongan or a Pacific Islander, you just have to be a New Zealander and you can use the building.”


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