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An Architecture of Us

An Architecture of Us

May 27, 2014 Urban design

Last, Loneliest, Loveliest, New Zealand’s exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale, is a rare showcase of Pacific architecture on a global stage.

There’s not much architecture in New Zealand. Or should that be: there’s not much distinctively New Zealand architecture? Generations of architects will testify both propositions are patently wrong. But I have to confess the thought was in the back of my mind as I set off for Cambridge on a press fellowship in 2010 to try to answer another question: why was it that we didn’t have mainstream media architecture coverage by architecture correspondents and critics in New Zealand? Could it be there simply wasn’t much architecture to talk about?

New Zealand’s first-ever entry in the Venice Architecture Biennale (June 7–November 23) sets the record straight on several fronts. We have lots of architecture — well, at least three examples the world is taking notice of. The Auckland Art Gallery, with its magnificent slender, tapering columns, won “World Building of the Year 2013” at the World Architecture Festival. Auckland School of Architecture’s Frances Cooper, 24, won The Architectural Review’s prestigious 2013 Post-Graduate Global Archi­tecture Graduate Award. And Shigeru Ban, of Christchurch cardboard cathedral fame, has just taken the highest accolade in the industry, the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Go New Zealand!

Except: the gallery’s lead architect, Richard Francis-Jones, is an Australian, and Shigeru Ban is Japanese. “There is a great desire for things to be of us and not of other people,” says the creative director of New Zealand’s exhibition at the biennale, David Mitchell.

But it doesn’t bother him that an Australian architect comes here and “does those trees” — the kauri-lined fan-vault canopies of the new gallery.

“It seems to me an absolutely clear representation of Pacific desires opposed to the Renaissance building next door.” He means the steeply pitched slate roofs and ornate dormers of the 1887 French chateau-style building that bends around the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley streets. Mitchell isn’t bothered by Shigeru Ban’s cardboard cathedral either. “Japanese architecture has a continuous Pacific tradition.”

Mitchell and his biennale gang intend to show that it’s the Pacific way that makes our architecture distinctive. How?

“With a bit of string and sticks”, No 8 wire and tents hanging inside the Palazzo Pisani Santa Maria in Venice. At the entrance will be a specially carved single-pole pataka with an illuminated model of the 1929 Auckland War Memorial Museum inside. “A storehouse in a storehouse,” says Mitchell. “Perspectives shift with time and we’re talking about the unsung tradition of architecture rather than the one we’ve always assumed is architecture of the European tradition.”

It sounds a bit mad. But the idea fits right into the “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014” theme of the biennale, curated by Dutch architectural superstar Rem Koolhaas. Some 65 countries will showcase how national identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity — how in the past 100 years, architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global.

Koolhaas hopes such a global overview of “architecture’s evolution into a single, modern aesthetic” will uncover within globalisation “the survival of unique national features and mentalities that continue to exist and flourish even as international collaboration and exchange intensify”.

New Zealand’s stand against the march of modernism is entitled Last, Loneliest, Loveliest. Some say the name is corny, hackneyed and dated. Others say it evokes the exotic. The notion has certainly been paraded before, as Charles Walker notes in Exquisite Apart, a collected history of New Zealand Institute of Architecture (NZIA) awards.

“Exquisite apart”, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Song of the Cities, “is routinely celebrated in post-colonial Aotearoa New Zealand; extolled in tourist brochures and etched onto the walls of corporate foyers.”

Romantic notions of distance and apart­ness, says Walker, have been a common thread in attempts to construct a compelling narrative of our architectural history. This mythologising of architecture, here considered largely in terms of the New Zealand house — “as shed, bach, Pacific pavilion or tent, lonely in or alone against the landscape” — might actually have “hindered the development of more sophisticated, more urbane, local architecture”.

Mitchell insists Last, Loneliest, Loveliest, commissioned by the NZIA, “is really just to identify New Zealand, not the architecture”. Opposite the pataka, at the entrance, our place in the world is presented centre stage on a globe map — actually a Kim Meek painting showing the various routes taken by Polynesian navigators, Pacific explorers and airlines to arrive at the end of the earth.

Visitors, now oriented, proceed into an open-ended gable tent suspended from the ceiling, held down with sash cord weights and back-lit. The new history, told in panels printed on the tent fabric walls and ceiling, begins with fale and wharenui and traverses what happens next when the viewer adopts a Pacific filter.

The ingenious folded roof support of John Scott’s Futuna chapel gets a panel of its own. The Group architects’ elegant sheds are in, as are “self-consciously Pacific” houses such as Mitchell and Stout’s Heke St house and Herbst Architects’ “Under Pohutukawa” house. But vast swathes of New Zealand modernism, such as the Whanganui War Memorial Hall, are out because they don’t fit the story.

Some inclusions, such as Warren and Mahoney’s Christchurch buildings of the 1960s and Peter Beavan’s Lyttelton Tunnel Authority building, require a sleight of eye to see the fit. They’re in because the architects were “concrete carpenters”, presenting in-situ concrete as if it were timber joinery, in much the same way as Kunio Maekawa and Kenzo Tange had been doing in Japan.

At the end of the tent, the pièce de résistance: a tower of thin sticks of New Zealand beech providing platforms to display Frances Cooper’s urban littoral — her grand, playful, anti-iconic design for Auckland’s Wynyard Point. “There’s an oceanic perspective which runs in this stuff, represented by the backdrop of the sea and the sky,” says Mitchell. “It looks anew at accommodating the public life of a city on a Pacific shore.”

The impossibly thin timber beams holding up Cooper’s work, which is flanked by images of Ban’s cathedral and the Auckland Art Gallery, are post-tensioned with No 8 wire — a nod to pioneering timber techniques developed at the University of Canterbury.

At Mitchell and Stout’s offices, there’s palpable excitement in the air and much scurrying about in preparation for flying the exhibition’s various components to Venice later this month. How will it be received?

“There is a kind of architecture that has been in the Pacific for a long time that has received very little attention from the European forum. And the distinctions we are trying to make are certainly not in common discussion,” says Mitchell. “I’m sort of vain enough to hope Europeans might enjoy seeing a tradition that’s not their own.”

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