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Last, Loneliest, Loveliest

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New Zealand Venice Biennale commissioner Tony van Raat discusses the concept of ‘Fundamentals’, the biennale theme chosen by curator Rem Koolhaas.

The 14th International Architecture Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia is the first time that New Zealand, of all countries the most distant from Venice, has presented a national entry at the greatest architecture show in the world. By a fortunate coincidence the theme chosen by the Biennale Curator, Rem Koolhaas, is one which connects New Zealand easily to the international stage. ‘Fundamentals’ invited architects to consider the impact of globalisation on the evolution of architecture in their places. Koolhaas asked exhibitors to consider how the architectural forms and elements they employ are connected to a history, and, by implication, how they may have evolved either in conformity with or in contradiction to that history. 

In short, then, the 2014 Biennale is concerned with the factors which have shaped architecture in different parts of the world over the past century. Exhibits from a multitude of countries are brought together in Venice to enable a discussion to take place which will develop broader and more complex understandings of where and how architecture arises, and in which directions it may develop. The range of national and individual entries on display during the six months of the Biennale provides an enormous diversity of viewpoints, and it is by the sharing of particularity that each nation most effectively contributes to the common discourse. 

There is enormous value to New Zealand in being a part of this event, undoubtedly the world’s most outstanding assembly of architectural exhibits, housed in one of its most fabulous cities. An important reason for participation at a national level is that New Zealand has a distinctive architectural history to contribute, one well-aligned with the theme Koolhaas has proposed. New Zealand has particular qualities and characteristics – geographic and climatic, demographic and cultural (including the relationship between its indigenous and settler peoples, and, until recently, a tradition of egalitarianism) – which set it apart. Also, one could argue, it is relatively unburdened by history, which may be another way of saying that, over the past hundred years and in contrast to numerous of the world’s nations, its woes have been largely self-inflicted. 

Perhaps one of New Zealand’s most significant attributes is smallness. Dwarfed by the immense populations of some other countries New Zealand has little incentive to try and project an aura of authority to the world. The country is unusually free to follow an independent path and to act either with or without reference to styles, pressures or influences from the outside.

Of course, there is a unique New Zealand history – or more correctly histories, for no one telling can encompass national diversity – and there is much borrowing from the rest of the world. Although it could be argued that in New Zealand history is often assumed uncritically and borrowings are largely unselfconscious, the country, which is the last-settled of the world’s major land masses and therefore populated by immigrants, does exhibit a unique synthesis of strands of influence drawn from diverse sources. It is the survival and evolution of one of these strands of influence, the Pacific architectural tradition, that is the curatorial focus of Creative Director David Mitchell and the talented team he assembled to prepare New Zealand’s exhibition at the Biennale Architeturra 2014.

Mitchell is one of New Zealand’s most prominent architects. In a long and substantial career he has produced many fine buildings and collected every possible award his peers can bestow. He brings to his writing on architecture an acuity and a gift for a telling phrase; through his teaching he has mentored generations of young architects. His practice has been largely concentrated in the islands of his homeland but he has also sailed far and wide, and in the course of his journeys has developed a powerful and insightful connection with the Pacific region.

The exhibition which Mitchell and his team have designed looks at a lineage of New Zealand architecture. It puts forward a set of propositions – sometimes provocations – about where New Zealand architecture has come from, where it might go, and how islands in the South Pacific connect to a wider architectural world.

There is nothing absolutist about the narrative Mitchell’s team has pursued, but nor does the exhibition attempt to synthesise every aspect of New Zealand architecture into a bland communiqué. On the contrary, it presents a particular point of view on how a local architecture has evolved, how it has, in Koolhaas’ construct, “absorbed modernity”.

The exhibition also raises the issue – and, again, more as memo than manifesto – of how such a history can inform the future, not least in the reconstruction of Christchurch, the country’s earthquake-devastated second city. Without attempting to represent whatever might be typical of New Zealand architecture, the exhibition posits a point of possible resistance to the prospect of an inevitable movement from national architectures towards a universal architectural language.

The exhibition team assembled by the Creative Director is a microcosm of its society: men and women, young and old(er), people of Māori and European descent, practitioners and academics. The rich diversity of this group reminds us of another architectural theme. Architecture is always social; it is made for social purposes, and made in social ways. This professional characteristic is on display in New Zealand’s exhibition la Biennale di Venezia, just as evidently as the tectonic and formal histories which the exhibition so clearly describes.

This article was first published as the foreword to ‘Last, Loneliest, Loveliest’, the catalogue for New Zealand's inaugural exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

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