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The Pacific Gene

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David Mitchell, Creative Director of the New Zealand exhibition at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, sits down with John Walsh to discuss sailing, modernism and the consciousness of a Pacific tradition of architecture in New Zealand.

John Walsh: Rem Koolhaas’ theme, ‘Absorbing Modernity: 1914 to 2014’, prompts creators of Biennale exhibitions to respond to the issues of ubiquity and homogeneity in modern architecture. The suggestion seems to be that the location of architecture is becoming irrelevant. There’s no escape from modernity.

David Mitchell: Koolhaas is generally right, of course. Anyone who travels notices that, more and more, things seem to be the same. However, the story of modernity in New Zealand is complicated. A hundred years ago, New Zealand didn’t have any distinctive architecture that it was prepared to acknowledge. There were Māori meeting houses and other buildings but they weren’t viewed as architecture. They were treated as anthropological artefacts.

New Zealand architecture was very slow to move to modernism. For example, the neo-Classical Auckland War Memorial Museum, which houses a large collection of Māori work, dates from 1929, the same year as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. For much of last century we were carrying a lot of British imperial baggage. We’ve slowly shucked that off. Also, the relations between Māori and Europeans in New Zealand are now richer and far more interwoven than they were. Increasingly, we’ve become aware of the strain of architecture which spent 3,000 years travelling, like language, with the people who settled the Pacific and who arrived in New Zealand about 750 years ago. Their architecture was in their DNA.

The Pacific has a great architectural tradition, although hardly anyone honours it, and it has continued over the past century in South-east Asia and Japan. In New Zealand, we architects were unwittingly influenced by the Pacific tradition in the 1950s and ’60s because we were so captivated by what the Japanese did. Now, I think, we consciously reference the Pacific tradition, which is essentially a post-and-beam and panel infill way of building that is thoroughly non-European.

New Zealand: ‘last and loneliest’, to borrow Kipling’s phrase, which you have affixed to your exhibition. What was happening in the country’s architecture in the middle of last century, when British imperialism was expiring and the International Style was dominant?

It was a time in which being a New Zealander and being different from the British was what artists and writers and many architects were wanting to be. There was a good deal of rejection of international modernism here in favour of regional variants such as those of California and Japan. Architects were self-consciously seeking ‘New Zealandness’ and finding it, ironically, in Japan and Scandinavia.

I don’t think we worry about that much anymore. We’re more concerned with the language of architecture, and we’re not too worried about where it comes from. At the same time, we’re aware there’s a Pacific tradition we can turn to if we want.

Even allowing for the post-colonial concern with national identity the mid-century interest in Japanese architecture in a Eurocentric Western outpost seems surprising.

It’s very hard not to be interested in Japanese architecture if you’re half an architect. When I started architecture school the Japanese were trying to work out how to absorb their traditions in the creation of new architecture. Architects like Kenzo Tange and Kunio Maekawa were making concrete buildings that looked, almost, as though they were made of wood. In New Zealand Peter Beaven, who had been to Japan and was captivated by its architecture, did exactly the same thing with the Lyttelton Road Tunnel Administration Building [1964] in Christchurch.

I don’t think there has been a time in my life when Japanese architecture hasn’t been interesting. Because Japanese culture allows a kind of single-mindedness that’s not easily tolerated in New Zealand, Japanese architects can be very clear in their intentions.

There are heroic qualities to Japanese architecture that have generally been absent in New Zealand.

The pragmatic tradition is very strong among New Zealand architects. Showing how you make buildings is a big thing here, and the explicitness of making is also a defining characteristic of Pacific architecture. The simplest buildings in the Pacific, which are made of logs or bamboo and lashing, are very clear in their assembly. Of course, legibility was also important to the New Brutalists in Britain, and you can see their influence in the work of Sir Miles Warren in Christchurch in the 1960s. Miles made a great play of how he put his buildings together, articulating every joint, which is a fabricator’s way of looking at architecture.

Is consciousness of Pacific architecture stronger in some parts of New Zealand than others?

It’s stronger in the north than it is in the south, that is, the closer you get to the Pacific Islands. In Auckland, over the past 40 years, there is a lineage of architects who have been interested in a Pacific way of architecture. People will say the climate is easy in Auckland and you can have roofed verandas and a lighter architecture. But I think architecture is far more influenced by habit than physical function. Functionalism is a cultural idea. People do things because architecture is language and they carry it and they hang on to it as long as they can, just as the Māori brought Pacific ways of building, and just as European New Zealanders hung on to British patterns.

I think there’s a Pacific quality to many aspects of New Zealand’s life. You can see it in the way we use our weekends, for example, and in our relatively confident relationship with the natural world. The ocean is out there, and most of us are not very far from it, and it’s a long, long way to anywhere else. Regardless of the state of information technology, a sense of remoteness or isolation is built into people.

Down at the end of the world, things can seem ephemeral and transient, as fragile and impermanent as much Pacific architecture.

There are some ironies in this, and one of them is that timber houses fared better than brick houses in the recent earthquakes in Christchurch. This is a pattern in many New Zealand disasters. I live in a three-storey house made of pre-cast concrete and I can tell you that when we had a small earthquake last year, and I happened to be lying on my bed, my mind sprang to the glued bolts in the walls that help hold the concrete floors up. After the Christchurch earthquakes flexibility and resilience became compelling goals in building. In Christchurch people simply don’t want to build higher than three stories because they want to be able to get out of their buildings alive.

The desire to make resilient buildings, or buildings that are more resilient than they were, will last some time, at least until the next seismic theory comes along. Permanence is an important issue. Most people imagine their house to be more permanent than them, and there are probably good psychological reasons for wanting to believe this. One of the results of impermanence is an absence of record. This perhaps is why Pacific architecture has been given little attention. Most of it has either rotted or been blown away or eaten by insects. This happens to most timber architecture, with notable exceptions like some of the major shrines in Japan which have been rebuilt in their original image for hundreds of years.

You’re a sailor and you’ve sailed in the Pacific. How did that experience affect you?

It had a big influence on me. Mike Austin, who is one of our creative team, had long spoken about Pacific architecture and I was aware of it, and I knew about the anthropologists who had tracked people across the Pacific. But in 1988 Julie Stout and I sailed to the Pacific Islands that are close to us – Tonga and Fiji and Vanuatu and New Caledonia – and we saw and went into buildings that are Pacific buildings, made of sticks and thatch. We liked them; they were architecturally interesting to us. It was intriguing to find, for example, that the Melanesians, in Fiji and Vanuatu, kept the sun out – their houses are really dark – whereas the Polynesians, in Samoa and Tonga, built more open pavilions of the fale kind.

The second time we went away, for nearly all of the 1990s, we sailed to many more islands. Some of them were big islands, like Borneo and the Philippines, where large numbers of people live in fragile bamboo and timber houses. The Pacific is a richer architectural area than we’d imagined. You can go and look at houses that are built in much the same way across most of the Pacific Islands – traditional houses – and reflect that there are ancient metal engravings showing houses very like these, which were built long ago. The engravings last, the buildings decay.

The Pacific tradition extended a long way. Southeast Asia has wonderful saddle-roofed houses. We saw them on Indonesian islands like Sumatra and Sulawesi. These houses are obviously genetically related. What’s fundamental to this architecture is the steep-roofed, thatched, panel-and-beam way of building.

Can you connect this tradition to modern-era architecture in New Zealand? Can you identify the elements of a fusion architecture?

I know it’s difficult, and perhaps dangerous, to draw lines, but a sort of crossing-over happened early in European settlement. Rangiatea church [Otaki, 1851] is like a Māori meeting house and it’s also like an English church. A century later, Richard Toy’s All Saints church [Auckland, 1959] looks like a meeting house. John Scott’s drawings show that Futuna Chapel [Wellington, 1961] was a transformation of church and meeting house forms.

At a certain point, the influences on people are so complex that you can’t pin them down easily.

We’ve chosen in this exhibition to focus on work that seems to make links to Pacific architecture. Some New Zealand buildings are in the cross-over camp, and many more aren’t. But the latter, we think, may not be particularly interesting to an international audience. So, yes, we have a bias towards what interests us.

Was the Heke Street House [Auckland, 1990], which Julie Stout and you designed for yourselves, influenced by your journeys through the Pacific Islands?

Oh yes! Julie and I designed the original version of that house when we were on our boat in Fiji in 1988. That version was extremely open. It had a roll-over roof and a mezzanine on poles because we’d become aware of this Pacific way of doing things. We got back and saw a site with two buildings overlooking it at almost point-blank range on the side boundaries and realised our design was completely hopeless. The site was in an inner-city neighbourhood of nineteenth century houses which were in fact wooden modifications of European terraced housing, with gaps between houses, introduced so that fire didn’t jump across.

In the 1960s New Zealand architects started to join houses together again. That didn’t really happen until after Sir Miles Warren designed the Dorset Street Flats in Christchurch [1957]. Twenty years later, Marshall Cook designed some new, very influential town-houses in Auckland. And I suppose Julie and I saw the Heke Street House within those historic frameworks, once we’d got rid of our ridiculously romantic notion of what a Pacific house might be in Auckland.

The Group Architects also influenced Julie and me, as they influenced, directly or indirectly, many Auckland architects. I see Patrick Clifford’s own house [Clifford-Forsyth House, 1995] as being quite close to the rational period of Group Architects. There was a clear structure and intellectual rigour in much of the Group’s work, which still appeals. I’m sure it appealed to Patrick when he designed his house, which is a very good house.

Who are some of the other New Zealand architects who have given or are giving modernity a Pacific face?

There are many architects working in this tradition, some more overtly or self-consciously than others. Pete Bossley, for example, has always been interested in the idea of architecture as encampment. Herbst Architects have designed a series of wonderful houses on New Zealand’s northern coasts that express their fascination with lightweight architecture and a delight in assemblage. The late Gerald Melling designed inexpensive houses that are sophisticated huts – there’s no excess in his buildings, which of course is a quality shared by Pacific and early Modernist architecture. Rick Pearson’s Rotoroa Visitor Centre and Architecture Workshop’s Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre strongly suggest the Pacific tradition in their roof forms.

Pacific architecture is timber architecture. Are you a timber architect?

Initially I was, because generally timber is cheaper. In the 1960s when a house was designed for a plumber or school teacher on a government loan, with one bathroom and two bedrooms in 80 square metres, then it was made of wood. Later, I designed bigger buildings for much richer people, with different experiences of the world, who expected different kinds of buildings – more permanent buildings. These buildings tended to be made out of stuff that can last a long time – concrete and reinforced blockwork and steel.

Koolhaas’ theme, ‘Absorbing Modernity’, must resonate with you, because this is what you must have been doing over the course of a long career.

I grew up as a confirmed Modernist. I’ve been influenced by so many things, and after about 50 years it’s pretty hard to remember what they all were. I loved everything Le Corbusier built, and I still do. Corb was clearly a big influence on Bruce Rotherham, too, when he drew the plan of his little house in Devonport [1951] that’s one of the masterpieces of Auckland architecture. He has also been a huge influence on Rem Koolhaas, I might say.

That kind of influence doesn’t evaporate. You study all those buildings, you visit dozens of them, but their impression becomes overlaid by other architecture. Pacific architecture was probably, in my case, an overlay. I wasn’t thinking about it when I was young. I was perhaps thinking about it when I was 40, and since then it has become more interesting to me as internationalisation or globalisation has become more pronounced. I have become more interested in Pacific architecture and less willing to turn the pages of the latest magazine or open the latest World Architecture News page on my computer – which I confess I still do.

Has the Pacific itself become more interesting to you?

I have vivid memories of sailing big distances to small islands and finding wonderful people who couldn’t understand what an architect does. I remember trying to explain the job to someone on a little island off the tail end of Papua New Guinea. This man had built three houses and I’d never built any. There was just a way of doing it, to him. For most people in New Zealand there’s just a vernacular way of building, too. It’s not my way, I’m aware of that.

The issue of absorption raises the question of resistance. Architects have always had to reconcile universal principles with local circumstances and local tastes, although, as Rem Koolhaas implies, that reality might have changed. How far should an architect float with the current flow?

I think your architectural responses have to be authentic in terms of your experience. That’s the most important issue – does it ring true?

The difficulty with architectural fashions is that they are instantly entrancing but often shallow.

They enable you to step into the moment but perhaps not far into anything else. There’s a kind of authenticity, or something that rings true to your experiences, which is about as much as you can hope for. That, and the experiences of your clients. You’re constantly looking into your clients to find something that distinguishes them from other people. You’re hunting for the things that might give you a breakthrough.

I don’t have any belief that I’m running any kind of moral cause in any of this. If someone comes along and says they want a building made of bricks, I’ll design them a building made of bricks. Architects will do damn near anything. I’m just looking for a chance to do something that hooks me. If you read The Edifice Complex [Penguin, 2005] by Deyan Sudjic, a book about architecture and power, you find a great many much-admired architects have done things for very grim regimes.

Talking of bricks, there must be something satisfying about presenting an exhibition of stick architecture in the city of stones.

Yes, I like the juxtaposition. The more we talked about how we’d do the exhibition, the lighter it got. When we first looked at photographs of our venue, Palazzo Pisani Santa Marina, we said, ‘This is pretty good architecture – we had better respect it’. We thought we might draw on the spatial and material qualities of the palazzo, but the further we went the more we realised that what we wanted to talk about was not that stuff at all. It’s fine to put an artwork, a three metre high pink object, in one of these Venetian spaces. It looks terrific, but if you’re trying to talk about Pacific architecture it doesn’t necessarily help you much, particularly if you want to use a lot of pictures. So we moved towards darkening the space. We said, ‘Venice is full of these great rooms that are as high as they are wide and three times as long. We’ll just try to evoke the Pacific in ours’.

The contrast between Venetian and Pacific materiality might be a little more complex. Venice is a masonry city but it is built on a foundation of wooden piles.

One thing I was interested in, although we don’t actually deal with it in our exhibition, was the tremendous popularity of the pole house in New Zealand a few decades ago. These were houses supported by poles dropped into the ground. I designed a fair few of them in the 1970s but haven’t done many since. The pole house is really a Pacific way of doing things, building a resilient frame and bracing it and sticking a house onto it. We had a lot of trouble taking the poles through the house and holding the roof up with them because the poles were never regular – a characteristic of vernacular architecture, of course.

Is the lightweight Pacific tradition incompatible with urbanism?

I don’t think so, but it might be a different kind of urbanism. There are some intensely dense areas of the world built in lightweight construction. One thinks of the outskirts of Manila and other places in Southeast Asia where people build on poles in the sea, which is cheaper than anything else they can do because they don’t own land. Fire used to be the problem with timber structures but fire-fighting tools such as sprinklers have got better. Timber construction and density are no longer incompatible. We can now design multi-storey timber buildings because we think we can stop the fire before it gets far into the wood.

You would think that Auckland, a city of harbours and inlets and beaches, would be, in its way, as suited for water-borne habitation as Venice.

I think it would be, and it’s a shame we don’t have more of it. We find it impossible to declaim. Letting the sea in costs money, and it only gives you water, as financiers see it. It doesn’t give you a mortgageable asset. I believe the Tank Farm area on the Auckland waterfront should have some major declamations. Tongues of the sea should reach in to Victoria Park, which once was harbour. Frances Cooper’s scheme, which won the post-graduate category in The Architectural Review’s Global Architecture Graduate Awards in 2013, and which is in our exhibition, does a great deal of declamation. Frances eats away not just at the notion of the iconic building on the harbour end of the Tank Farm, but also at the notion of a single Tank Farm site, by carving pieces out of the reclamation and making an island of them.

Two buildings prominent in your exhibition are the Christchurch Transitional or ‘Cardboard’ Cathedral [2013], designed by Shigeru Ban, and the extension to Auckland Art Gallery [2012], designed by Australian architect Richard Francis-Jones.

The fact they’re foreigners doesn’t concern me at all. It shows that people can appreciate a Pacific tradition in this globalised age. People might know of the Auckland Art Gallery but probably have not seen it in the kind of light in which we’re trying to illustrate it. It’s clear that the old part of the Auckland Art Gallery [1887] was designed as a French chateau, that the new part is a Pacific pavilion, and that the two have been skilfully pulled together. It’s a very good example for us.

What sort of experience do you think visitors to your exhibition will have?

I hope they’ll have a Pacific experience. It’s as different as could be to living in Venice, because although Venice is on the sea, it sits in a lagoon and its sea is the rather gentle Adriatic. Whereas we are an oceanic people, and we want to show how oceanic people have responded architecturally to their condition. We know there are many other influences and we also know we may be rather romantic in our approach, but making myths you can believe in seems to me central to art, and to architecture.

Do you think you might be willing a Pacific architecture into being?

Well, advocating for its influence, anyway. There are no guarantees that it is a tradition that will continue, but I hope it does. It’s not entirely ours, that’s the other enriching aspect of it, just as European architecture doesn’t belong only to Europe.

The continuance of the Pacific architecture tradition is one thing, but there’s also the more basic question of the survival, in a time of climate change, of Pacific islands themselves.

There are islands I know that are simply going to go under. There doesn’t seem to be much option to that. I guess the inhabitants will just have to leave. But consider this: there was a very significant tsunami in New Zealand a couple of hundred years after the Māori had settled, and some anthropologists have suggested that the descendants of the great oceanic navigators, the people who carried the story of the journey to New Zealand, may have been wiped out because they lived by the sea.

You talk about the Pacific gaze. A sea view is a prized asset anywhere, but there is something melancholy about the permanent contemplation of the horizon.

We sometimes have trouble designing enough windows for houses that have a terrific sea view, because architecture is not made out of a view. It’s concerned with the relationship between you and the view, and with interior space, which is what the view can endanger. One result of this is that architects have increasingly tried to make on coastal sites an alternative world that is contained. For example, on Matarangi beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, one house has learnt from another, or rather the owners have. We designed a house [Matarangi House, 2005] with a courtyard on the landward side, and now along the way are more courtyards, some more enclosed than ours, and in some ways more useful. What’s happening is an architectural conversation about how you live in this type of coastal place, which has shifted the emphasis from the view to more complex issues.

Are you optimistic about New Zealand architecture?

Of course. It’s hard to impress me, though. This might just happen to everybody as they get older. Young architects are always eager to be first out of the blocks. I don’t see particular value in that anymore, and I do see a lot of boring repetition. But, hell, talent is born every day.

Do you see yourself as a Pacific architect?

I certainly see myself as an architect from the South Pacific. I see myself as a New Zealand architect, no question. I don’t think that living here, and all the influences from Le Corbusier to sailing a boat, has made me the same as a European architect. I would be a bit uncomfortable trying to operate in Italy, and in most European cities, to be honest.

Is there room for a Pacific tradition response to the rebuild of the city of Christchurch?

It’s already happening, even if it wasn’t planned. Seismic theory has a big influence. Elements of multi-storey timber-framed buildings are being tested at the University of Canterbury, and built in Christchurch and elsewhere. These buildings aim to be more resilient than concrete buildings – they can bounce back after an earthquake deforms them. Some use post-tensioned beams, which have pre-stressed cables threaded through them or below them. You can see the principle in a little wooden tower we have modelled in our Biennale exhibition. It’s not far removed from the lashed beam-and-post joints of Pacific buildings, which flex without collapsing.

The fundamentals of Pacific architecture are lightness and flexibility, in a manner that usually includes posts, beams and infill panels under big roofs. The Christchurch earthquake has given new importance to light, flexible structures, and this may help keep the Pacific way alive.

This is an excerpt from the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale New Zealand exhibition catalogue.

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