Shigeru Ban: Cardboard Cathedral by Andrew Barrie, photographs by Bridgit Anderson and Stephen Goodenough (Auckland University Press, 2014), 252 pp., $59.99; Vertical Living: The architectural centre and the remaking of Wellington by Julia Gately and Paul Walker (Auckland University Press, 2014), 232 pp., $59.99; Bungalow: From heritage to contemporary edited by Nicole Stock, photographs by Patrick Reynolds (Godwit Random House, 2014), 284 pp., $80; Beyond the State: New Zealand state houses from modest to modern by Bill McKay and Andrea Stevens, photography by Simon Devitt (Penguin, 2014), 288 pp., $75; Down the long driveway, you’ll see it by Mary Gaudin and Matthew Arnold (Mary Gaudin), 336 pp., $65; Marae: Te tatau pounamu: A journey around New Zealand’s meeting houses by Muru Walters, Robin Walters and Sam Walters (Penguin Random House, 2014), 416 pp., $80.
It exists as a white peak, a pop-up monument, a kind of wharenui thrown up by earthquake weather. Shigeru Ban’s newly arisen Cardboard Cathedral is, as Auckland University architecture professor Andrew Barrie puts it, ‘one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the country’, a great New Zealand placemark, whose white soaring A-shape unmistakably echoes Samuel Butler’s description of the Southern Alps as resembling ‘a distant cathedral of pure white marble’. Ethereal and glimmering, it speaks to the myth of Christchurch as ‘the Shining City’.
Begun in April 2012 and completed in August 2013, the Cardboard Cathedral was planned as a temporary building, a low-cost low-tech design solution to the fact that Christchurch Cathedral had been knocked out of action by the big earthquake of 22 February 2011. It is located across from Latimer Square on the former site of the John the Baptist Church, itself demolished after earthquake damage.
For Ban, a building is successful ‘if the people love it’. He’s an activist architect: socially responsive, Japanese-born, an inhabitant of the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim to which New Zealand also belongs. Andrew Barrie explains in his introductory essay that Ban’s involvement in the Christchurch rebuild came about by chance. In May 2011 a Cathedral staff member was casually leafing through a copy of Urbis magazine when he saw a one-paragraph reference to a church Ban had constructed in Kobe, Japan, after the 1995 earthquake. He emailed Ban’s office and Ban himself replied almost immediately, offering his services for free.
Visiting Christchurch soon after, Ban produced the basic outline more or less on the spot, which is characteristic of the way he works. It was accepted, and the architect elaborated on it and altered it only slightly as various New Zealand manufacturers and builders became involved. Ban parachuted in and rocketed out, so to speak, but he returned a further 20 times, overseeing the course of construction.
Ban has a global reputation: he’s a starchitect, though an assuming one, and the Cardboard Cathedral has been acknowledged around the world. The concept is one simple idea, a big-top tent-pole idea, from which all else follows: it’s based on using cardboard tubes – but these are no ordinary cardboard tubes, these resemble cardboard toilet rolls on steroids.
Under a waterproof synthetic skin, rows of six-metre-long brown paper tubes form the walls and roofing, laid over a steel A-frame that rests on a foundation of precast concrete slabs. The structure is the height of a six-storey building, and an airy space inside. A set of shipping containers houses offices and amenities. The front facade contains 45 coloured-glass panels that filter the light to a soft glow. Speedily and efficiently built, Ban’s paper cylinder assemblage ended up costing one tenth of the estimate for the proposed new cathedral in the Square.
Barrie expounds on the Cardboard Cathedral as a communal edifice: its raw concrete floor, visible steel boltheads and unpainted wooden supports testifying to its immediacy, its directness, its authenticity. Ban’s architectural roots are in the Californian hippy architecture of the Sixties and Seventies – Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and Native American teepees – allied to the paradoxes of Japanese minimalism: the Japanese paper house. Growing buildings from paper is a poetic conceit, but it’s also practicable and sustainable architecture. Shigeru Ban started building with discarded industrial paper tubes in the 1980s, and in the 1990s became known for disaster relief projects: he constructed emergency shelters, school classrooms and even a concert hall out of paper tubes, in various locations affected by earthquakes.
Fully illustrated and exquisitely produced, Barrie’s book is a fine testament to a building that, mantled with a translucent white plastic membrane, sits lightly on the ground, and yet, continuously renewed, could last for centuries, earthquake after earthquake.
Architects are taste-makers as much as place-makers. There is the mechanical art of building, and then there is the aesthetic pleasure of architecture. Good architecture expertly models volume, inside and out, but it doesn’t just enclose or shelter. It expresses emotions; it generates cultural associations; it constitutes a distinctive experience. New Zealand’s architecture, like that of most other nations, is a mongrel architecture: a mosaic of the beaut, the orsum, the fugly and the blah. And yet, though there’s ‘no place like utopia’ and actual utopias are invariably sinister and repressive, that hasn’t stopped architectural movements from trying to foist a uniform utopian vision on to local townscapes.
In New Zealand in the mid-twentieth century, one strain of nationalist thinking about architecture argued that New Zealand ‘does not draw its self-image from its cities – but rather from an idealised version of rural life: from the wool-shed and the bach’. Another strain of thought challenged this, promoting more, not less, internationalism. In the event, the status quo has been maintained as a hodgepodge of modish trends, encouraging disappointed idealists and polemicists to mutter grudging appreciation, but more often to finger-point at missed opportunities, failures of nerve, the triumph of the mediocre.
Something of the current revisionism and reappraising of architecture can be gleaned from several substantial recent books containing tightly focused narratives about local architectural history. And they are all books whose arguments are sustained, amplified and made commercially attractive by their inclusion of many photographs.
In Vertical Living: The architectural centre and the remaking of Wellington, two non-Wellingtonian architectural historians cogently and entertainingly lay out the story of the redevelopment of urban Wellington from the end of World War II to the near-present, mostly through retailing the story of a particular pressure group.
In 1946 the Wellington Architectural Centre was founded by a group of architectural enthusiasts who wished to promote ‘the transforming potential of modern architecture, the need for urban development to be controlled [and] planning for a better future’. The centre, then, was galvanised into life by a crusading zeal, one seeking to combat the perceived decrepit slum-like sprawl of Wellington and to incorporate into its fabric ‘green parklands studded with strictly-zoned modernist high-rise slab buildings’. At that time, postwar, there was a public appetite for ‘urban hygiene’ in town-planning proposals. Two Architectural Centre members went on to become city councillors and one, Michael Fowler, eventually the mayor.
The authors conclude that the centre’s coherent vision of Modernist tenets – in design as well as architecture – was instrumental in shaping the modern-day look of Wellington, with two of its most notable triumphs being the Wellington waterfront renovation and Wellington’s Civic Square.
Their narrative is nothing if not detailed, however, and in those details is revealed a more chequered account. Taking a wrecking ball into inner-city Wellington, whether in the name of slum clearance, earthquake-risk clearance, motorway clearance, or to create an aesthetically unified townscape, resulted in ‘a clear urban order, a highly legible city’ – one chocker with emblems of civic self-esteem and pullulating with busy pedestrian precincts – but it also resulted in many examples of commercial ‘stodge’ architecture, only mitigated by Wellington’s dramatic topography: ‘the mass of Wellington’s office buildings together looks vastly better than most of them do individually’. Egregious examples follow of other singular specimens, from which it is sufficient to pick the most controversial: while Wellington’s earnest edifice complex resulted in a number of imposing institutional buildings, an underlying cultural cringe or neurosis meant an Ian Athfield–Frank Gehry combination national museum proposal was rejected in favour of the post-Cubist cut-up leviathan, Te Papa Tongarewa, which today lies beached on the Wellington foreshore like the permanent symbolic representation of an ongoing identity crisis – one constantly argued over.
Meanwhile, the centre continues to maintain its ‘better living through better architecture’ lobby-group role: that is, to ‘protest, educate, publish, exhibit and advocate’.
The bungalow began to march across the New Zealand landscape after World War I. In his Foreword to Bungalow: From heritage to contemporary, photographer and architecture school lecturer Patrick Reynolds explains that the bungalow as a house style became ‘the built fashion’ in the 1920s and remained so up until World War II. It caught on because – inglenooked to the hilt – its roominess was in step with the emerging consumer culture of electric stoves, washing machines and refrigerators. It was also ‘more horizontal and grounded’ than the height-aspiring airiness of the villa, which had dominated housing stock to that point. The bungalow brought ‘a new interiority [offering] complete domestic worlds … Homely, separate and complete.’
But, as architectural historian Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins has pointed out elsewhere, for much of the twentieth century ‘the New Zealand house’ – and none more so than the bungalow – was largely about ‘concealment’. The result was ‘a darkness both literal and spiritual … at the heart of the New Zealand house’, reflecting a preoccupation with ‘welfare and security’.
The bungalow’s particular ‘interiority’ of windowless rooms and rooms with small windows was made possible by the arrival of electricity. (Newspapers advertised the ‘Electric Bungalow’.) Reynolds’ aim in photographing numerous examples of the contemporary bungalow is to show how renovation of this heritage style has been defined by ‘opening up their moody interiors to these islands’ bright sunlight’.
Low-slung roofs, deep verandahs, casement windows and extended bargeboards characterised bungalows in New Zealand, which, according to the book’s editor Nicola Stock, developed in two stages. First to be built early on in the twentieth century were architect-designed unique bungalows influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and aspired to by the arts-savvy wealthy. After World War I followed the more ‘popular and prolific’ Californian bungalow.
Yet the New Zealand version of the bungalow was complicated by evolving fads and trends, which meant bungalows were sometimes hybrids or blends, or transitional in style, influenced by villas, English-style cottages, Swiss chalets, Japanese houses and other architectural elements. This has resulted in bungalows that are a challenge to renovate. Nicola Stock tells us that bungalows ‘are often wrecked’.
Thoughtful renovations take time, money, care and consideration, but the results can be richly satisfying, like solving a puzzle, as the examples photographed often attest. Most of these are from around Auckland, where ‘bungalow suburbs have gentrified in a way unmatched by the rest of the country’. Some preserved Arts and Crafts bungalows, though, are shown and discussed in essays by various contributors, notably Marsh House on the Cashmere Hills, built for Dame Ngaio Marsh’s parents by Samuel Hurst Seager in 1906–07; and Waddell Smith House, built around the same time in Dunedin at St Clair near the beach, and designed by Basil Hooper, who later established a large architectural practice in Auckland.
Patrick Reynolds’ large photographs emphasise the tactile (handles, window-latches, built-in fixtures) and also the spatial – the womb-like interiority that protects and shelters. And despite Reynolds’ claim that sympathetically modernised the bungalow conveys an implicit modernity, these buildings still often seem somehow heavy, sombre, brooding, if sometimes grandly baronial with it, as in the case of Sir James Wallace’s art-laden Rannoch house in Epsom. Blending the fine and decorative arts, the dark interior of Hurst Seager’s Marsh House, too, seems as cluttered and ornamental and as fantastical in promise as the magic casements of John Keats, opening on ‘fairy lands folorn’.
But to own a bungalow in the 1930s required capital. They were for the prosperous. In Beyond the State: Houses from modest to modern, architectural historian Bill McKay describes how the first state-housing projects were launched during the Great Depression years as a Labour government initiative to tackle the housing shortage in a way that was affordable for all New Zealand families – in other words renting them – while also emphasising egalitarian ideals: the greatest good for the greatest number.
There had been a forerunner in the prefabricated Railways houses built as part of a housing scheme for employees by the government-owned New Zealand Railways Department. Under Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage’s administration, this prototype was adapted and exponentially expanded. In the years leading up to World War II and immediately after, government planners and architects embraced mass-produced design and the utopian modernist dream. The promotional bumpf marketed the vision of ‘the Garden City’: every family to have its own home, suburban, detached, one-storey, on a block of land large enough to include a back-yard vegetable garden and a front-yard flower garden. A public transport system, schools, community halls, parks and shopping centres would also be provided.
McKay tells us that this state-housing programme, overseen by the Ministry of Works, was so vast that it drove developments of towns and cities, redefining the outskirts of the four main centres. The archetypal state houses were as distinctive in style as villas and bungalows. They were generally compact or ‘modest’, and clad in brick or weatherboard, with tiled roofs and standardised windows. Architects produced individual house variations using standardised construction and a basic template.
The Modernist architect Ernst Plischke, who arrived as a political refugee in New Zealand in 1939, was employed by the Housing Division of the Ministry of Works to design new town centres at Trentham, Taita, Epuni and Naenae in Wellington, and at Tamaki and Mount Roskill in Auckland. He designed boldly, but what was actually built represented, as McKay puts it, ‘a withering of the original vision’. The Garden City ideal did not fizzle out, but nor did it fully blossom; instead, compromise and dilution ruled. In the 1950s the National government began to encourage home ownership, and the legacy of socially conscious architecture began to be overwritten by ideas of aspirational individualism.
In the second half of Beyond the State, Andrea Stevens writes about the latter-day gentrification of state houses by people looking for affordable homes. Like villas and bungalows, state houses have become appreciated as well-designed heritage architecture. Photographs by Simon Devitt confirm the chosen examples as revitalised living spaces rather than embalmed as mausoleum-like emblems of a conformist past.
Devitt’s photographs, indeed, show homes subject to the rough and tumble of children while busy parents are whisking up a meal in the kitchen. They also reveal how snug state houses can be, meaning that while their compact enclosures emphasise cosiness, protection, warmth and humanity, they also require an effort to keep tidy, simply because, as Andrea Stevens points out, we have so much more stuff – consumer culture’s appliances and gadgets and must-haves – than the original inhabitants generally did. In Devitt’s photographs, these are not contemporary environments inhabited by ascetic and invisible neatniks, or shot from vantage points to best convey the glamour of immaculate real estate, but just ordinary domestic spaces – albeit stage-like – where the inhabitants pursue hobbyist and professional enthusiasms amid personal clutter.
Both Patrick Reynolds and Simon Devitt as architectural photographers possess, along with a sure grasp of framing, a lyrical rhapsodic eye, but Reynolds’ take is more flamboyant, loading the mise-en-scene with atmosphere. He sidles about intently, wanting to bring out the rhythm, the heartbeat of the building, a certain romanticism.
By comparison, Mary Gaudin, a New Zealand photographer who has lived overseas for the past 20 years, investing much time in photographing architectural projects, brings a wary cosmopolitan eye to her homage to 14 examples of mid-to-late twentieth century Modernist New Zealand houses, as presented in the book Down the long driveway, you’ll see it, which also contains very short pithy commentaries on each of these houses by Matthew Arnold. The title of the book acts as a signpost in more ways than one. It arrows down the drive dynamically and promisingly, but it also points to the fact that Gaudin’s photographs present a kind of secret architecture: one hidden away, self-contained, possessing a kind of moral rectitude. The houses as seen here are hermetic; their meanings need to be teased out.
On one level, these cropped or close-up shots hark back to the ultimatums of Le Corbusier: the house is a machine for living in, with its inhabitants almost technicians, but then they retreat from dogma. Each studied shot is less about functionalism than about the human spirit of those who occupy it and how they occupy it. Each house has a monastic quality and seems pure in intention. The book doesn’t make clear exact locations, another indicator of self-containments; instead the photographs emphasise an appraisal of architectural form: the experience of space, the texture of materials – often rendered as semi-abstract intersections of shapes.
Gaudin’s camera analyses from the inside out, minutely – boring in. The effect, as typified by her photo-essay on Wood House (1975), is to uncover a kind of architectural essentialism. Wood House feels like it’s inside the heart of a tree. It begins typically enough by presenting a period-era, woody, shed-style nationalism, but by staring harder her eye uncovers a universal truth in the measured rigour underlying principles of construction – and a connection to the earth. Modernist architects talked about ‘a better way of living’, but in practice this meant clarity of form and function, an emphasis on the unpretentious. Value derives from stark, clean lines, orientation to the sun, and, in summary, a severe sculptural minimalism.
Visiting houses 50 years or so after they were built, Gaudin reveals them as timeworn yet vibrant. Smoothed with use, they possess a patina. Owners often refer to themselves as custodians – faithful to the original vision of unadorned materials, harmonies of symmetry, fastidious joinery: an instinctively hushed atmosphere. Here, polished timber floors; there, anchoring concrete block painted white.
Gaudin photographs Sutton House, built by Tom Taylor for Christchurch artist William Sutton in 1961 and, despite the earthquakes, still elegant and perfectly formed. She also photographs Henderson House in Alexandra, designed by Ernst Plischke in 1950. Her photo-essay confirms its basic structure of Central Otago schist, which is taken from the stony landscape it sits in; but then she weaves the house into its location above the river, between the trees, on a hill. It’s a well-proportioned, weathered outcrop – mostly hidden. Houses, built for the theatre of daily life, play on our desires for self-improvement, social status, the fetish of home-ownership; but they are also elemental structures, primal – repositories where we dream and age. Gaudin’s photographs capture this concept of architecture.
In Marae: Te tatau pounamu, Muru, Robin and Sam Walters are on a cultural mission to acknowledge and document the Māori marae building known as the wharenui. The result is an impressive and intriguing record of a building style central to New Zealand’s architectural identity, and yet one with which most New Zealanders have only a limited familiarity. Strictly speaking, the marae is the meeting area or sacred courtyard in front of the tribal meeting house or wharenui, this latter normally named after a tribal ancestor. The wharenui is a relatively recent concept, dating from the early to mid-nineteenth century. Prior to the arrival of Pākehā, there were none. Meetings were held in an open area on the marae that was surrounded by small low huts for sleeping.
There are now more than 1000 wharenui across Aotearoa New Zealand. The Walters family visited about 400 over a period of three years, and ended up selecting 21 to photograph and write about. The result is a book that gives the armchair traveller the gliding sensation of soaring across the landscape and descending into remote environs where extraordinary buildings lodge, characterised in particular by their carvings. But while the ideal might be the wharenui whakairo – a big, carved, wooden meeting house – particular meeting houses are often rich in tribal eccentricities and idiosyncrasies.
Robin Walters states, ‘We set out on our travels thinking that it was all about the wharenui, but to give a true feeling of what makes a marae meaningful we have had to include its people, the history, the mythology and our own experiences as we intersected with each element.’ Both Robin and his wife are the photographers here, as well as taking turns to write the text. Muru Walters, the father of Robin, provides the mana and many of the contacts necessary for approaching what are often territorial areas belonging to various iwi: ‘Walking on to the marae without knowledge of the correct protocol can be seen as a threat to what is held tapu or sacred.’
So those wharenui selected for inclusion were chosen, ‘not so much for their physical beauty but for their spiritual magnificence … some were hidden in valleys, others had commanding views of the sea’. In fact, the photographs reveal beauty and magnificence go together, so that although the meeting house in Gore is a humble corrugated-iron building that served as a community hall, it has the unmistakeable look of a building that has been carefully looked after, and it is also an emblematic form of vernacular architecture, intensely pragmatic in the New Zealand idiom.
Conversely, some buildings, presenting a carefully manicured image, take on an atmosphere of borderline kitsch, being over-ornamented. While wharenui are implicitly buildings as a form of epic sublimation, expressing tribal destinies, continuities and remembrances, authenticity and community engagement are not necessarily expressed through ostentation.
The photographs, however, are always carefully and respectfully framed; at times you sense a kind of hesitant, almost awkward reverence, a pausing at the threshold. The images of the wharenui at Te Hauke, just outside Hastings, show a building not merely elaborately decorated, but one where the atmosphere, the wairua, seems remarkably powerful, embellishing the architectonic form of this structure. The carvings are ‘painted in a traditional red-brown and the shell eyes of the ancestors glitter while the walls are covered in so many photographs of the people of the tribe that the tukutuku panels are almost hidden’.
Elsewhere, too, often on the walls there are photos and paintings of the hapū or iwi’s whakapapa, and sometimes, ‘treasures of a small museum – glass boxes with Victorian and Māori artefacts assembled together’.
This book is not a historical survey, and though geographically balanced – from Ahipara in Northland to Otakou on the Otago Peninsula to Te Tauraka Waka a Maui at Bruce Bay on the West Coast to Hiruharama Marae on the Whanganui – there is a running thread of personal connections binding places visited. What this means is that the authors tend to be accepted more readily as insiders rather than outsiders, allowing their accounts to be enriched with vignettes about encounters with characters and custodians, with anecdotes about ancestors and descendants.
References are made to marae restoration projects that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, and another connection is established through Muru Walters having worked as a carver and artist to the influence of the tohunga whakairo or master carver Pine Taiapa, in maintaining a tradition of customary carving. But tradition, here, is acknowledged as only part of the narrative of the whare whakairo. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the book is its consideration of Te Tau Aroha Marae at Bluff, opened in 2003 and designed by artist and carver Cliff Whiting. It’s a successful architectural response to a question implicit in the history of the wharenui: how it should address that history. Te Rau Aroha Marae’s cluster of structures derives from the round design of the original wharerau or muttonbird huts used by the iwi, while the carvings by Whiting reflect local legends, and the tukutuku panels in the wharekai (dining area) depict scenes from muttonbird harvests.
Robin Walters, the book’s main writer, concludes, ‘Perhaps marae have become less community and more like libraries for people to learn about their ancestors, but in part that’s always been their role.’ Such buildings need to be constantly reinvented and remade in order to remain the same, expressing continuity between past and future.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online