The bold legacy of Roy Thompson
Matariki Williams reviews a new book about a visionary New Zealand architect.
“Levi” Written in disco pink on the cover, so revealing that I read it with a non-containing apostrophe: “Levi!” Judging this book by its cover, I suppose I’m in for a riot, a reading that resonates with the bold legacy left behind by architect Roy Thompson (Ngati Puru, Ngati Raukawa) when he died suddenly in 2016. However, the subtitle in the spine is a guide for readers : “Levi: Move slow, move fast. Roy, proceed carefully And Speed and care And Boldness and consideration And Insolence.
In over 450 pages, editors Jed Kaki (Ngāpuhi – Ngāti Hau, Te Parawhau, Te Whakatōhea, Te Arawa) and Jeremy Hansen draw on Rewi’s archives to include the voices of the many people he worked with, taught and inspired. Most importantly, the first interview in the book is with Ryo’s daughter Lucy, with the editors stating that the book could not have been written without Lucy’s support and endorsement. Anchoring the book with this interview immediately humanizes Roy and his work. Yes, he was a visionary architect, but he was also a loving father and husband to his late wife, Leona. This kōrero also provides the first insights into the Rewi’s most private building: their Wānau home in Kohimarama.
Variously described as resembling a ziggurat or potama, except for a small vertical slit of window in the middle and an entry hall at ground level, their house presented an almost entirely enclosed frontage to the street. This embodies the bold care and thoughtful impudence of Rewi practice: yes, the design will push the envelope and attract a lot of notice, but that notice won’t penetrate, because this is a Whānau home. From the archives, Rewe notes that the house responds to the landscape and the city in which it is located, acknowledging that “Auckland has a violent past, both geologically and culturally.” Perhaps Riwi is alluding to the tipuna monga that characterizes the Tamaki Makurau landscape? Extinct or inactive volcanic cones, Or in the case of Takararo and Takamayawahu, the cones no longer exist? As Rewi continues, Rangitoto is mentioned as one of the original landmarks of Tamaki, a place that has been captured by the Sky Tower in the minds of others, so built heritage is also responsible for hiding the culture in Tamaki Makurau?
Perhaps this is the caution of the book’s subtitle? Be careful, you may write a few hundred words pondering the meaning of a building you’ve never seen in person! However, this is exactly how I have been describing this book to others: deeply researched, beautifully designed but fully aware that it adds to Roy’s legacy by clearly drawing inspiration from his work. This inspiration is an implicit invitation to the reader to be inspired as well. The book includes responses from writers Samuel Te Kani (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Puru), Gina Cole (Fiji, Pākehā), and Isa Mai Ranapipiri (Ngāti Wihi Wihi, Ngāti Raukawa Ki-te-Tonga, Te Arawa, Ngāti Pukeko, Ngaati Takataapui, Clan Gunn) who were sent drawings from the Rewi archive to create.
Ryoi’s drawings were in a folder labeled “KOHA” but were otherwise unexplained, so what did they mean? Creative practitioners are constantly inspired by others both directly and indirectly, and by inviting these responses, Samuel, Jenna, and Issa retrieve and articulate new meanings. This approach resonates because of an abiding interest I have as a curator who has worked with museum collections that are largely unproven: how do we learn about these taonga, and how do we know about their makers, when the opportunity to inherit knowledge has passed? How do we do that when all we have left is the thing, some scraps of koriru if we’re lucky? These responses are what we do, we put those absences into the hands of creators who transform that loss. Aotearoa’s creators continually add to the palimpsest of our cultural heritage, so I must admit that while these writers did so at the invitation of visionary editors, so did the book designers of Extended Whānau. Levi It is a beautiful monolith informed with care and boldness.
Now that I’ve talked about museums, let me touch on some of Riwi’s projects that really piqued my interest: Capital Discovery Place Te Aho a Māui (with Athfield Architects), City to Sea Bridge (with Athfield Architects, John) Gray and Paratin Matchett), and Subscribe In the National Museum Design Competition (with Ian Athfield and Frank Gehry). Wellington has been my home for 18 years, and my relationship with these civic places has developed over that time. As a mother desperately searching for places to feed and entertain her young children (and myself), I learned how to navigate the in-between spaces between the library, City Gallery, and Te Papa. As my children grow into toddlers, they break free from their strollers and climb the structures made by Para Matchet and descend to the bottom of what I have come to know as the Rewi Pyramid.
Through the aerial photos shared, Roy’s design hand is made visible to readers. A favorite detail is the pattern of bricks he arranged to evoke the image of Copinga spreading from his pyramid. This calls to mind aerial shots of the work of Te Aro Park and Shona Rapira Davies (Ngati y ki Aotea), and suddenly I saw what her work meant while being reminded that for a mahi who seems as esoteric as this, beauty is not always in the eye of the beholder – the mahi knows Its value all the time.
Roy’s Pyramid also offered a window onto a slide that was part of the Capital Discovery Place experience, a children’s educational center for interactive learning located below. I have no personal memories of this place, by the time I knew of its existence it had already closed. However, my husband shared his childhood memories of the place being a bit strange but fun, and a slightly macabre tale of an unknown man following him through a mirror maze. I feel so sad to think that this hissing and roaring center, a place created especially for children that used to be down there where my kids enjoyed themselves, no longer exists.
Thinking about these three projects, I can’t help but think they refer to this time, the late 80s/early 90s when social consciousness has been on the rise for the past two decades. There were prominent and visible Māori protest movements, firm commitments to honor Te Tiriti by the Crown, and 1990 saw the signing of the next centenary of Te Tiriti with $21 million distributed by the Crown for over 6,000 community events. This was a time when the country’s burgeoning bicultural identity was deliberately incorporated into civic projects. However, this was also a time when the initial infusion of funding was not sustained. “The council decided not to support the ongoing operating costs, there were engineering problems, and the whole thing became an earthquake risk,” said Philip Tremewan, the founding director of Capital Discovery Place, explaining the reasons for the center’s closure.
Having recently read that the city’s bridge to the sea is in danger of being demolished due to repair costsThis would deal another blow to the department. Wellington is Wellington because of sites like the City’s Bridge to the Sea, and not just the built-up side of it, but the Whakaaroo and Kaupapa that support it. Wellington is the experience of grabbing your hair as you cross that bridge in high winds, or rushing across the black asphalt section of the bridge on a hot day because the ground is melting. Aside from the infusion of funding that occurred at this time, these projects were supported by principled Pākehā in leadership roles such as Tremewane who did his best to understand the importance of institutionalizing biculturalism. Like the money running out, I also wonder with great irony whether this ad hoc coalition in advocacy and leadership has also dissipated in public sector leadership roles.
Turning to what Ken Davies, who worked for Athfield Architects during the construction of the City-to-Sea Bridge, described it as “…one of the most disappointing pieces of public architecture we have produced in a very long time, and a missed opportunity in a lot of ways”, Te Papa and the museum that could have been. The most disappointing aspect of this project, and what makes it truly scandalous, is that the proposal Rewey worked on with Athfield also included American architect Frank Gehry. Frank Gehry, as the book points out, was not yet the Frank Gehry of Guggenheim Bilbao fame whose design transformed the economy of the city in which it was located, but that is what makes this missed opportunity all the more devastating.
Having been curator of the Mātauranga Māori team at Te Papa for five years, I am not only familiar with the building that won the bid (many curved teal walls) but at one point, my team was working through what is a modernization of Rongomaraeroa, the marae complex The entire complex consists of indoor and outdoor spaces. During our research, thanks to librarian extraordinaire Martin Lewis, we looked at the original plans for the complex and saw how the outer sides of the Rongumarairewa were intended to play with Twaherematia through sculpture. In doing so, they will have a greater conversation with the port and address one of the main criticisms of Te Papa: that it turns its back on the port. It was this relationship with the port that clearly seemed to inform the Thompson-Athfield-Gehry project which was arranged as a loose collection of buildings under a single transparent feathered roof. As Athfield said, the museum will be like “…dipping your feet in the harbour, rather than standing far from it.” There are some guesses as to why the proposal wasn’t shortlisted (yes, I feel your anger too!) such as the port connection avoiding one requirement that the V8 race track (who? what?) in Wellington’s waterfront should be preserved, and another that the feathered roof It was inappropriate from a tikanga perspective.
Although the final design of Te Papa attracts much criticism in the book as well as in the general public, Thompson-Athfield-Gehry’s proposal is also worth considering. The loose boxes they form are divided across the discipline, much as in the exhibition spaces at Te Papa, but separating them apart can further entrench divisions in the discipline, which is arguably not an interdisciplinary museum in the twenty-first century.street The century should do. But that’s the beauty and pain of the museum, it’s a building that works with people and a population that’s always on the move, so I’d like to see what this seemingly flexible arrangement would have looked like if it had the opportunity to live in our taonga.
There are a lot of themes I want to draw from this book (i.e. the similarities between Riwi and Māori artists, for example how he contested the title of ‘Māori architect’ while Ralph Hutteri did the same with being a ‘Māori artist’), and the philosophy he had buildings that did not… She has to live forever and John Bevan Ford shares the same with Wakairo) but what’s even more compelling is how well he crosses Ahwa’s Rewi Thompson. Although some may lament that so few of his designs stand in built form, his influence and influence among colleagues and students was clear. Many interviewees mentioned the way he opened their thinking, gently but firmly. The intangibility of the gift he had to inspire creation becomes tangible with this book, mai i āna taonga, ka puta mai tēnei taonga. Roy, thank you.
Rewi: Āta Haere, kia tere, by Jade Kake & Jeremy Hansen ($75, Massey University Press), can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.