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Wellington’s Architectural Jewel

Futuna: Life of a Building
Edited by Nick Bevin and Gregory O’Brien (Victoria University Press, $50)
Reviewed by Max Rashbrooke

Futuna_CoverWhenever people ask me about Wellington’s best sights, I always say, without hesitation: you should go and see Futuna Chapel. Almost no-one has heard of it, yet apart from Ian Athfield’s house, it’s the only modern building in the capital that can make my heart sing. It’s also a building that, in its architecture and its history, speaks to both the best and the worst of the New Zealand character.

Futuna, nestled among Karori’s backstreets, was built in 1961 as part of a Marist retreat centre. The Marists wanted a standard chapel: what they got from its architect, John Scott, is nothing short of extraordinary. He designed the brothers a building that, from the outside, soars into the sky, its sharply sloping, triangular roofs proclaiming a Modernist take on the Gothic buttress.

Inside it’s even better. Built on a square, with a Greek cross hidden in its form, the chapel is arranged on its diagonal axis, and you enter via one of its corners, through a double doorway that symbolises the two cultures of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Futuna-altar-and-crucifix_WebThe interior is plain, with pebble-dashed concrete lining the walls and two islands of pews facing an altar that’s diagonally opposite the door. But it has stunning features, too, including a sharply Modernist version of the Stations of the Cross and a central tree-like post that recalls the pou or centre pole of a marae, its steel branches holding up the soaring roofs.

Futuna’s crowning glory, however, are the stained Perspex windows high up in the eaves, which, by projecting great swathes of simple colour onto the concrete walls, bring together interior and exterior. Imagine a Mondrian painting illuminated by the sun, shifting as the light shifts, and you’ll have some idea of its beauty.

It’s only appropriate, then, that the chapel is commemorated in a beautiful book, Futuna: Life of a Building, recently published by VUP. Edited by Nick Bevin and Gregory O’Brien, its chapters offer a series of reflections, drawn from a wide array of voices, on this unique building, its architect and its history. This multi-pronged approach fits well a building so diverse and complex. David Mitchell describes Scott’s career and the way he drew on his mixed Pākehā and Māori ancestry, while Chris Cochran outlines how man and commission came together. Niall McLaughlin reflects on the religious metaphors embedded in the building; the editors fill in the details of Futuna’s history up to the present day; and O’Brien’s poems are dotted in between chapters.

Overall the book has two highlights. The first is the central section, ‘Voices in the Silence’, in which the architectural elements of Futuna are contemplated by a range of writers, architects and other interested parties. Scott’s daughter Hana talks about the building’s being “like a body – like the whare”; Bill Toomath describes the “almost medieval reverence” inspired by the stained Perspex windows; Peter Parkes explains the way that roof and walls merge earth and sky in their uplifted eaves; and Amanda Yates compares the chapel’s lightweight, vaulting timber roofs to the fales of the Pacific. Russell Walden, whose presence is felt throughout the book, perhaps best captures the complexities of Futuna, “animated yet silent, robust yet intimate, exposed yet protective, powerful yet gentle, abrasive yet tranquil”.

Futuna-exterior-WebAlso wonderful are the photographs that show off the chapel’s exceptional beauty, especially Gavin Woodward’s images of the Perspex light – green, red, blue, yellow – that almost feels like it’s sinking into the concrete of the interior.

If the book has a failing, it’s in the organisation of the material: the chapter beginnings aren’t as clearly signalled as they might be, and there is, as far as I could tell, no explanation of who the various authors are, so that, for instance, I was left with literally no idea as to McLaughlin’s identity, other than what I grasped from his writing.

But the book is very good in its main purpose, which is to explain the building’s wonders – and to remind us of how they very nearly perished. Around fifteen years ago, the Marists sold the retreat to a developer, Art Potter, who promptly built cookie-cutter houses all round the chapel, allowed its fittings to be looted, and used the interior to store building materials.

Potter told one architect that if the chapel fell down he would “not be concerned”, and that it would be worth preserving only “if it could have a commercial return”. This view typifies the worst of one part of New Zealand culture – its obsession with practical matters, its disdain for anything that looks frivolous or experimental, its privileging of the bottom line over the higher calling.

Fortunately the building itself was saved – thanks to the efforts of concerned architects and citizens, Environment Court judge Shonagh Kenderdine, and the Wellington City Council, which emerges as one of the real heroes of this story. (They couldn’t, however, stop the encroachment of houses from significantly lessening the chapel’s impact.)

Futuna is far too good a building to be demolished; it’s something to be celebrated, discovered, questioned. There are arguments – as Life of a Building hints at – about how far it truly represents bicultural architecture, as opposed to subsuming Polynesian elements into an essentially Pākehā building. But either way it’s a feat of vision, imagination and love, and has found, in this beautiful little book, a worthy companion. Go see the chapel, and buy the book – or, better yet, do those two things in reverse order, and use the book as a guide.