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‘The building is going to get scalped tomorrow’ – architects head to Urewera in attempt to save John Scott classic (UPDATED)

Gregory O’Brien is one of dozens of artists, architects and others hoping to get between the Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre and the DOC demolition crew, which is set to begin work on Monday morning (SCROLL DOWN FOR UPDATES)

A bevy of architects are on the road to Te Urewera this evening, hoping to stop the Department of Conservation contracted demolition of the Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre.

The building, listed by Heritage New Zealand as a Category One Historic Place, was designed by the celebrated Māori architect, the late John Scott, and opened in 1976. The Scott family, and a bunch of architects and other generally troublesome people have been campaigning to keep this modern classic standing – to repeat the successful effort to save the Scott-designed Futuna Chapel in Wellington in the early part of last decade.

DOC, for its part, says it in a press statement it has “considered all practical options for the old building since it was condemned by the Wairoa District Council, vacated and closed in 2008”, noting that it has the support of the main Urewera iwi, Ngāi Tūhoe, before waffling about a new centre with “heritage and visitor information, café, and overall connectedness to landscape, nature, lake, history, community and tangata whenua. A place for the whole whanau.”

I talked to one of these insubordinate aesthetes, artist, writer and curator Gregory O’Brien just before he left Wairoa on the road into Te Urewera this evening.

The Spinoff: What are you up to?

Gregory O’Brien: We’ve heard that an Auckland demolition team has been engaged to demolish the place, and they’re going to start at five O’clock tomorrow, Monday morning. So what’s happened is people from all over the country have turned up here, at least three car-loads from Wellington, also people from Napier, and a whole lot of people from Auckland, including Christina van Bohemen, who’s in charge of the Institute of Architects. And also the Scott family are turning up.

What’s your plan of attack?

Apparently there are a few things that have happened that may be a bit legally uncertain but they’re obviously to push this through fast, to get things going. I think the idea is to rip the roof off it, because that’s what you do to a building basically to destroy it – that was what was proposed for Futuna Chapel: you get the roof off it, exposed to the elements, the interior gets wrecked quickly.

What we’ve been told is the roof is going to come off because there’s been a request to put some of the timber from the roof in the floor of the new building which is the process of being completed at the moment, down the road at the lake [Waikaremoana] itself.

The Scott-designed visitor centre at Te Urewera. Photo: Scott Architecture

The Scott-designed visitor centre at Te Urewera. Photo: Scott Architecture

How is this likely to unfold?

Apparently there are security guards there already, so we might not be able to get within cooee of it. The road goes past it, but I believe under some kind of council bylaw they can actually shut access to the road off on the grounds of public safety or something. Because no one’s been told – they announced it on Friday, essentially they didn’t give any working days to respond, it sounds like one straight from the dirty tricks book, really, I’m not sure of the exact protocol – all I know is there’s going to be a lot of people there, a lot of talk, there’ll probably be some placards, there might be some people on horses. I expect there will probably be some police there. There’s a security company I think – I don’t know if they’re local or from Auckland; I’ve been told the demolition company are coming down from Auckland, possibly because any locally contracted team would be embroiled in the politics of the whole thing.

It would be quite a tragic thing, if it comes to pass. Basically the building is going to get scalped tomorrow, and then I guess they’ll systematically pull it apart. It will take them a few weeks. It does have a big concrete foundation, so they’ll probably need bulldozers.

Why is it worth fighting for?

I think it’s seen as a key work in New Zealand architecture. Julia Gatley put out a book with AUP a few years ago, Long Live the Modern, which highlights nearly 200 20th Century New Zealand buildings that are esteemed – so it has buildings in it like the Futuna Chapel, like the Dixon St flats in Wellington, it had the old Broadcasting House, since demolished. Among the John Scott buildings is the Visitor Centre. It’s not an imposing building. It’s a building that sits in the landscape. Jacob Scott says it was his father’s “ode to Tūhoe”. It’s about human beings living in the landscape, among the trees, in nature. Architecturally, the building is about the link between a human and non-human environment. You go through a kind of whare entrance-way, then you go through a walkway past trees. It is a very high-concept building. I think it’s very metaphoric for being in New Zealand. The truth of this place. The depth of it. The roots of it.

How is it like the Futuna experience?

Futuna came within about one millimetre of its life. One corner of Futuna actually got demolished, and then the people built it back again. That’s how close that came to getting completely smashed. And now the building is completely alive and well. It has a new life, an ongoing life, and its meaning keeps on being enhanced. This building has great potential.

The Futuna Chapel. Photo: Futuna Trust

The Futuna Chapel. Photo: Futuna Trust

Jenny Borndholt and I wrote a letter to Maggie Barry [reprinted below]. I mean, the wall the McCahon painting was on has to be the most important wall in New Zealand art history. In the 70s when McCahon did the work – it was a bicultural work, it was a pioneering work. It was argued over, fought over. Tūhoe had big problems with it. McCahon got very upset, Tūhoe got upset. Eventually the painting ended up there. Then it was stolen about 20 years later, then it was recovered, then it went back, and then it was removed again and the building was closed up and considered too problematic for all kinds of reasons by DOC.

But it is a heritage building: it needs a new life, as Futuna did. Futuna didn’t want to stay being a Catholic chapel, it had to become something new, it had to be reimagined. And that’s what it’s doing now. There’s no shortage of ideas about what you could do with this place. You could have art in the foyer: a six month turnaround of New Zealand contemporaty artists commissioned to do a work for that walk – everyone would leap at it. Maori painters, Pakeha painter, Tūhoe painters, Ngāti Ruapani painters. It’s like it’s on the cusp of becoming a new thing. Someone has to will it, to imagine it over that building, but to get there the building has to stay up, as Futuna did. Because if a bulldozer had got Futuna, it’s over, you know?

What is the Ngāi Tūhoe position?

Tūhoe is an iwi with many people in many positions. The dominant group seem to support the DOC position, which is that the simplest solution is to get rid of it. But there are a lot of people there who don’t think that. But also the status of the land it’s on is complicated, because there the Ngāti Ruapani, who also have a claim on it. It’s not a unanimous Tūhoe thing – I’ve got Tūhoe friends that are very keen to retain the building. There are people here that would be very involved in the future of it. It’s not like a whole of people from outside wanting to run the place from Wellington.

Where are you going to stay tonight?

There are some cabins in the camping ground down the road. There are going to be dozens of people, mostly architects. But also the Scott family and the Matahiwi marae. But whether there are Tūhoe there, whether this whole thing proceeds in silence, whatever happens is really up in the air.

Update, Monday 7am, message from O’Brien:

“We went through the building last evening. It was unlocked… No sign of anything going on or about to happen.

“This morning we arrived at 5am. There were a couple of DOC people present already; a kaumatua and a couple of others.

“There was a five minute blessing in Maori… then DANGER DO NOT ENTER plastic tape was placed across the property. Since then there has been some coming and going… a police car….

“So it looks as if they are going to start ripping the place apart.”

johnscott

Letter to the Hon Maggie Barry – minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, as well as for the Department of Conservation – from Gregory O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt

Dear Maggie,

The proposed demolition of the John Scott building at Waikaremoana is a terrible error. Like many, we are wondering who has provided “heritage advice” to the Ministry apropos the building. There is a terrible irony in the fact that DOC is announcing this pending demolition five days after we launched a book about the on-going life of another Scott building, Futuna Chapel. (That building was saved, as you know, at the eleventh hour, by which time one corner had been knocked off the entrance-structure, and all the church pews had been sent to the tip-shop – from where they were never recovered.) It’s a miracle that Futuna lived. But it did – and what a huge asset it is for all New Zealanders – not only to architects, artists, poets, musicians and others.

In 1999 I (Greg) curated an exhibition at City Gallery Wellington, centred around Colin McCahon’s Urewera Mural. The following year I worked on the Parihaka exhibition, which included work by Tame Iti. I understand, a little, the complexities of Tuhoe – and also the diversity of opinions within the iwi.

The wall upon which the Urewera Mural hung in the Aniwaniwa Visitors’ Centre must be THE most important wall in New Zealand art history (on account of the bicultural origins of McCahon’s work, firstly; the complicated, volatile history of its creation, then its theft, its reinstallation … and its ongoing story). This could become a very important wall in the future of New Zealand art as well.

We know Tuhoe living in the region who are willing and able to be involved in keeping the building alive and artistically active. Here’s one idea: The foyer/wall could be used as a “temporary” art space featuring a major commissioned work (on maybe a four or six month turnaround). I know significant artists like John Walsh, Robin White and others would leap at the opportunity to produce a work for such a space. First up, though, there could be a few seasons of art from Tuhoe… Tame and others… Maybe once every five years, there could be a season with McCahon’s Mural back in situ…

We feel for John Scott’s family. This building is close to their heart. Architecturally, it is a great metaphor for humanity and its place in the natural world. Conceptually it is a remarkable structure–porous, permeable… It belongs in the future; there are lessons we still have to learn from it. We are only beginning to understand this irreplaceable building.

Yours faithfully,

Gregory O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt

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