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(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksNovember 28, 2023

The bold legacy of Rewi Thompson

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Matariki Williams reviews a new book about a visionary New Zealand architect.

“Rewi” scrawled in disco pink across the cover, so declaratory that I read it with an apostrophe it doesn’t have: “Rewi!” Judging this book by its cover, I assume I am in for a riot, a read that matches the bold legacy that architect Rewi Thompson (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Raukawa) left when he passed suddenly in 2016. However, the secondary title shared on the spine is a clue for readers: “Rewi: Āta haere, kia tere”. Rewi, proceed with caution and quickness, care and boldness, consideration and cheekiness. 

Coming in at over 450 pages, editors Jade Kake (Ngāpuhi – Ngāti Hau me Te Parawhau, Te Whakatōhea, Te Arawa) and Jeremy Hansen draw upon Rewi’s archives to include the voices of the many people he worked with, taught and inspired. Crucially, the first interview in the book is with Rewi’s daughter Lucy, the editors stating the book would not have been made without Lucy’s support and endorsement. Grounding the book with this interview immediately humanises Rewi 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 arguably Rewi’s most idiosyncratic building: their whānau home in Kohimarama. 

Variously described as shaped like a ziggurat or a poutama, save for a small vertical slit of window in the middle and the entry foyer at ground level, their home presented an almost completely closed-off facade to the street. This exemplifies the bold care and considered cheekiness of Rewi’s practice: yes, the design will push the envelope and draw a lot of observation, but that observation will not penetrate, for this is a whānau home. From the archives, Rewi observes that the house is responding to the landscape and city it sits within while acknowledging that, “Auckland has a violent past both geologically and culturally.” Perhaps Rewi is hinting at the tīpuna maunga that mark the Tāmaki Makaurau landscape? The extinct or dormant volcanic cones, or in the case of Takararo and Takamaiwaho, no longer existing cones? As Rewi goes on, he mentions Rangitoto as one of the original landmarks of Tāmaki, a place taken over in others’ minds by the Sky Tower, thus is built heritage also responsible for the invisibilising of culture in Tāmaki Makaurau?

Left: Rewi Thompson’s home. A portrait of Rewi by Jane Ussher. Photos supplied.

Maybe this is the caution of the book’s subtitle? Careful, you might write a couple of hundred words pondering the meaning of a building you’ve never seen in person! Yet this is exactly how I have been describing this book to others: deeply researched and beautifully designed but very conscious that it is adding to Rewi’s legacy by being so manifestly inspired by his work. This inspiration is an implicit invitation to the reader to also become inspired. Included in the book are responses from writers Samuel Te Kani (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou), Gina Cole (Fijian, Pākehā), and essa may ranapiri (Ngaati Wehi Wehi, Ngaati Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga, Te Arawa, Ngaati Puukeko, Ngaati Takataapui, Clan Gunn) who were sent drawings from Rewi’s archive to create to. 

Rewi’s drawings existed in a folder labelled “KOHA” but were otherwise without explanation, what did they mean? Creative practitioners are constantly inspired by others whether directly or indirectly, and by inviting these responses, Samuel, Gina and essa retrieve and elucidate new meanings. This approach resonates because of a constant whakaaro I have as a curator who has worked with museum collections that are largely unprovenanced: how do we learn about these taonga, how do we know about the makers, when the opportunity to inherit knowledge has passed? How do we do so when all we have left is the object, some scraps of kōrero if we’re lucky? These responses are what we do, we put those absences in the hands of creators who transform that loss. Aotearoa creatives are constantly adding to the palimpsest of our cultural heritage so I have to acknowledge that while these writers have done so by invitation from prescient editors, so too have the book designers from Extended Whānau. Rewi is a beautiful monolith informed with care and boldness. 

This drawing from Rewi’s archives shows some of the conceptual anchors of the Te Papa proposal and its narrative links to te ao Māori. The longest element of the building connects to the city at its southern end, launching into the harbour at the other.

Now that I’ve talked about museums, allow me the most inelegant segue into some of the Rewi 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 Paratene Matchitt), and the national museum design competition entry (with Ian Athfield and Frank Gehry). Wellington was my home for 18 years, and my relationship with these civic spaces evolved over that time. As a mother desperately finding places to feed and entertain young children (and myself), I learned how to navigate the intermediary spaces between the library, City Gallery and Te Papa. As my babies grew to toddlers, they’d break free from their prams and clamber over the Para Matchitt-made structures and barrel down the split of what I’ve come to know as Rewi’s pyramid. 

From the aerial photography shared, Rewi’s hand in the design is made visible to readers. A favourite detail being the pattern of the bricks he arranged to evoke the image of a kupenga spreading out from his pyramid. This calls to mind aerial shots of Te Aro Park and Shona Rapira Davies’ (Ngāti Wai ki Aotea) work, all of a sudden I saw what her work meant while being reminded that for seemingly esoteric mahi like this, the beauty isn’t always in the eye of the beholder – the mahi knows its worth all along.

Rewi’s pyramid also provided a window into a slide that was part of the experience at Capital Discovery Place, a dedicated children’s education centre for interactive learning that was housed below. I have no personal memories of this space, by the time I knew it existed it was already boarded up. However, my husband shared his childhood memories of the place being a little strange but fun, and a slightly harrowing anecdote of being followed through the mirror maze by an unknown man. I feel quite sad thinking that this centre which started with a hiss and a roar, a space created specifically for children that once existed below where my children had made their own fun, was no more. 

An aerial photograph of the City to Sea Bridge designed by Rewi. Photo supplied.

Thinking about these three projects, I also can’t help but think that they’re indicative of this time, the late 80s / early 90s where social consciousness had been rising for the past couple of decades. There had been prominent and visible Māori protest movements, entrenched commitments to honouring te Tiriti by the Crown, and 1990 marking the sesquicentennial signing of te Tiriti with $21 million distributed by the Crown for over 6,000 community-based events. This was a time where the country’s burgeoning bicultural identity was deliberately included in civic projects. However, it was also a time where the initial injection of funding was not made to last. Reasons for the centre closing are shared by the founding director of Capital Discovery Place, Philip Tremewan, “The council decided not to support ongoing operational costs, there were engineering problems, and the whole thing became an earthquake risk.” 

Having recently read that the City to Sea Bridge is at risk of being demolished due to repair costs, this would deal another blow to the precinct. Wellington is Wellington because of sites like the City to Sea bridge, not just the built aspect of it, but the whakaaro and kaupapa that underpin it. Wellington is the experience of holding onto your hair as you traverse that bridge in high winds, or rush across the black asphalted part of the bridge on hot days because the flooring is molten. Aside from the injection of funding that happened at this time, these projects were aided by principled Pākehā in leadership roles like Tremewan who had done the mahi to understand the importance of institutionalising biculturalism. Like the running out of money, very cynically I also wonder whether this dedicated allyship in advocacy and leadership has also dissipated in public sector leadership roles.

Turning to what Ken Davis, who was working for Athfield Architects during the creation of the City to Sea Bridge, called “…one of the most disappointing pieces of public architecture we’ve produced in a long, long time, a lost opportunity in lots of ways”, Te Papa and the museum it could have been. The most frustrating aspect of this kōrero, and what truly makes it scandalous, is that the proposal Rewi worked on with Athfield also included American architect, Frank Gehry. THE Frank Gehry, though as the book notes, he wasn’t yet THE Frank Gehry of Guggenheim Bilbao fame and whose design transformed the economy of the city it is based in, but that is what makes this lost opportunity all the more devastating. 

Having been a curator in the Mātauranga Māori team at Te Papa for five years, not only am I very familiar with the building that won the tender (so many damned curved teal walls) but at one point, my team was working through what a refresh of Rongomaraeroa, the entire marae complex comprising of internal and external spaces, would entail. During our research, and thanks to librarian extraordinaire Martin Lewis, we viewed original plans for the complex and saw how the external aspects of Rongomaraeroa were intended to play with Tāwhirimātea through sculpture. In doing so, they would have a greater conversation with the harbour and address one of the major criticisms of Te Papa: that it has its back to the harbour. This relationship with the harbour was what appeared to explicitly inform the Thompson-Athfield-Gehry project which was arranged as a loose assemblage of buildings under a single transparent feather roof. As Athfield put it, the museum would be, “…dipping your feet in the harbour, rather than standing back from it.” There is some conjecture as to why the proposal didn’t even make the shortlist (yes, I feel your rage too!) like the harbour connection eschewing one of the requirements which was that the V8 racetrack (Who? What?) on the Wellington waterfront be maintained, and another that the feather ceiling was inappropriate from a tikanga perspective.

Design competition entry for The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa by Frank Gehry, Rewi Thomson and Ian Athfield. (Image: Supplied)

Though the final Te Papa design cops a lot of flak in the book as well as in the general public, the Thompson-Athfield-Gehry proposal also bears thinking about. The loose boxes it constitutes are divided via discipline, much like the exhibition spaces are in Te Papa, however their separation from each other could further ingrain discipline divides which is arguably not what an interdisciplinary museum in the 21st century should do. But that is the beauty and the pain of a museum, it is a working building with people and taonga always on the move so I would love to have seen what this seemingly flexible arrangement would have looked like if it ever had the chance to be lived in by our taonga.

There are so many more threads I want to pull from in this book (namely parallels between Rewi and Māori artists, e.g. how he contested being labelled a ‘Māori architect’ as Ralph Hotere did the same with being a “Māori artist”, the philosophy he had of buildings not having to live forever and John Bevan Ford sharing the same about whakairo) but the most compelling is how successfully it gets across the āhua of Rewi Thompson. Though some may lament that so few of his designs stand in built form, his impact and influence amongst colleagues and students is palpable. Multiple interviewees mention the way he opened their thinking, gently yet firmly. The intangibility of the gift he had to inspire creation has been made tangible with this book, mai i āna taonga, ka puta mai tēnei taonga. Rewi, 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.

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