An architectural rendering of the proposed Olive Leaf building, Arrowtown (Image: Architecture van Brandenburg)
An architectural rendering of the proposed Olive Leaf building, Arrowtown (Image: Architecture van Brandenburg)

SocietyFebruary 11, 2021

The dramatically modern church building that’s dividing historic Arrowtown

An architectural rendering of the proposed Olive Leaf building, Arrowtown (Image: Architecture van Brandenburg)
An architectural rendering of the proposed Olive Leaf building, Arrowtown (Image: Architecture van Brandenburg)

Its name and design are meant to evoke peace and reconciliation, but the proposed Olive Leaf building in historic Arrowtown has instead stoked division, backlash and now court action. Oliver Lewis reports.

When the Eiffel Tower was proposed in Paris, a group of artists and writers lodged a petition of protest bemoaning it as a slight against French taste. In their view, the tower was monstrous, a hateful column of sheet metal which, like a gigantic smokestack, would loom over and humiliate their beloved monuments.

Today the tower is synonymous with the city, an icon of French culture and one of the most distinctive buildings in the world. The opposition? Silenced.

Proponents of The Olive Leaf, a proposed leaf-shaped church hall and community facility in Arrowtown, the Otago gold rush town, hope the discord surrounding their project will evaporate, too. Like the Eiffel Tower and other examples of contemporary architecture, they feel opponents will come to appreciate the building once — or more accurately, if — it ever gets built.

“This will be the most beautiful building and it will be loved and wanted and treasured by Arrowtown people and the surrounds — mark my words,” says Olive Leaf Centre Trust chairman Colin Bellett.

Many people vehemently disagree.

Since it was first proposed several years ago, the project has divided opinion in the local community and the small congregation of St Patrick’s Catholic Church, the heritage-listed building The Olive Leaf is meant to sit alongside. “No Leaf Building in Arrowtown!” posters were put up, and in 2016 residents formed the incorporated society, NoLeaf, to band together to oppose the development.

A promotional video for the building shows it dug into the ground beside the church, its leaf-shaped, stone-clad roof seemingly hovering over panels of glass. Unashamedly modern and inspired by natural forms, The Olive Leaf is patterned with swirling mosaics and features upper and lower levels, including space for quiet reflection and visitor accommodation.

“It just doesn’t damn well fit,” says NoLeaf founder Wayne Hulls.

Dating back to the discovery of gold on the Arrow River in 1862, Arrowtown prides itself on its heritage. The town, home to numerous historic buildings, has design guidelines which aim to protect and enhance its historic character. The Olive Leaf and St Patrick’s, built between 1873 and 1902, are in the residential historic management zone, an overlay in the Queenstown Lakes District Council district plan which aims to preserve the character of the area and make sure any new developments are sympathetic.

“If you plonk something like this leaf thing in the middle, that disturbs the whole environment,” says Hulls, who has since moved to Dunedin. “It’s like a bloody alien spaceship. The shape is nothing like anything.”

And for many residents, preserving the unique feeling of their town is key. Real estate agent Michael Tierney, a member of NoLeaf who has lived in Arrowtown for more than 30 years, says people and businesses go to considerable expense to make sure any new builds comply with planning and design requirements.

They see The Olive Leaf as failing to do the same, Tierney says.

“The opposition is coming from people who have already gone through the process, who already live here, who say: ‘this is not right. We don’t want the historic nature of Arrowtown to be changed’.

“It is the only living historic town in the whole of New Zealand and I would have thought we would like to keep it that way.”

On November 30 last year, the two commissioners hearing the application by the Olive Leaf Centre Trust declined resource consent. The building had a remarkable design, they said, and while it made some positive contributions to heritage character, many elements detracted from this. The commissioners also found the building would significantly alter the setting around the church and that the proposal was contrary to conditions in the existing and proposed district plans.

Knowing there would be substantial opposition, the trust had originally wanted to go directly to the Environment Court. Undeterred by the finding, they filed an appeal with the court last month.

In late 2015, a scale model of The Olive Leaf was first displayed in St Patrick’s for the community to view. More than five years on, the struggle continues.

What The Olive Leaf would look like from the street (Image: Architecture van Brandenburg)

‘A lot of people don’t like change’

New Zealand has no homegrown saints, but St Patrick’s has a connection to one: Mary MacKillop, or Saint Mary of the Cross. Born in Melbourne in 1842, MacKillop founded a religious congregation that set up a number of schools in Australia and New Zealand, including Arrowtown, where she lived and worked. A historic cottage on the church grounds bears her name, and her legacy informs the design of The Olive Leaf.

MacKillop taught the value of extending an olive branch of reconciliation, architect Fred van Brandenburg said in a statement accompanying the 2017 resource consent application. She was also an advocate of progressive thinking.

“The Olive Leaf represents our cultural heritage as the legacy she leaves behind for us to build upon,” wrote van Brandenburg.

Inspired by Antoni Gaudi, the Catalan architect and visionary behind the unfinished Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, van Brandenburg designs buildings with organic, sculptural forms – a design philosophy evident in the extraordinary campus the Lake Hayes architect designed for Chinese fashion giant Marisfrolg, an immense 120,000 square metre project in Shenzhen meant to represent a bird in flight.

His design for The Olive Leaf, by comparison, is more down to earth.

“The design is meant to be and is a low structure so that it pays homage to the existing church, that’s the thrust of the design,” van Brandenburg told The Spinoff.

Heritage advocates, including Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, which submitted in opposition to the proposal, disagree. They fear The Olive Leaf will undermine the primacy of the church, and that excavation and construction risk damaging the historic building. Van Brandenburg insists his design is complementary, but it is also deliberately contemporary – not a dishonest imitation of the past.

“Just as the original church was cutting edge architecture for its time,” he says, “I’m fairly sure that the forefathers would encourage a new kind of architecture to also create a splash, make an impact.”

“Starchitecture” – that is how Hulls, the NoLeaf founder, previously described The Olive Leaf, referring to the big, iconic designs of celebrity architects, or “starchitects”. He and other opponents have no issue with the design, they say; in fact many of them like it. They just think it is inappropriate for the location.

“A lot of people don’t like change,” van Brandenburg says now. “It almost doesn’t matter what gets built on that site – they would prefer to see nothing.”

A symbol of peace divides a parish

The Olive Leaf is meant to be a church hall for St Patrick’s. More than that, though, the trustees behind the project – including van Brandenburg, a local Catholic who designed the building pro bono – envisage it as a way of revitalising and bringing new energy to the parish as well as engaging the wider community.

That community, though, is thoroughly divided by the proposal.

When it comes to The Olive Leaf, people with an opinion are either stridently for or against, Hulls says. There are no shades of grey.

During the month-long period submissions were open in late 2018, 367 people and groups had their say (a handful of extra submissions came in late). Of these, there were 150 submissions in opposition, 216 in support and one seeking changes. Opponents noted that a majority of those opposing actually lived in Arrowtown, while many supporters came from outside the town.

It has also split opinion among the congregation of St Patrick’s, according to Tierney, the local real estate agent and himself a practising Catholic.

“You would have to say there is a relationship problem within the church.”

The proposal has caused significant fallout, Tierney says, including reputational damage to the Catholic Church among secular residents. While the Olive Leaf Centre Trust is independent of the Catholic Diocese of Dunedin, which owns the land, subsequent bishops have given their blessing for the trust to pursue the project. The trust, however, has responsibility for progressing and funding the building, which it intends to do by soliciting donations.

Despite this distinction, Tierney says residents just see the Catholic Church as promoting the project, of taking on the council and “trying to overturn civil authority”.

“I’m saddened to see that somebody within the Church is doing it more damage than anybody outside the Church.”

Bellett, the trust chair, says the process has been frustrating.

Some opponents have spread misinformation and “fake news” about the project, he says, but the trust is confident it has a shot of securing resource consent through the Environment Court.

“It’s been a five year struggle just to get something which is a gift to the community.”

A message of concern

In a statement provided to The Spinoff, Catholic Bishop of Dunedin Michael Dooley said he gave the trust his approval for the project but noted the understanding all along was that the diocese would not provide financial support.

However, his support was reliant on the approval and consent of the council, Dooley said. Before being contacted by The Spinoff, he was unaware of the Environment Court proceedings.

“Buildings, whether they are old or whether they are new, seem to strike a passionate chord in people,” he said, adding it was an issue common to all faiths.

“If these building issues lead to division within a parish community as is suggested, then that concerns me greatly and we need to address them.”

For the time being, the matter will be addressed by the courts.

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