Do we care enough about New Zealand’s architectural heritage?
A battle that is currently occurring would suggest not.
The battle is around the Department of Conservation wanting to demolish one of Aotearoa’s architectural gems – Te Urewera National Park Visitor Centre – Aniwaniwa. The importance of the building has been recognised by Heritage New Zealand in 2012 when it was listed with Category 1 heritage status. The registration report noted that pre-eminent Māori architect John Scott very much wanted to bring together the Māori and Pākehā cultures.
The Department of Conservation has on its website the following statement:
“Tō tātou taiāo. Tō tātou hītori. He tāonga tūturu nō Aotearoa. Maioha rawatia. Poipoia rawatia. Tukua.
Our nature. Our history. It’s New Zealand’s unique legacy. Enjoy it. Enrich it. Pass it on.”
The Department has as one of its key deliverables – the management of heritage. Their web site goes on to say:
“Heritage is things of value that you want to pass on to the next generation. Our historic heritage helps us gain an understanding of New Zealand’s past and how this shapes and defines our Kiwi identity.”
The reason for demolition is political, as the Government attempts to resolve the wrongs against Tūhoe, wrongs that need to be fixed.
However demolishing this building is not the answer.
The building’s relative isolation has probably contributed to the building not being more recognised for its importance.
John Scott was awarded a Gold Medal by the New Zealand Institute of Architects in 1999. His contribution to Aotearoa’s architectural lexicon is becoming increasingly evident. His Māori ancestry fostered a concern for the land, a sensitive approach to site and innovative fusion of modern architecture and indigenous building and design traditions.
His Futuna Chapel in Wellington is recognised as one of New Zealand’s finest architectural statements. Again it is a fusion of Māori and Pakeha – it fuses European modernism with Kiwi pragmatism. A book celebrating the building has recently been published.
Arguably the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre, opened in 1976, is an even more important building. It is about the New Zealand story. It connects building with the landscape; it is a play of the hut in the bush context; it is about the fusion of Māori and European. It is about the relationship between the Crown and iwi.
This is probably the only building in New Zealand that represents these complex ideas so compellingly in one place.
As you approach the building from the road and car park, the building is understated in that New Zealand sort of way – the austere white form sits in a wall of bush with very little clue as to what is behind.
A relatively small waharoa welcomes the visitor to enter – to start a procession of discovery. An elevated concrete walkway takes you into the majestic bush, where you pause and admire this great New Zealand asset. Turning to the left, you appreciate the magic of Scott’s building. The walkway structure connects to the porch –and the inverted roof welcomes you in – the marae porch a very strong reference. A round window suggestive of what might be inside. There are references to the great Modernist Italian architect – Carlo Scarpa.
The building is a series of pavilions that you step up into – furthering the series of discoveries. The first gallery contained the Colin McCahon Urewera Mural that was commissioned for the building. Art critic, Hamish Keith states that ‘to remove the painting from the context for which it was conceived is however, little short of vandalism’. Adjacent to the mural, a large window with views out to the soaring bush harmoniously connect the inside and outside.
The Department of Conservation is wanting to demolish the building as they see it as a liability. It has been empty since 2010. There are maintenance issues, with little investment in the building over its lifetime, particularly in recent times. Also a new visitor centre is being built closer to the edge of Lake Waikaremoana, and it is proposed to use timber from the Aniwaniwa building in that new building.
There should be a greater philosophical debate about the importance of this building. No debate, and then demolition by the government agency that is charged with looking after the country’s heritage including this nationally significant building is a sacrilege. Is it also a scandal?
Gerald Blunt is an architect, urban designer based in Wellington. He is a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. He takes a great interest in buildings and their relationship to context. He recently was part of a workshop with the Hawkes Bay Branch of the NZIA on the future of Aniwaniwa.