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The winning proposal

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David Mitchell’s exhibition proposal ‘Last, Loneliest, Loveliest’ was chosen by the jury to be the New Zealand exhibition. The title is from a Rudyard Kipling line applied to the colonial city of Auckland in Songs of the Cities.

Mitchell, a director of Auckland practice Mitchell & Stout, was well placed to deal with questions about modernity for, in the course of a long career, he has himself absorbed a fair amount of modernity. His life in architecture extends back into the 1960s; he has practiced architecture, taught it, written about it and made TV programmes about it – all to considerable acclaim.

The holder of New Zealand architecture’s highest honour, the NZIA Gold Medal, Mitchell, in partnership first with Jack Manning and latterly with Julie Stout, has designed many award-winning buildings, including the University of Auckland School of Music [1985], the Gibbs Houses [1985, 1991], the Mitchell-Stout Houses [1990, 2009], the Auckland Art Gallery New Gallery [1995], the Unitec Landscape and Plant Sciences Building [2003] and the Tauranga Art Gallery [2005]. Mitchell & Stout’s latest work, the Lopdell House Gallery in west Auckland, opened in November 2014.

Mitchell’s career started not long after that moment in New Zealand architecture when modernism was self-consciously localised by The Group, an alliance of young post-War architects in Auckland.

Like many architects in remote countries Mitchell has always been acutely aware of both international developments and local practice realities, and the inevitable negotiation between those two poles. In short, the focus of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale seemed to be perfectly congruent with Mitchell’s career-long concerns.

Mitchell’s exhibition proposal was also shaped by his experience of long sailing journeys through the Pacific. “In 1988 Julie Stout and I sailed to Tonga and Fiji and Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and in the 1990s we spent years sailing to many more islands, like Borneo and the Philippines,” Mitchell says. “We saw and went into buildings that are Pacific buildings, made of sticks and thatch. We liked them, they were architecturally interesting to us.”

“The Pacific has a great architectural tradition, although hardly anyone honours it. That might be because it is not like European architecture, which is solid and massive and looks permanent. Pacific buildings are timber structures of posts and beams and infill panels and big roofs. It’s a lightweight architecture that’s comparatively transient.”

“This architectural tradition was carried by migratory voyagers through the islands of the Pacific Ocean, arriving in New Zealand with the Māori 800 years ago. It survived European colonisation and has adapted to modernity, rather than being subsumed by it.”

“As the relations between Māori and Europeans in New Zealand have become more interwoven over the past half century, so have the two architectural traditions. Perhaps that’s not surprising – the modernist and Pacific ways of building have some things in common, such as a preference for openness and a commitment to sufficiency.”

“In a time when influence is instant and everything seems familiar I think we have become aware that if anything makes our architecture different, it is the evolution of the lightweight Pacific tradition. This is what we wanted to show in our exhibition. We also wanted to communicate our optimism about this architectural direction. Given the world’s concerns about climate change and the sustainable use of resources, and New Zealand’s own worries about its seismic circumstances, the Pacific architectural qualities of resilience, flexibility and reparability have a lot to offer.” 

Besides the tent-like form with fabric sides printed with images of Pacific and New Zealand structures, “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest” comprised three large panels – one showing migration routes through the Pacific, and the others presenting two contemporary internationally-acclaimed New Zealand buildings, Auckland Art Gallery and the Christchurch ‘Cardboard’ Cathedral. The exhibition proposal also included a whatarangi, carved for the exhibition by Justin Marler; this single-poled pātaka or storehouse housed a model of Auckland Art Gallery (one taonga inside another) made by Unitec architecture students under the direction of lecturer Ainsley O’Connell.

The exhibition also included models and images from Frances Cooper’s 2013 University of Auckland MArch thesis, a scheme which in the same year won the postgraduate prize in the prestigious Global Student Architecture Awards run by The Architectural Review in the UK.

The Mitchell exhibition proposal continued to evolve after it was selected as New Zealand’s Venice pavilion. The creative team wished to acknowledge in some way the effects of and reaction to the Christchurch earthquakes – the biggest things to (literally) hit New Zealand architecture in decades. In a way, Mitchell says, the February 2011 earthquake marked “the end of Englishness” in New Zealand architecture, and in New Zealand’s most “English” city. Rather than dwell on destruction, Mitchell wanted to highlight a constructive response to Christchurch’s calamity. Besides Shigeru Ban’s ‘Cardboard’ cathedral, Mitchell decided to include in his exhibition a small tower made of post-tensioned timber, which would be used to display Frances Cooper’s work. The tower connected the exhibition’s lightweight Pacific theme with a building technology being researched and deployed in post-earthquake Christchurch.