Jade Kake is an architectural designer, writer and housing advocate. Her design practice is focused on working with Māori organisations on their marae, papakāinga and civic projects, and in working with mana whenua groups to express their cultural values and narratives through the design of their physical environments.
Jeremy Hansen is director, communications and community at Britomart Group. He is a well-known writer and podcaster (on 76 Small Rooms) about architecture and urbanism and a former magazine editor, interviewer and presenter.
Jade and Jeremy talk to NZ Booklovers.
A much-loved, much-missed and near mythical figure — when did you each decide that Rewi Thompson should be honoured with a book and that you should do it together?
JH: We’d both only known Rewi a little bit, but were very conscious of the significance of his contribution to architecture — and that this contribution didn’t seem to be well-documented or acknowledged outside architectural circles. Jade and I were already friends and had published some things about other aspects of architecture separately, and we liked the idea of a book that could draw attention to the breadth of Rewi’s projects — which include a few brilliant houses, Wellington’s City to Sea Bridge, the majestic Puukenga School of Māori Studies at Unitec in Auckland, and a radical proposal for Te Papa that he developed with Ian Athfield and Frank Gehry (the architect behind the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao) in the 1990s. Rewi’s influence on the design of prisons and mental health institutions still shapes the way those facilities are designed today. And his long stint as a lecturer at the School of Architecture at the University of Auckland encouraged a generation of students to feel more confident about using landscape and Māori narratives in their designs. Although it ended up being much bigger than we planned, we don’t think of this as a ‘definitive’ book, but hopefully something that stimulates further conversation and study of Rewi’s work.
It’s huge! At the outset could you have imagined that you would be able to gather together so much material on him?
JK: I’ve been describing our research process and the journey of creating this book as a ‘magical mystery tour’, in the sense that there were so many wonderful and unexpected developments along the way. I think we went in with a general sense of our approach, some questions we might hope to answer through the process of making this book, and some of the projects we might like to include, but it’s fair to say we didn’t necessarily expect to find as much as we did. Probably a key factor in this was the sheer volume of drawings that Rewi had produced and retained throughout his career, the majority of which his daughter Lucy generously donated to the University of Auckland archive after his passing. The archive was a treasure trove of information, both transparent and opaque, leading to interviews and lines of enquiry that generated further conversations and opened up new areas and possibilities for investigation.
It must have been critical that Rewi’s daughter Lucy agreed to the project?
JH: We spoke to Lucy right at the outset of the project to seek her approval — we didn’t want to do a book about her father if she wasn’t on board. She’s been a wonderful collaborator, sharing memories, treasured photographs and braving her own storage unit to find images of some of her father’s key projects. Getting to know her as we’ve worked on the book has been one of the best things about this project.
JK: We were really clear when we approached her — if you don’t agree that there should be a book, there won’t be a book, and if you do agree, we want you involved with us every step of the way, as little or as much as you would like. It was inconceivable for us to pursue a project of this nature without the full consent, support and guidance of the whānau. I hope that the process of guiding and contributing to this book has been a healing and joyful process for Lucy, and we are so grateful to her for coming on this journey with us and trusting us with her dad’s story.
You both have big, busy day jobs and, Jade, you took a year out to study at te wananga while also working on the book. How did both of you manage to fit all this in?
JK: To quote the fictional character Lesley Knope (the local government bureaucrat in the US television series Parks and Recreation), ‘there’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.’ I think I’m a very organised person, but there’s an element of truth in that quote, in that something does have to slip when you’re doing a lot of additional work outside of normal business hours (i.e. evenings and weekends), and usually that’s rest or housework or time spent with friends and family. Fortunately, Jeremy and I had each other, and we were able to pick up the slack and keep things moving when we had to prioritise other work or life got in the way. I found myself doing things like apologising and then doing three weeks of backlogged tasks in a single day. It was a really easy, harmonious collaboration, and I think it helped that we were united in our vision for the project, but also open to new ideas and reasonably relaxed about how we got there.
JH: Looking back, I have no idea how we got it all done. We’ve been chipping away at it for four years — we never intended it to take that long, but that allowed it to take the shape it needed and to fit better with the ebb and flow of our other commitments. Lockdowns helped, as we were able to pin a few key interviews down on Zoom during those periods. For me, it was a lot of weekend and evening work — I still don’t know how Jade squeezed this project in around everything else she got done! — but there weren’t too many points where it felt onerous. Sometimes it was like a baton we’d pass from one person to the other as each of us got too busy on other things. We never argued about anything — it was a really happy collaboration.
What drove you to keep on with it?
JH: As the incredibly high regard Rewi was held in became more and more evident in our interviews, the book started to feel more necessary. This was a pretty big motivator — we wanted the book to honour Rewi’s memory and the generosity of all the people who agreed to speak to us about him.
After the hours and hours of listening to colleagues, friends, students and clients share their memories of Rewi, how would you sum up his importance to architecture in a few words?
JK: I would say that Rewi touched the lives of many with his ability to listen carefully and make space for the perspectives of others, his conceptual brilliance and ability to translate deep listening into architectural ideas, and his generosity of spirit in sharing his skills and knowledge with others. His impact is felt, not only through his own built and speculative work, but through the lives and work of those who were taught by, collaborated with, or knew him.
And his broader importance to Aotearoa?
JK: Although Rewi resisted the easy categorisation of ‘Māori architect’, he has had an undeniable impact on our architectural identity as a nation, which is inextricably linked to Te Tiriti o Waitangi: the relationships between people and to land that this establishes, and the manifestation of these relationships spatially. In terms of architecture, we are seeing a genuine maturing in this space (as our Treaty relationships develop and mature), and we have Rewi, and other trailblazing Māori architects (and the clients and communities they have worked with), to thank for laying down the foundations.
He designed some amazing speculative projects, as you discovered in his archives. What’s one that you wish could have been made a reality?
JH: I was quite fixated for a long time about what might have been if more of Rewi’s work had been built, but I feel more relaxed about that after working on the book. The architecture lecturer Bill McKay said something interesting when we interviewed him: that architectural careers shouldn’t only be measured by the quantity and quality of built work, but by a person’s overall contribution. And I think Rewi’s fearlessness in developing purely conceptual projects is something rare in architecture in this country, and that the unbuildable projects in some cases say as much as a completed building could about who we are and what this place could be.
JK: I’m something of a science fiction fan and hobbyist, and I’m really interested in the Māori and Indigenous futurist movements that grew out of the Afrofuturism movement and continue to gain momentum. I think of Rewi as an early Māori futurist, and I’m not necessarily obsessed with having things be built: sometimes the speculative worlds we generate are as (or moreso) rich, enduring and societally transformative as physical, real world environments.
Do you think Rewi would be amazed that this book had been created?
JH: I hope he would have felt proud, because his work is more than worthy of this attention. There were many times I wished he was alive, because there are so many questions I’d still like to ask him.
JK: By all accounts he was a very humble person, so I think he may have been a bit whakamā to have all of this fuss made about him, but also, I hope, proud to see the ongoing impact and legacy of his work and ways of being in the world on the lives of so many.
What ripples do you hope it will cast out into the pond?
JK: There is a slim selection of books about Indigenous architecture and architects that exist in the world (I think I own most of them and they occupy perhaps 300-400mm on a bookshelf), and I’m hopeful that the publication of this book will encourage other writers and publishers to write and publish more books of this nature.
Massey University Press