A new visually stunning book, Rewi, Āta haere, kia tere is a glowing tribute to the late Māori architect Rewi Thompson. It was created by well-known architectural writer and podcaster Jeremy Hansen and Māori architect Jade Kake to honour his memory. As Rewi left only a small number of significant public buildings, he has remained relatively unknown. This book deservedly brings him to a wider audience.
Rewi was well-known and highly respected in architectural circles as a brilliant conceptual thinker, designer, and teacher. A modernist architect, he showed how Māori design principles could contribute to shape a new kind of architecture for Aotearoa as an expression of our national identity.
In Rewi, Āta haere, kia tere, we follow each phase of his architectural life through a series of conversations with his friends, collaborators, and students. It is richly illustrated with his drawings and photographs of his buildings. This way of telling his story allows us to get to know Rewi as a person as well as gaining an understanding of his work and locate him in his time and context.
For the City to Sea Bridge in Wellington, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Rewi collaborated with Athfield architects, John Gray and Paratene Matchitt. The split pyramid topped with pounamu was his contribution and represents Te Waipounamu, The South Island, from where Maui threw his fishing line and lifted Te Ika-a-Maui, the North Island. It is a striking example of his ability to interpret Māori culture in a contemporary way.
In 1989 Rewi, Ian Athfield and Frank Gehry collaborated on an entry for the design competition for the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. It still astounds me that this didn’t even make it into the top five! Had it won, it would have been a huge drawcard for both local and overseas visitors!
For his futuristic Otara Town Centre Canopies, Rewi encouraged the local community to take part. They decorated the large concrete columns supporting the canopies with painted murals and woven panels. It is a beautiful Pacific space where the locals love to gather.
Through his involvement in the design of mental health institutions such as the Mason Clinic and the Ngāwa prison in Northland, he helped to shape a new direction for how such places could be designed to focus on healing and rehabilitation.
For the Mason clinic, based on hauora, the Māori philosophy of health and wellbeing, he incorporated a wharenui. For Ngāwhā, where over 50% of the inmates are Māori, the corrections department initially wanted to bulldoze the prison site. Rewi persuaded them to incorporate the natural terraces and stream running through it in the design so inmates could look out at the landscape and feel connected to their ancestral land. For him, the relationship with the land was always a vital consideration when designing a building.
As part of their extensive research, the authors delved into Rewi’s vast archive at the University of Auckland and found a wealth of drawings for both his built and speculative works. Some of the latter might have been difficult to execute, but they show the depth of his imagination and creative thinking.
His competition entry for the AAA Monier Tile award in 1980, for Ngāti- Pōneke Marae, which he won while still a student, was a daring design which took the form of an abstracted waka dragged partly from the harbour and lying on the slopes of Tangi-te-keo , Mount Victoria.
Another was his wondrous design for a Pacific Island Business and Cultural Centre. The location was not specified, but the authors surmise that it would be built on a large site in Auckland’s outskirts. His pitch document began with ‘Welcome to Tropical Paradise”. He wrote:
From the street the complex will appear like an Island Paradise surrounded by water. This is envisaged to seduce and entice the visitor. As part of the welcome experience, the visitor enters the island over water. Once across the bridge, the visitor has the freedom to explore the many activities and attractions knowing that they are safe and welcomed in a unique, exciting, and friendly world.”
Rewi was a compulsive drawer who was seldom without a notebook in his hands. So, it is very appropriate that the last 60 pages of this book are filled with his loose sketches and jottings through which he was always trying to figure out one architectural problem or another. I was entranced by them. They gave me a fascinating window into his creative mind.
Reading this book has filled me with admiration for this remarkable man, a trailblazer who is remembered with great affection and respect by his students when he was a lecturer at the School of Architecture at the University of Auckland. His teachings will undoubtedly continue to guide them in their endeavours to bring a culturally based perspective to their own building designs. I am looking forward to seeing how that plays out in our built environment.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter
Massey University Press