To die by decay, or restore to rightful place?

The Wellington Architecture Centre has spread the word about the possible destruction of John Scott’s visitor centre at Lake Waikaremoana (see here).  Built in the mid-1970s, the building has suffered at the hands of its surroundings, succumbing to water infiltration and the dampness of the climate.  It also no longer meets the demands of the thousands of people who come this far inland.

Buried is the right term to describe this building.  Not only is it buried deep into the hills, where even though it is a State Highway still many New Zealanders have never ventured, but it is also buried in the bush.  The site wasn’t cleared for the building, instead the visitor centre sits amongst the trees.  One reason that the building lies so hidden is perhaps its precious content – taonga of the local people as well as an icon of New Zealand’s art history.  Perhaps Scott knew that his building was going to be overpowered by its content and its context (see my earlier post) and responded appropriately by letting it sink into the bush.

The same group who rallied to save Scott’s Chapel of Futuna in Karori, Wellington, is now mounting a campaign to save his visitor centre at Waikaremoana.  They appeal to the Crown to “recognise the national importance of this building in the architecture of New Zealand and as a key work of the Maori Architect John Scott, that they take urgent action to repair and restore the building, and that they ensure that the building continues to be maintained for the use and enjoyment of the public of New Zealand and visitors to New Zealand into the future.”

You don’t have to dig too deep to reveal cultural issues with a statement that most in the architectural profession would see as a straightforward heritage argument.  Here we have an assertion of national import, implicitly arguing that this overrules any regional or more importantly iwi or hapu view.  This is followed by an assumption that because a building is important it must be restored and maintained, despite being in the heart of an area and culture where the importance of a building will often mean it is left to decay (see Binney’s description of Eripitana down the road at Te Whaiti).  To end, the Friends of Futuna ignore the claims of Tuhoe being progressed under the Treaty of Waitangi and simply state that the building needs to continue to exist for the public of New Zealand and visitors – Tuhoe would likely argue that more than 99% of the public of New Zealand are actually the visitors to this area.

Can we separate the heritage value of a building from the context of its creation?  It can’t be too much of a surprise to any New Zealander that this site is highly contested, sitting as it is amidst the Urewera, not far from Maungapohatu or from Te Kooti’s hideout.  Having restored order through invasion in the 19th Century, sated its voracious appetite for land on useful plots surrounding the Urewera, the Crown finally closed the deal by taking the remaining lands as a National Park in 1954.

Its status as National Park speaks loudest – the Crown deciding that the area was too precious to be left to Tuhoe to care for and instead needing to be claimed for all New Zealanders.  The bureaucracy put in place to manage these newly acquired lands – the Park Board – then sought to build a centre to open the park up to the public of New Zealand and visitors to New Zealand into the future.  Scott’s visitor centre is therefore representative of the history of land alienation and dispossession of Tuhoe.  Restoring it and maintaining it cannot be argued from a purely aesthetic or narrow heritage-focus angle – architecturally it represents a complex weave of history that needs to be considered as part of any decision about whether it should remain or be left to die by decay.

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