Learning from Ralph

The best bit of Felicity Milburn’s article on Ralph Hotere in Landfall 201 is in the first few lines: “This bedrock interest in materiality and structure, manifested most obviously in his characteristic use of salvaged and industrial materials, is surprisingly constant in the work of an artist so celebrated for his manipulations of shadow, allusion and apparent emptiness.”

Milburn goes on to discuss Hotere’s use of materials such as sash windows, corrugated iron and lead-head nails as references to New Zealand’s vernacular architecture, which he uses not to evoke ‘a misty elsewhere’, but instead a physical space upon which ‘to stand and from which to resist.’  She gives these works the monicker ‘Sculpitecture’ – ‘a charged mid-ground between building and art’.

What if Ralph was an architect?  What if he spent his life designing and building buildings across New Zealand?  The mid-ground would have to be vacated, with his use of Kiwi vernacular materials placing him in the company of any number of New Zealand’s leading architects from the past half century or more.

The point of difference would then lie in his manipulations of shadow, allusion and apparent emptiness.   Le Corbusier’s pronouncement that ‘Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light’ could get tipped on its head – giving us an architecture based on the magnificent play of masses brought forth from darkness.  Light would no longer reveal the primary forms to advantage, but this would make the forms no less beautiful.

Rangihiroa Panoho in writing about ethnicity in Hotere’s work notes that in ‘the story of Rangi and Papa the blackness only has real meaning and hope in the way it contrasts with the light that separates.’  Lebbeus Woods makes a similar comment…

“With light, we know, comes darkness. Darkness is not the absence of light. Rather, it is a product of light, an active, opposing presence created by it. Without light we would not think of darkness as we do—it would be all we know, and we would live in a visually monological world. But we do not. We live in a world of contrasts between light and darkness, indeed a dialogical world of infinite gradations of the two… The struggles between light and darkness set the ground-tone of our human condition.”

Architects today are taught to know a lot about light.  Clients want their homes awash with the cleansing power of the sun’s rays, amplified by off-white walls and armies of halogen and LED downlights.  Like Le Corbusier, we’ve all been trained from the earliest of days that light is good – Genesis tells us that the Lord’s first command was for there to be light, and when he saw it, “it was good”.

The speed of the arrival of light at the Christian creation is one way of explaining its dominance in the modern world.  It sidelines darkness as a state before, something to simply be overcome in the rush to ensure everything is generated.  For Maori, under the whakapapa of creation light only appears at the last stages, with darkness in all its guises triumphing well before:

Ko Te Kore (the void, energy, nothingness, potential)

Te Kore-te-whiwhia (the void in which nothing is possessed)

Te Kore-te-rawea (the void in which nothing is felt)

Te Kore-i-ai (the void with nothing in union)

Te Kore-te-wiwia (the space without boundaries)

Na Te Kore Te Po (from the void the night)

Te Po-nui (the great night)

Te Po-roa (the long night)

Te Po-uriuri (the deep night)

Te Po-kerekere (the intense night)

Te Po-tiwhatiwha (the dark night)

Te Po-te-kitea (the night in which nothing is seen)

Te Po-tangotango (the intensely dark night)

Te Po-whawha (the night of feeling)

Te Po-namunamu-ki-taiao (the night of seeking the passage to the world)

Te Po-tahuri-atu (the night of restless turning)

Te Po-tahuri-mai-ki-taiao (the night of turning towards the revealed world)

Ki te Whai-ao (to the glimmer of dawn)
Ki te Ao-marama (to the bright light of day)
Tihei mauri-ora (there is life)

Ralph the architect would undoubtedly explore all these forms of darkness in his buildings.  But this is no simple play of light and/or the lack of it.  Robert Jahnke notes how Te Po plays a role in the entry into a pataka taonga…

“The transition between the inside and the outside of this significant architectural structure is prefaced by a conceptualisation of the inside (roto) as tapu (dangerous) relative to the outside (waho) as noa (safe).  Expressed alternatively the inside of the pataka is conceptualised as Te Po (the realm of night, darkness, the underworld) while the outside is Te Ao-marama (the world of day, light and the upper world).  Therefore the relationship that exists for the prospective entrant is not only expressed as inside and outside but also above and below.”

The play of darkness could also be an architectural representation of the dilemma that the children of Ranginui and Papatuanuku over “whether their parents should be killed, separated and by whom?  Hence the various po are quantified with adjectives that describe the intensity of the dilemma faced by the children of the primal parents.”  There is no duality of light/dark here, each stage is a different form of darkness carrying with it its own emotion and conflict, through to “Te Po-tiwhatiwha, the climatic stage of darkness, gloomy in the mind, sad, one that carries the implicit notion of emotion, of sorrow and mourning.”

But ultimately Ralph the architect would likely have fallen foul of the Building Act with its natural light requirements…….


Felicity Milburn, ‘Building sites: Hotere’s sculpitecture’. Landfall, May 2001, no.201, pp.89–97.

Mane-Wheoki, Jonathan. ‘The black light paradox: the sumptuous austerity of Ralph Hotere’s art’. Art New Zealand, no.98, Autumn 2001, pp.72–7, 91 (see here).

Robert Jahnke, He Tataitanga Ahua Toi. The house that Riwai built/a continuum of Maori art, PhD thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North, 2006 (see here).




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