New Zealand at the Venice Architectural Biennale arrives

Future Islands
13 Rose Rd, Grey Lynn
Until October 12

This week Auckland’s Objectspace reopened in a new building with the show the NZ Institute of Architects took to the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2016. The exhibition, Future Islands, features about 100 small architectural models representing 50 projects undertaken by architects and students, which are suspended from the ceiling or sitting on two dozen island/cloud shapes.

Some of the models are of completed buildings, some are yet to be completed while still others are visionary projects. The exhibition is related to the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino which has the Venetian traveller Marco Polo describing to Kublai Khan 55 imagined cities that are essentially 55 different versions of Venice itself. In many ways, the book was an attempt to conceive of the hidden or layered nature of the city.

Calvino’s book was a contemplation on Thomas More’s Utopia and this exhibition is a reflection on the notion of New Zealand as a utopia, with architecture that reflects both the concepts of the ideal built environment and the ideal community.

The exhibition has another literary connection to the notion of New Zealand suffering from antipodean angst, being a strange land on the other side of the world from Europe, with a reference to the Allen Curnow line about New Zealanders having to “learn the trick of standing upright here,” with some of the models gripping the underside of the island shapes.

Most of the buildings on display are domestic constructions but there are a few commercial or public buildings. However, there is little documentation about the buildings, their purpose and location. This makes connections with Calvino’s ideas seem quite tenuous.

Another criticism of the show is the method of display. Anyone under 150cm tall will have difficulty in seeing many of the models properly as the islands are too high. So, despite the rhetoric about being an engaging exhibition and making architecture accessible, many of the small models are inaccessible and trying to get a selfie with the Len Lye Centre model is impossible as it’s located about six metres up the wall.

Several of the houses are well-known, such as Ian Athfield’s house which spills down the hill overlooking Wellington Harbour. The model of the house looks more like a piece of sculpture sliding off the wall of the gallery. Another prominent building is the stainless-steel Len Lye Centre, designed by Patterson Associates. There is also the Fearon Hay Dune House and Warren & Mahoney’s MIT Manukau + Transport Exchange, as well as a couple of works by both Architectus and Cheshire Architects.

There is also a special place, a pink island, reserved for the work of Rewi Thompson, the Maori architect who was part of the Venice Biennale team and who died earlier this year. He is represented with a model of his own severe abstract house of 1983, which is similar to the refined facade of the new Objectspace building.

Visitors are greeted with a waiata soundscape, which also featured in Venice, and was created by Elisapeta Heta.

Objectspace director Kim Paton believes Future Islands is a terrific exhibition for Objectspace to open with "as it underlines our new remit of focusing on expanding our exhibitions of design, craft and architecture. The past 12 years of the gallery have been focused on craft and the applied arts. Now we will be taking a stronger approach to architecture and design. It’s an area which no other institution in the country is focused on.”

“It’s poignant that no Venice Architectural Biennale show has ever been exhibited in New Zealand and also poignant that the NZ Institute of Architects has decided not to go to the Biennale in 2018 because of the cost and the lack of support being given to the promotion of architectural history and design.

“Future Islands is a great miniature show, a poetic show about New Zealand architecture and speaks to the speculative and visionary possibilities of architecture. In New Zealand, we don’t talk enough or have the language to talk about architecture, and that needs to change.”

The new Objectspace was made possible after a $1 million fundraising campaign and includes major funding from Creative New Zealand. The building designed by Richard Naish of RTA Studio consists of four gallery spaces including an outside display platform.

It has also received funding from Ockham Residential and The Chartwell Trust, with two of the galleries being named after the two donors.

The area around Objectspace is not great for parking so the best idea is do your shopping at the Grey Lynn Countdown and then walk the 100 metres to the gallery.