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The architecture that’s building identity and culture

The last time Papua New Guinea (PNG) held the Pacific Games in 1991, it was at a time of uncertainty, unease, and the largest conflict Oceania had seen since the end of World War II.

Twenty-five years later, the Pacific Games are once again being held in a now vastly different Port Moresby. As the country’s athletes prepared themselves to strike gold at this year’s games, so too did the games committee prepare a selective shortlist of architecture firms to build an athletes’ village for the competition.

The brief was simple: the village needs to house 5000 athletes, become a building that will be turned into student accommodation for the University of Papua New Guinea, and accurately reflects PNG’s identity.

The task landed on the desk of Shannon Joe, a principal architect at Auckland firm Warren and Mahoney.

Shannon Joe

“It was such a brave, creative project for the country; the government was effectively our client,” says Joe. “They wanted a legacy project that would be, in some ways, the ‘shining’ thing for the games.”

The focusing element of the project was hard to pin down at first, according to Joe. One of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with more than a thousand different languages, creating a unifying theme that symbolised PNG was not an easy task.

“When we started to analyse further with [local] artwork, we found a lot of it was based on symmetry. A lot has been based on colour, and in line work,” Joe says.

“What we picked up on was geometry – lines and triangles.” It was a common theme across the various cultures, and served as ample inspiration for the project.

Joe says a lot of the diagrammatic lines and triangular designs they produced were inspired by the woven costumes worn by Sing-sing performers.

In a country that also gets extremely hot and incredibly humid, the design of the building also necessitated a focus on shelter from extreme weather effects so athletes can recover. It resulted in a canopy-structure over the top of the buildings that incorporated the triangular designs.

“It took two or three months to convince the client that these canopies were the way to go,” Joe says.

Sitting three stories high and 9m wide, Joe says Chinese contractors built the whole structure on the ground and then hoisted it into place using a crane, which saved a lot of time, removing the need for scaffolding.

“Time was precious. The contractors had to effectively create 10 of these blocks in the space of a year, and it was seen as impossible,” Joe says.

The end result was an athlete’s village that not only housed the athletes, but also the creation of buildings that impressed not only the PNG government, but more importantly, the Pacific Games Council (PGC).

In a press conference before the start of the games, PGC president Vidhya Lakhan said: “The venues have far exceeded our expectations. These are the best venues we have ever had for the Games.”

“From what we have seen, we are quite confident that the athletes will have an excellent Games Village; a home away from home,” Lakhan said.

Funnily enough, the only detractors of the village were the OlyWhites – the New Zealand football team.

But ultimately, Joe says, the level of architectural prowess in New Zealand is now right up with the rest of the world.

“We often go ‘hmm, how do we measure up internationally?’ Well, we effectively beat all of them to get this job, and in the end, we produced something important,” Joe says.

The emphasis, he says, was sitting down with the clients and listening to what they truly wanted. Instead of specific technical things such as cost or efficiency, what it boiled down to was the emotions the clients wanted to project.

Courage, legacy, and identity – the architectural designs became a representation of not only the people that will use the building, but also the people of the country.

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The project was conceptually designed by Warren and Mahoney, and built in-conjunction with the Pacific Architects Consortium (PNG) Ltd.

The Pacific Games run from July 4 to 18, wrapping up this Saturday. The next event will be held in Tonga, 2019.

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