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A slice through New Zealand: Objectspace maps out the built environment of Aotearoa

Its name, In Context, encapsulates the ideology of RTA, who has built in close relationships between buildings and the environment, the Objectspace building itself created by RTA, as well as many others in the neighbourhood.

“Context is one of architecture’s fundamental concerns, and the exhibition delivers a set of established and emerging approaches,” says Barrie.

Freemans Bay School

The experience will centre on a 3D model of the regions in Aotearoa where RTA Studio projects are located. The top surface will be contoured to depict these coastal, rural, suburban and urban zones stretching from the tank farm on Auckland’s waterfront to the gritty district around Karangahape Road, and from the Victorian charm of Auckland’s inner suburbs to pastoral settings of the central North Island and ultimately the distinctive mountainous spine of the Southern Alps.

The variety of landscapes is an ode to the range RTA have built with, traversing architectural forms, from fancy waterfront apartments, dense office dwellings, to isolated houses in the Southern Alps.

Barrie says, “The exhibition grouped certain contexts together, including parts of Auckland city, and featuring places from all over New Zealand.”

E-Type House

The 10-metre-long display forms an imaginary, spliced-together map of New Zealand – the geospatial backdrop to 30 buildings. Each building is presented as a miniature paper model which has been laser printed then assembled by hand.

Within the gallery, a folded plane of paper with a crease that aligns with the axis of the model becomes a metaphorical sky, creating a more intimate spatial experience for visitors.

Barrie says, the project has taken eight months altogether, but three months in earnest, helped by some forty-five architecture students. 

The team chose to make the display entirely of paper and corrugated cardboard so that the exhibition generates zero waste. Once the show closes, all its elements either return to the suppliers or are disassembled and put into the recycle bin.

“As a representation of the state of architecture in New Zealand, the exhibition goes beyond bread-and-butter contextualism where the architect comes up with thoughtful and interesting ways to fit in with the scale and character of the neighbours,” says Barrie.

Through scaled-down representations of some of RTA Studio’s best-known work, In Context becomes a broader survey of how architects can insert their buildings  into their context across typologies such as residential, retail, commercial and educational.

The E-type House, for instance, is a private dwelling in Auckland made up of three interconnected boxes with repetitive peaked roof forms that blend in with a neighbourhood where villas were often built in pairs or triplets.  

Ironbank, a mixed-use development on Karangahape Road, knits into the highly pedestrianised street-front via a concrete façade that is an abstraction of the historical frontages that surround it. In contrast, the stacked boxes that comprise the five office towers behind this public face respond to the ad-hoc fabric of Cross Street which the building backs on to.    

These two projects embrace context in the immediate vicinity, but sometimes the architect has to draw a longer bow. Tarawera High School on the edge of Kawerau is located in a semi-rural setting. “The direct context – suburban housing and paddocks – wasn’t all that helpful,” says Barrie. “But the community and student body is predominantly M?ori so the design was guided by the idea of ley lines (a spiritual belief that invisible lines within the landscape link objects of importance) and the concept of whakapapa – the M?ori take on genealogy which places the emphasis on rivers, mountains and place.”

Another school reworked its context so that the building enjoyed a much closer relationship with its community. “Most schools are like suburban houses, with classrooms and a hall that sit in the middle of the playground a long way from the street,” says Barrie. 

RTA’s update of Freeman’s Bay Primary created a front entrance directly on the street with a covered area where parents can wait for their children under shelter. “It allows waiting parents to meet others and I have heard that the principal often wanders around for a chat too,” says Barrie. “It’s a design idea that serves people – a contextual move that makes the building very present in the neighbourhood that also strengthens community ties.”

Because many of the projects are located in the vicinity of the Objectspace gallery, a walking-tour map has been developed to coincide with the opening. Visitors can take a stroll through the neighbourhood to the buildings shown in the paper model in real-life.

RTA Studio, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, also renovated and repurposed the Objectspace building itself, transforming it with an abstract façade that speaks of the quality and precision of the makers’ work inside.

“It is poignant for us to work with  RTA as the inaugural architectural practice in what will be a biennial exhibition, we plan to work with an architect or practice on a creative project developed outside of the normal constraints of commercial practice, The series will investigate methods for how architecture can be experienced in a gallery context and the contribution the discipline can make to our sense of culture and place.” Kim Paton, gallery director. 

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