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Studio Pacific Architecture's He Tohu and preserving the past through design

We chat with Studio Pacific Architecture's Peter Mitchell about his practice's He Tohu Exhibition and their Spatial Purple Pin win at the 2017 Best Awards.

He Tohu is the new permanent exhibition of Aotearoa New Zealand’s iconic constitutional documents. The kuapapa of the brief is expressed as He Whakapapa korero, he whenua kura: talking about our past to create a better future.

He Tohu is a marae for all Kiwis and all generations, designed to be a space for New Zealanders to stand and reflect on the taonga’s multiple narratives and meanings.

Behind the design is Studio Pacific Architecture, whose efforts earned them a Purple Pin in the Spatial category at this year's best Awards.

We spoke with one of the firm's principals, Peter Mitchell, about the project. Here's what he had to say.

Idealog: What can you tell us about the He Tohu Exhibition?

He Tohu is a new exhibition commissioned by the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs at the National Library in Wellington developed to display, preserve and interpret Aotearoa New Zealand’s most precious and delicate documents. The balancing of achieving the technical requirements while making the documents readily accessible for all, and creating a meaningful and respectful place was always going to be crucial.

The documents in the exhibition: 1835 He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni – Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand; 1840 Te Tiriti o Waitangi – Treaty of Waitangi; and 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition – Te Petihana Whakamana Pōti Wahine are iconic constitutional documents and priceless national treasures.

He Tohu aims to bring them alive for future generations and enhance learning opportunities about the historical, constitutional and cultural significance of the documents for young New Zealanders. There is something very powerful about being able to personally and intimately inspect these handwritten documents which have so profoundly shaped, and continue to shape our history as a nation. All three documents are highly sensitive to light, humidity and temperature. Any one of these aspects could cause irreparable damage, however, putting the documents away in the dark was not an option. They had to be protected while being accessible, they had to be legible, and they had to live in a beautiful space - a place where all New Zealanders can engage and reflect on the taonga’s (treasures) multiple narratives and meanings. That was the challenge. The exhibition includes a document room with modern conservation technology to preserve the iconic documents as well as an interpretive space, which incorporates interactive features and learning areas.

What was the idea behind it?

The document room is conceived from the idea of a waka huia, a timber treasure box sharing and protecting our taonga reflecting actions and meaning embedded within these documents.

Our present is shaped by moments between people who have interacted, negotiated and debated in the past. These interactions are commemorated within the room narrative. Sitting diagonally to the building’s concrete grid, gives a wero (challenge) to exhibition visitors. Adjacent each entry wave patterns generated using algorithms and carved into the timber using CNC routers look to draw people in. The wave interference patterns represent the meeting of cultures and the debate of ideas.

Entrances are configured to remove natural light with right angle bends. They needed to be clear and inviting, leading to a chiselled entry form. A single spot lights the floor-to-ceiling hand-carved adzed panel and entry signage. A pounamu strip references the concept of he tatau pounamu (greenstone door – a symbol of reconciliation) acting as a beacon. Inside, the curvilinear form is as if the documents themselves have carved out their space. A dark, subdued space it encourages reflection. Light washed walls provide wayfinding, drawing out natural warmth in the timber, offsetting the cooler temperature case lighting.

The taonga sit freestanding in the document room as each holds its own mana (power) that needs to be respected and allows for free movement.

Fabricated primarily out of rimu, a native species, reflects humble beginnings. The rimu was  wind blown from Cyclone Ita, harvested by helicopter and constructed using contemporary and traditional carving methodologies.

The technical requirements are successfully balanced with the creation of a space that allows people to engage intimately with the taonga.

What was the greatest challenge about this?

The apparent conflicting desires of the brief – meeting the technical requirements to protect the documents while also making the documents readily accessible for all, and creating a meaningful and respectful place was always going to be a key challenge. The importance of the taonga demanded something special on all levels. Thankfully the project was supported by a  wide-ranging team all bringing their respective skills and knowledge to this project to achieve this. From a construction point of view there were a number of challenges creating such a crafted bespoke design while integrating the technical aspects and constructing within the working library with its existing sensitive documents.

What was most rewarding?

It is hard to express for the design team just how special it was to see the room revealed and opened for the public to use - watching people engage with the documents in that setting hearing their reactions and discussions has been very rewarding. The numbers of people who have visited the documents since its opening in contrast to its previous home is one further measure of the success of the overall project.

How long did it take to make?

Construction period was from July 2016 and was opened officially on May 17, 2017.

What was it like working with some of Aotearoa’s most important documents? Did that add to the pressure?

It was quite a simply an absolute privilege to have the opportunity to work on a project with such taonga. It also gave us the opportunity to engage in the design process with a number of highly talented and knowledgeable people who were all ready to share with us what they knew and to participate in the process.

Any additional pressure was mainly self-imposed from the desire to achieve something really special and respectful that these documents demanded.

What do you see as the future of this project?

He Tohu aims to bring the documents alive for future generations and enhance learning opportunities about the historical, constitutional and cultural significance of the documents for young New Zealanders. It will be an evolving exhibition – as both cultural understandings and technical advances provide these opportunities. How that might shape what you see and experience in the exhibition is yet to be seen but it’s a fascinating proposition that this will have the opportunity to evolve and to think about what it could be.

What does this say about Studio Pacific and its capabilities? What does “design” mean to you?

We approached He Tohu in much the same way we approach any project – searching for a unique, site and brief-specific response. We believe that the quality of the design response is dependent on an understanding of the subtleties that make the project unique and much of this will come from a contextual exploration. We are also engaged in finding ways to express our bicultural heritage in our work and which was an integral part of the He Tohu design evolution.

Collaboration is fundamental to the way we work. Over the life of the practice, Studio has fostered collaboration with a range of designers, from other architects and landscape architects to specialist fitout designers and other specialist consultants. Studio Pacific worked on this project with an extended creative team including exhibition designers Story Inc, Māori cultural consultant Cliff Whiting, interactive designers Click Suite, structural engineers Dunning Thornton and services engineers eCubed. Onsite we worked closely with the Fletcher Building Interiors team and it was their skills that brought the design to life. The success of the result is very much a result of this collaboration.

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