Frank Gehry and the Lost Vision for Te Papa

An interview with Wellington architect Ian Athfield about the other design for our national museum

by Gordon Campbell

Today, some thirteen years after Te Papa first opened, the arguments over its design seem a distant memory, and so very 1990s. The building is there. Many people use it, few people love it. This article isn’t an attempt to rehash the ancient controversies. Instead, the aim is to treat one of the losing designs – the Ian Athfield/Frank Gehry design – as a parallel reality, a road not taken. It is (almost) amusing to think that New Zealand had the chance to have its biggest ever, most expensive public building designed by the man who went on soon afterwards to create what many critics now regard as the greatest building of the 20th century – namely, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. In our wisdom, we not only turned Frank Gehry down. We didn’t think he was good enough to even make the short list of five.

That makes for a pretty interesting alternative reality : the Gehry we could have had, but refused to countenance. Of course, when New Zealand was casting around for designs for its national museum in the late 1980s, Gehry was not yet FRANK GEHRY, Architect Superstar. The Bilbao Guggenheim job was still a couple of years away. Yet given the time it takes for major works to be chosen and built….if New Zealand had gone with the Athfield/Gehry design the timing would have been absolutely perfect. When it opened in February 1998, Te Papa would have been Gehry’s next major work after Bilbao. That alone would have made Te Papa a global event.

In fact, Te Papa would have slotted right in between Gehry’s triumphs at Bilbao in 1997 and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. Leaving aside the aesthetic issues….if Bilbao’s success story is anything to go by, the spin-off benefits to our tourism industry from such a building might well have dwarfed what we currently hope to receive from the Rugby World Cup this year.

As I say, the missing Gehry is one of the most tantalising “what ifs’ of this country’s recent cultural and economic history. Such buildings can transform the cities that endorse them. We know that’s true, from the Sydney Opera House example. Before the Guggenheim came to town, Bilbao had been a fading manufacturing city of 500,000 people, far off the tourism beaten track. That single building has transformed the city’s economy and identity.

In the wake of what Gehry’s building has done for the city, Bilbao has been able to build a new airport terminal, a new public transport system of trams and rapid transit, a major culture and leisure centre (designed by Philippe Starck) and has launched two massive projects of urban renewal, one adjacent to the same river Nervion that flows past the Guggenheim. Like its New York counterpart, the Guggenheim Bilbao is widely loved by critics and the general public alike. Meanwhile, Wellington has enjoyed some benefits from hosting Te Papa. Given the scale of the project it could hardly have done otherwise. Yet aesthetically and commercially, it has been something of a lost opportunity.

With time, other aspects of the museum become obvious. It becomes easier for instance, to see that Te Papa was from the outset, an explicitly ideological project. Functionally, the building has served as a $350 million storehouse for the nation’s treasures. Yet Te Papa was also consciously intended to promote the beliefs about biculturalism held by the government of the day. The building was tasked with (literally) making those beliefs concrete. The architectural design, spatial layout, management structure and exhibitions were recruited into expressing and promoting that cause. Whatever its other virtues, biculturalism has proved to be a somewhat dubious road map for arriving at a good building design.

With all this in mind, Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell interviewed the Wellington architect Ian Athfield [Image left by Karl Johaentegs – click to expand] about how his working relationship with Gehry came about, and what official feedback (if any) he ever received as to why their suggested design was rejected.

Campbell : To qualify for consideration for Te Papa,, foreign architects had to be partnered in a joint venture with New Zealand architects. How did you come to team up with Frank Gehry – rather than say, with Thom Mayne or Richard Meier?

Athfield : Right. There were three of us, with Rewi Thompson, who had a sole practice and was Maori ….At that stage I was quite interested in Frank Gehry’s work. I’d been doing a few talks in Australia and someone said how similar we were in our approaches to things, and they had Frank Gehry in Australia at that time. And I thought well, here’s an opportunity of working with someone that we may have an affinity with.

What was the basis of that perceived affinity ?

Just that he tended to use sculptured forms, for instance. And would balance that against rather traditional building patterns. For a lot of his early works, he had employed a sculptor…His early work really fascinated me. And I felt the balance was appropriate, for something like Wellington.

How do you go about buddying up with someone like that? Do you write them a fan note?

I think we contacted him, and said – would he be interested ? We sent him some of the work we’d done at that stage. He said he was very interested. He was determined never to come to New Zealand again. He’d come to New Zealand, I think it was to Auckland about ten years before and his wife – who was of Mexican descent – was not given a visa. So he felt a little bit embittered by New Zealand, on the one hand. But then Rewi and I went across and we worked with him and they gave us very, very generous time. We probably worked for about six days together.

What would you say were the main features of the design you eventually came up with ?

The purpose was really in exploring the relationship between the building and the harbour. In developing a strong relationship – by dipping your feet in the harbour, rather than standing back from it. In doing so though, we were questioning the race track – and [retaining it] had been part of the requirement.

Just to be clear on that. The sanctity of not infringing on Wellington’s annual V8 racetrack around the harbour over-rode everything else ?

It appeared to.

That’s quite amusing – given the deference shown to biculturalism in all other aspects of the brief, So the V8s over-rode the Treaty, to some extent?

Yes. It didn’t take too long though for the racetrack requirement to be removed – BUT the relationship has still remained, as a wide boulevard [on the harbour side of the building] between the building and the harbour.

And without the promised connection to the city centre on the other side, either.

Yes. Without that promised connection.

Interview continues below – click HERE to jump….

Images of the Gehry Athfield Design

Interview continues..

Architects are perceived romantically – and maybe inaccurately – as solitary visionaries. How do they work co-operatively on a project such as this?

If you can talk about context rather than object, you have more chance of actually being able to work together. For me, it was very satisfying to have someone [in Gehry] who was as interested in context as he was in object. So I think it was a lot about collaboration. We talked a lot about the symbolism of Maori, and about the symbolism of New Zealand.

What did he want to learn from you in that respect?

It was mostly historical. He did have a bit of knowledge about Maori. But also, with Rewi Thompson being Maori, it was quite helpful. He talked about the treasure-box which could have feathers, sitting in the rafters…

So primarily, whose idea was the [steel and translucent glass] feather element in the final design?

I think it was discussed a number of times. We decided that was a very, very good ordering thing. Which would enable a series of objects to gather around. Something lightweight, while giving it quality of lighting, and I suppose something which represented Maori. And that’s where it started and stopped. We realised it was a first step and you had to get into the first five – so you had to do something that was reasonably strong.

Gehry had shown an interest in sail-like forms for some time. With the feather was there a meeting of minds over its indigenous meaning and his fascination with that shape ?

No…I just think he found it magnetic enough to embrace it.

And from what you’re saying it wasn’t a purely decorative feature.

It certainly wasn’t. I know Rewi and I went down to a hat shop – or a sort of game shop – and got a couple of feathers and started demonstrating how a feather might be an ordering [principle] around the spaces.

When you say ‘ordering” what do you mean ?

An ordering effectively,of the circulation space. We felt the galleries should work off circulation. The way the brief worked in that preliminary way, the principal space actually embraced land and sea, and this was really important.

Gehry talks about the need to be democratic about how you circulate people through the internal space – as a way of coping with the museum fatigue that sets in once you’ve been inside for hours at a time. He believes the building should provide the opportunity of foraying out around the galleries and returning to a central space that will perhaps offer views of the city beyond, from a different perspective. Is that what you mean by circulation – or is it more external ?

Circulation on this site seemed to be imperative given how the relationship between land and water was such a part of this [project] …. [Our] whole concept allowed the building to go back right through that block of Cable St, Wakefield St…bringing it right back into the city, one block further than it is now. So what we were saying it was something which people passed through, vehicular traffic could pass through a [unintelligible] foyer, which was part of the space that went across the road. It was just a very generous gesture of interlocking {Te Papa] more into the fabric of the city.

You didn’t make the shortlist of five Did you ever get any official feedback about the design?

Not that I remember. The five selected ones were put up in opposition. The authors had the opportunity of presenting them, and the also-rans had the opportunity of hearing that presentation.

Given the strong bicultural emphasis in the brief, did you ever get any feedback about the feather?

I understand the Maori representatives at the judging level did take exception to it.

On what grounds ?

That it wasn’t appropriate to have a feather above your head in a building. I think that was [from] Buddy Mikaere who finally I got to know quite well and who has personally always been embarrassed about it. He was on the selection committee.

Do you have a hunch that this might have been a convenient excuse – when they were really cost averse, or bothered by the daring of putting part of the building out onto the water ?

We reclaimed part of the land…Yeah,. like there always is, there was an agenda to get a building built within a political framework in which one had to be reasonably safe. There were concerns – for instance -that one of the judges was a Canadian – and he chose his favourite Canadian architect. A person who produced what was sort of. over organic stuff at the time. He was selected [for the shortlist] which everyone was surprised about.

Was that the Cardinal-Tse design ?

Yep, that’s it. I think there was a general concern that how the hell did that project reach that level.

Te Papa is a huge building [of 37,000 square feet] four times the size of the Sydney Opera House. The brief imposed some very ambitious and ambiguous demands about the inner space. Did all that somewhat dictate what the exterior would have to look like?

In part it may have. I can’t recall when the decision to take on exhibition designers took place. I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that process was already going on when the architectural competition was held – to select the exhibition designers. And I think one of the main gripes of the [winning] Jasmax proposal was that they had exhibition designers who were selected separately from them. And who then seemed to work separately. So the integration of architecture and exhibition never ever came together.

Yeah, but that’s not an unknown situation is it? With the design of the Getty Centre in Los Angeles for instance, Richard Meier had major problems with the landscape designer – who seemed to be a completely autonomous addition to the project. And one that had been deliberately introduced perhaps, to stop the architect from being the sole arbiter of the project, on site.

Yes. But Richard Meier was an exceptional character. One of the people I met with Frank Gehry was Elizabeth McMillian, who was the editor of Architectural Digest..She had a long term relationship with Richard Meier and I remember Gehry saying to her – ‘Well, you know Elizabeth, he was always a prick.” As if…you got what you deserved by going out with him.

Really? An architect with a colossal ego? That’s unheard of.

Well…I still have problems with many of my fellow [architects] who are totally object-drawn, rather than condition-drawn.

In the case of Te Papa, there was an argument put forward by [Museum of NZ Trust chairman] Bill Rowling that we can’t have an iconic building because national museums just aren’t that sort of beast. Take the Smithsonian, for instance. What’s your rejoinder to that?

In some ways, I agree. Architecture is a background for history, for fashion, for many other things. It takes various forms. Quite often in cities where there are no strong, heritage type buildings, the over-dramatic building becomes passé. So Bilbao for instance in Wellington may not have been as appropriate….

Really? But Bilbao wasn’t exactly a centre of architectural ferment at the time. That museum became the gateway building for the renovation of the entire city, though. Beforehand, it was just an ageing, dying place.

That’s right. And the pattern of the city and downtown was pretty well fixed. It was aged. And [the Guggenheim] pulled it out of that situation.

What I’m saying is that NOT being in harmony is the whole point, sometimes.

Right. It’s a counterpoint. And that’s a decision that has to be made fairly carefully.

The real rejoinder to what Rowling was saying would be – if that’s the case and national museums are inherently featureless and functional, why are you then demanding the best site in town for Te Papa ?

That’s right. We tend to want to put iconic buildings on iconic sites. Which this site is. I also think its very much about landscaping. And landscape on this site is very much about water. It was also about light. The light moving in and out of the building.

Yet in the brief, there seemed to be a demand for no natural light inside. In order to protect the dyes and pigments in the exhibitions.

In the exhibition spaces, that was true. We finished up in our diagram – – and it still is only a diagram – with a number of enclosed boxes for that reason, within a free flowing space. One of the things I’ve become aware of – even at this stage – is of the threshold of museums, libraries and art galleries, and how that’s [something] very, very difficult for people to move over. But if you make your circulation space a part of that threshold and don’t even ask people to go into the galleries then you’ll get more people in there. People even by suggestion, will go there. So this really was a place to explore the relationship between water and land.

OK. But goodness me, some people would say – there are the national treasures. He was thinking of reclaiming more of the harbour to house them, and exposing them to the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis. Wasn’t this always an impractical notion?

Not really. Christchurch is actually proving that well-built buildings will survive very well.

So being on the water wasn’t an intrinsic hazard?

I’d question that. I have a certain level of argument in Christchurch at present because I think that conservative engineers are tending to have their say.

In what respect?

Well, the Dutch build below sea level. And always have for many years. Many indigenous tribes build out into the sea. Each time, there’s a different way of doing it. You can build a building like this like a boat – it could be, for instance, a concrete boat.

Tell me more about what you mean by those ‘conservative’ engineers in Christchurch.

There’s a tendency in the Christchurch context to say look, this land is no longer safe. You cannot build on it. But if you build in a different way… if you build lightweight – and you don’t accept the ground as bearing the structure, you will look at things quite differently.

And you believe that from what we now know about the land in Christchurch this merely dictates a different type of building, rather than ruling out re-building altogether ?

That’s quite right. Yes.

Back in the day when you were dealing with Gehry he wasn’t the so called “starchitect” that he is today. Did you see much sign of the fabled ego ?

Not really. I found him very amicable. I saw his partners as actually being more aggressive, and protective of him….Which is often the case.

If cost considerations did finally play a role in the judges ruling out your Te Papa design wouldn’t that have been ironic – given that Gehry has usually brought his projects in at, or below budget ? As in Bilbao. And when cost over-runs have occurred on his projects – with Disney Hall and Millennium Park in Chicago – they don’t seem to have been his fault.

He tended to know when to devise forms which were technically limited in the areas that demanded the greatest respect. In many of his buildings there was you know, a repetitive element. Balanced against that repetitive element was the strong sculptured form. I didn’t see the Te Papa design as being terribly much different. Certainly later, he’s become more extroverted. That’s just the way he’s moved.

If this design had been accepted it would have come in as the next major work by Gehry after Bilbao. There would have been vast international interest in it. Purely on that basis, for New Zealand and for Wellington, was there an opportunity missed here ?

I’ve always thought there has been. Unfortunately, overseas architects have tended to be used poorly in New Zealand. Sir Basil Spence for instance. It is sort of an aeroplane opportunity quite often, other than [treating them] as serious contenders….

Nearly 15 years on, there’s not much sign of community affection for the Te Papa building. It gets used, but is not particularly loved. Given that the expressive role of the building was such a big element in the brief, surely on that score it has to be counted as a failure?

Um, yeah. It certainly became compromised and I believe that the architects found it quite hard work. Not necessarily to make it work, but I think that tension between exhibition and the architect…the landscaping requirements. It wasn’t the most celebrated contract that Jasmax ever had..It just became hard work. The process was more tortuous than what they would have liked.

Looking at the academic literature generated about Te Papa [eg this 2007 article by Michael Linzey or this 2005 article by
Paul Williams of New York University.
] it seems almost quaint to read the rationales put up at the time to justify the design. How, for example, the fault line motif that allegedly runs through the winning design was to be read as a metaphor for the geographic terrain while also being taken as expressive of the bifurcated-yet-unified Treaty partnership. All that seems somewhat ridiculous, especially since most of the public would be quite unaware of it while walking around the building.

Most architects would be, too. I would have thought.

Was it the sort of language needed to get you onto the shortlist ?

Yeah, there was a lot of talking at the time. I wasn’t entirely convinced about it at the time, but then, I’m not terribly good at talking. I tend to draw lines rather than talk. So I’m not the best one to criticise things like that.

This was our most expensive public building, ever. Do you think the nation got value for money, in any aesthetic sense?

I personally think they were short changed. For various reasons. (laughs.) But I do think they were short changed…I still believe though, that the building has the ability to break out of itself.

What does that mean ?

[In reply, Athfield give s short account of a failed attempt during Dame Cheryl Sotheran’s tenure as Te Papa CEO in an exercise funded by Dennis Adam, to address problems related to the art displays.] There are a couple of other absolutely critical mistakes. Like for instance, food should be available without the public being trapped in the gallery spaces. You should be able to move from the garden to the food and walk out again through the garden and really enjoy it without having to go in the front doors. These are basic things that I think are important. Those sorts of things should be addressed. Way-finding is also pretty abysmal around the space.

You were involved with that last minute Mainzeal attempt to produce a cheap alternative to Te Papa, by revamping the Post Office building on Waterloo Quay. Do you thank your lucky stars these days that nothing ever came of that?

Oh yeah, very much. I suppose that was a reaction to …I suppose I was getting rid of my frustration probably, more than anything. When the opportunity came up to deal with that particular building it seemed to be a way of breaking out of something that I’d become quite frustrated about. It never proceeded, but it just sort of gave us the opportunity to demonstrate that you go through a bit of a rough period, after thinking that what you’d done had a validity.

That’s interesting. A lot has been written about architects, and ageing. Frank Lloyd Wright has probably been a mixed blessing for the profession as a role model in that respect. Gehry once said something about how it takes until you’re in your late 50s, early 60s to build a body of work and to learn the essentials of designing houses that don’t leak etc – and then even if you gain prominence, its all over so quickly.. Unless you’re Wright, and make it to 90 while still in full flight –

Or if you’re Oscar Neimeyer. Who was once asked about the subject of women in architecture and said : “That’s the subject of a separate film.”

Do you think you’re managing to avoid the classic trap of ageing – where qualities seen as feisty and iconoclastic in your 30s and 40s, can seem more like the attributes of a crank, say, in a 70 year old ?

I’m probably lucky in that I do have a fairly good supporting family and a fairly good supporting office here. With the exceptions of one or two things I’ve done reasonably well, I’ve never finished everything to a point where I’ve felt content about it. Which is good. So I will be around here hopefully – he gestures around his house come office – in the next two or three years, just to make it feel a little bit more complete. So that it sits here as a record of architectural influences over a period of time. But its a bit more serious than that. It [ie, the Athfield house] challenges suburbia which is, I believe, one of the criminals of our built society. Architects aren’t very good at dealing with suburbia. So if you want to break the back of suburbia, that’s a lifelong challenge. (laughs.)

Is that anything more than a disdain for the dreadful taste of the parvenus?

Not really. I just think that our pathways are quite often determined by things like risk, and safety. And the motorcar and roading, and by certain other disciplines.

All of which have had certain liberating aspects as well. .

They have had liberating aspects. But again, they also need to be placed in context. The biggest fight I’ve had in Christchurch was when I spoke out against traffic confluences…If I’d said something like the buildings should look like this, someone might have embraced me. But once you talk about one-way street systems, no one dares talk about traffic engineers…There are a number of subjects that are taboo, that you know you daren’t do.

One of the things that’s important though is that everyone is now realising how their physical environment affects them. It is a lost educational subject I would have thought, and yet I’m always optimistic that we will move much quicker about thinking about our physical environment than we have done in the recent past, and about how much it affects us.

Yet concern for the physical environment doesn’t necessarily translate into an appreciation of good design, does it ? It seems just as likely to mean people will think living in a tree-house would be dandy, because that’s closer to nature

There is that risk. But I think people are beyond that. They’re starting to appreciate the quality of, for instance, detail design. They’ve got a lot better at that, at industrial design, and craft…. People have become a lot more discerning at that sort of basic level. I think they’ve come to embrace architecture…

Two last things : Bill Rowling once told me in one of his last interviews before he died that in his view, Te Papa was basically a tin shed and what was inside was what counted. With a client like that, are you glad you didn’t have to be responsible for the Te Papa process ? .

I think that was part of the frustration of the architects who had to put the building together.

Do you think there was there an opportunity cost involved with what we eventually got, and which we’re still paying?

Yes and no. Certainly Sydney has benefited from the Opera House. But the controversy about getting it built was absolutely huge. I know, people do forget it. I think that at the time, New Zealand did deserve a much stronger approach.

You’re right that it probably wouldn’t have been a sustainable political cost – not given how say, the likes of Simon Upton were already gunning for the Te Papa project even when it had only a $250 million price tag. Is this another symptom of the short term, limited horizon way in which New Zealand tends to do things? We certainly run the economy on that basis.

Unfortunately, that’s what we do. Take the Queens Wharf fiasco, for instance…finally they’re going to get an overseas terminal of some type, using some existing buildings. I think again – quite often – a competition is an excuse to get out of the problem [of risking a creative decision] fairly quickly.

As an architect, was the building’s role as a vehicle for expressing and promoting bi-culturalism ever likely to produce a good design?

I just don’t worry about bi-culturalism per se. I think the world is a multicultural world, and bi-culturalism is a step in that multicultural awareness. And quite often it traps you. Although it is important for realisation and respect it will trap you, and it should not be embodied in a building per se. And if you do try to embody it, it will often not be seen. So then you have to talk about it. And if you have to talk about it being a bicultural building, then I think we’ve failed.