Karori's hidden treasure

Last updated 05:00 12/03/2011

Futuna, regularly described as one of New Zealand's greatest 20th-century buildings, has had a history as precarious and colourful as its fading acrylic windows.

It was in line for levelling by developers in 2000, but was listed as a heritage building in the nick of time and is being slowly restored by the Friends of Futuna Charitable Trust.

Over the years of neglect it was used as a builders' store room and its hefty mahogany statue of Christ was stolen.

Futuna sits, still needing care, in the architecturally claustrophobic landscape of as many townhouses as could be squashed on to the site. The residents love them. Some architects hate them.

Don't get Russell Walden, always provocative, started on the landscape Futuna now inhabits: "Middle-class conformist rednecks live there, all worried about parking and with their middle-class values."

Twenty five years ago Walden, then reader in the history of architecture at Victoria University, wrote a book about the beauty and significance of Futuna, Karori's Catholic retreat.

In his book, Voices of Silence, he describes Futuna as "an authentic example of indigenous New Zealand architecture  a deep expression of peace, silence and inner joy".

"It still has it," he says. "My son married in it last week and it was marvellous. Ambience, colour, intimacy  it has still got it.

"The houses don't help. The houses are all about money. The Catholic Church shouldn't have sold it. Selling it was a major mistake.

"It's a spiritual place and that's still important."

The church, says Wellington's Catholic archbishop, John Dew, didn't own it. "It belonged to the Society of Mary, a religious order. It didn't belong to us."

He can't say why it was sold, but "retreats weren't happening as much as they used to. I've found it a wonderful place for prayer and reflection, a unique building in New Zealand history and in the life of the church."

He remembers the chapel as part of a much bigger complex, with room to walk around. And, he adds, it's not actually anything to do with him now.

One of the people who had most to do with Futuna, and who was overseas when the site was sold to developers, is a retired priest, Brother Joseph Kelly, 80. He and five other fit and enthusiastic young priests built Futuna, possibly the only do-it-yourself project  architect John Scott aside  to win a gold medal from the New Zealand Institute of Architects. The gold-medal plaque disappeared along with the Jesus figure.

Brother Joseph and the priests talked the idea of a retreat through with Scott, the country's first university-trained Maori architect. Brother Joseph had laboured on a church building project, but that was all.

"It was a very interesting experience," he says. "The Provincial decided we needed a gem of a chapel. John Scott [who died in 1991] had designed a church in Hawke's Bay and had done something for St John's College, where he was an old boy. He came and stayed with us and we talked and talked and swapped ideas. I found him strong in his ideas and willing to listen and discuss.

"None of us had a preconceived idea of what it would be like. We talked it through, explaining what we needed it for. He stayed a couple of nights and mulled over what he had heard and came back and we talked and the process grew out of ideas and then he drew a plan on a pad and from that came the design."

There was little money for it, he says. The contractor approached had insufficient labourers and the six young brothers, "enthusiastic and willing to take on anything", set about building it, with Brother Kelly as foreman. "We worked out how we could do it without using a crane and lift everything into place. From the outset it was extremely simple. Once you put the central post in, everything hinged off that. It definitely went the way we wanted. It looks extremely difficult, but it went together like a jigsaw puzzle.

"We started and worked till we finished. John came and egged us on. We worked every day except Sunday for two years. It was a fulltime job."

They needed a plumber and an electrician. Brother Joseph got his scaffolding ticket to save employing someone. They cut and installed the coloured acrylic windows. An important element was accessibility from both sides. That has been soured by the townhouses. "I was out of Wellington when it was bought by the developer. Thank God someone put an order on the building and saved it," he says. "Without being impolite, I think [the townhouses] are a bloody mess. Shocking. The bloke wanted money. The more houses he sold, the more money he got. It's desecrated the building and it's appalling.

"I do go back. It's an absolutely unique New Zealand building and it deserves to be preserved because of that. It still gives a sense of satisfaction and pleasure, the very simple way in which we went about it to put it all together. Even now, if you go in, you get a sense of reverence, a peace and quiet about the place and no distractions, no open windows.

"One of my great regrets is someone stole the crucifix, a masterpiece of carving. It was a real work of love from Jim Allen."

Auckland artist Allen, 88, wonders how the statue, bigger than life size and heavy, was taken down off the cross. "They would have needed more than one man to do it." Allen was also responsible for the perspex windows. One reason he didn't use coloured glass, he says "is because I was told the brothers would be making the windows and had no experience with leaded glass or cutting glass".

"The design grew out of something that needed to be built quite simply. Coloured glass might have been better in terms of lasting over time. I was concerned about colour fading, but I was told it was the same sort of plastic that had been used in British traffic lights for years. In fact, they have faded over time.

"When the church vacated the site they left the Christ figure behind and John's gold medal, and both of those were stolen. I was in Sydney and got a letter from Russell Walden which upset me quite a lot. I came back and found they had been left behind by the church, which I felt very unhappy about. I learned the chapel had been used for storage. It was a consecrated building and hadn't been looked after.

"I'm very pleased there's strong interest in restoration. It's a very important building in architectural terms and it's great a whole lot of people realised that.

"It could have done with a bit more space around it. The developer obviously set out to use every square inch of the site."

Wellington architect Ian Athfield, currently absorbed with ideas of architectural context as the New Zealand Institute of Architects' ambassador in earthquake-damaged Christchurch, calls the chapel "frighteningly marginalised" by its surroundings.

Futuna, he says, is "extremely important because it was one of those not-too-many beautiful objects from the 1960s which have been enduring. It's like a made, created, beautiful object in a previously great setting.

"It's unbelievable, the setting. It could have enhanced it, done sensitively. It left most of us with despair, and admiring of the Futuna Trust, which has been able to lift themselves above despair. The complex was built with really bad advice.

"What's really important is heritage objects and their context, which has to be given just as big a rating and respect. We tend to glorify the object rather than the context. If you look at how light falls on it and within it, it is so seductive compared with the flatness and blandness around it.

"If you think of the different great European cathedrals and how housing was built around those cathedrals  there's no relationship at all there [at Futuna]. It stands out as a huge mistake on a number of people's part."

Wellington art dealer Peter McLeavey's brother was a member of the order that built Futuna. McLeavey says Futuna came about because of "an inspired artist and an inspired patron. When I first saw it I thought it startlingly beautiful. It was a beautiful piece of sculpture in Karori".

McLeavey went to several weekend retreats at Futuna and found it "a place of great comfort and silence". He believes it is one of the country's most important buildings. "It's a jewel. It reminds me of what it must have been like in early Christian ages  small congregations in sparse and elementary interiors. It nurtures the soul, the heart and the mind."

Architect Nick Bevin is chairman of the Futuna trust and helped plan Futuna's 50th anniversary. The trust's aim, he says, is to restore the chapel, have it known and apreciated, and see it used for arts and cultural events.

Bevin visited Futuna with his parents as a child and became fully aware of it while taking Walden's history of architecture course at Victoria University in 1979.

Scott's building, he says, was quickly recognised as significant  "authentic Maori and European architecture, completely unique". He can't think of anything comparable. Futuna is, he says, "New Zealand's most significant building of the 20th century. It's hard to think of one that affects you so deeply when you go in. People will still find there might be aspects of the building that aren't perfect, as in all buildings, but spatially, acoustically and in terms of light, none of these things can be faulted."

To a woman who lives close to the chapel and sees the morning sun throwing coloured patterns from the windows across the ground, the townhouses are "extremely pleasant. All sorts of people live here".

She went to a weekend retreat at Futuna as a university student. The chapel, "too pointy", didn't appeal. "I've grown to love it. I'm desperately keen for it to be refurbished to its former glory."

Futuna anniversary celebrations take place next weekend. For a list of events and booking information, go to futunatrust.org.nz.

- The Dominion Post

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