Written by Jennifer Taylor and James Conner, Architecture in the South Pacific: The Ocean of Islands offers an enlightening picture to those who are new to the ‘Isles of Paradise’, and to those who wish to discover them afresh through the perspective of exceptional architecture.
The rich imagery presented in the dozens of colour photographs, most of which have never before appeared in print, and the informed and engaging essays offer a new and unique look at the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. James sat down with APDL to talk about the new book and share some personal highlights during their time in the South Pacific.
There are many layers of diversity that characterise the islands and the people of the islands in the South Pacific region, can you tell me about what characterises the population structure and how this finds expression in the architecture of the South Pacific?
Each Island state tends to be ‘unique’ with its own particular issues and problems, but in general terms across the South Pacific population numbers are generally in decline. This is because of the absence of sufficient jobs – thus forcing the younger more mobile of the population to migrate and seek work elsewhere (for example, on another island like New Caledonia, or Australia, New Zealand and USA). Many economies are held together by remittances sent back from those working abroad. Tourism tends to provide the big employment opportunities and so this is reflected in the architecture of resorts, hotels and the like.
How have the early cultures of the islands been able to continue existing despite cultural developments, the circumstances of colonial and postcolonial experiences and changing political and economic conditions?
Again this varies from one Island state to another, but surprising to us I think was the fact that religion seems to be the unifying force throughout the populations and that of course has been introduced from the ‘west’. The early missionaries documented the cultural practices, and the languages and while the church has stamped out some practices (like cannibalism) etc, it provided a unifying ‘glue’ that preserves traditional values. In some island states there still exists strong chiefly structures which moderate behaviour and culture.
Do you think there is potential for a unique and contemporary approach to architecture and a clear “Oceanic” identity to evolve, given the remote location and mix of peoples?
A clear contemporary Oceanic architectural approach has evolved in some island states, particularly in tourist developments and of course the traditional ‘fale’ form still continues to be relevant and useful in various guises.
Can you explain your empirical approach to the study for the book, your process, and how you went about finding texts and records?
We made contact with fellow architects, community leaders, church leaders etc, interviewed them and then when ever possible consulted with documentary evidence in libraries, archives etc to verify claims made. Our trouble lay in the fact that the environment is not conducive to the preservation of plans and written records on the one hand, and on the other, the traditional culture is not one that values highly built works or architecture. So when we asked “Who designed this building and when was it built?” we were often asked “Why, is it important?”.
What is your opinion on record keeping in the South Pacific and preserving what information and archival material is out there?
This varies from one island state to the other, however in general terms, because resources are scarce, it has been our experience that too few resources are generally being put into the preservation and conservation of archival material. Having said that, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and American Samoa have reasonable resources in this area. Fiji and Samoa are working on it.
The book is not intended as a fully documented history of architecture in the South Pacific, however do you believe this might be achievable in the future now that the foundations of research in this book have been set? What do you believe is the biggest gap that needs filling by scholars in the future?
The biggest gap that needs filling in the future is work on the indigenous architecture. This has been attempted in only one or two island states and is far from comprehensive. Because of our limited resources, we could not attempt it and in terms of the work we did embrace, there are also gaps evident– islands we were not able to visit, buildings we could not get to see and record, so there is plenty of work yet to be done. We hope however that our work will provide others with a foundation on which to build.
Can you share one of your personal highlights of your seven years in the South Pacific?
There were several ‘eureka’ moments in the course of the book and its hard to select out one. Let us give three examples.
First, there were a number of early significant buildings in Fiji for which we could not find an architect. Quite by chance, on a Captain Cook Cruise around Fiji when we visited some of the outer islands, one of the passengers indicated that they knew someone, who knew someone who turned out to be the great grandson of the architect in question. We met with him in Brisbane and he was able to explain much of his grandfather’s work to us.
Second, we were not able initially to find the architect for the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Honiara. Nor could we initially find one of the early private architects who practiced there in the Solomon Islands. Eventually – again by coincidence – we were able to track him down, still living in retirement in New Zealand and miraculously met up with him on the Gold Coast one weekend. “I can tell you who designed that church,” he said, “it was someone who took over my practice, one year when I went on holiday, his name was …”
Third, the hardest buildings seemed to be the hotels and resorts which frequently changed their names when new owners took over. We know from the literature that there had been a large hotel in Samoa, called the Casino Hotel. But we could find no trace of it. Then we found an old drawing of it in the slide archives of Samoa and finally got confirmation of how it had come into existence by reading the biography of Aggie Grey. The building was originally the headquarters of a German firm (GH & DG) that was taken over by the New Zealand forces when they occupied Samoa in 1913.
The real highlights were of course travelling to the islands, meeting the locals and enjoying the culture.