Rewi Thompson was one of our country’s most iconic architects. His own home in Kohimarama, Tāmaki Makaurau is totemic among architecture nerds, as much for its ziggurat design referencing tukutuku patterns as the fact that he never quite finished it. By the time he died in 2016, it was approaching a ruin.
Jade Kake and Jeremy Hansen, working closely with Thompson’s daughter Lucy, have spent four years with his archive and his peers, as well as those he helped along the way, and the combined output of that – a book called Rewi and an exhibition at Objectspace – is surprising and delightful. The archive is overflowing with arresting work, and trademark humour: one sketch for a bridge features an oversized cartoon dinosaur.
While Thompson’s design output ranged from schemes for Māori mental health units to a canopy over Otara Market, the number of buildings he actually got built is relatively small. Possibly, as architect Pip Cheshire suggests, that was down to institutional racism; possibly, there were other factors, too. Either way – although te ao Māori was a consistent thread in his work – he seemed to resist being typecast as a “Māori” architect, avoiding motifs in favour of a distinct way of thinking.
Both book and exhibition feature exciting, powerful sketches for unrealised schemes, including the extraordinary Ngāti Poneke Marae. Inspired by the idea of a waka rising out of the sea and leaning against Mt Victoria, its functions and spaces step down the slope. There’s a beautifully realised model in the exhibition – which was designed by Michael McCabe – and you wish, quite fervently, it had been built.
Then, there’s the impact Thompson had on the next generation of Māori students – who, for various reasons, have been able to get things built, and for whom he was a tireless support and mentor. “Twenty years ago, those opportunities didn’t exist,” says architect Nick Dalton of TOA Architects. “So I feel for Rewi, and the fact that he was way ahead of his time, because if he was here now there would be no limit. He’d be bigger than Jasmax, in my view. And our built environment would be way cooler.”
Koha: The Speculative Worlds of Rewi Thompson at Objectspace