Where art meets architecture

Christchurch’s new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct is the second time artist Lonnie Hutchinson (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kuri, Samoan, Pākehā) has collaborated on a building. The first was Hanoa ki te Hono Tawhiti, six site specific thresholds for Auckland Art Gallery in 2011.

This project is on a vastly different scale, dressing functional modernism with a sense of t uˉ rangawaewae (place to stand) specific to Ngāi Tūāhuriri as local mana whenua. This was possible
through the Matapopore Charitable Trust, the voice of mana whenua in Christchurch’s recovery, ensuring Ngāi Tūāhuriri and Ngāi Tahu identity is expressed in the rebuild.

“For me,” says Hutchinson, “what’s exciting and inspiring is to be able to do integrations
this big – they are quite massive – and make art that works with the architecture. The architects are Warren and Mahoney. I developed a working relationship with the lead architect, Nick Warring. They design the building and there are space holders in the plan where a run-of-the-mill grating was identified as something an artist could redesign.”

The precinct is a $300 million anchor project led by the Ministry of Justice. Three buildings – Justice, Emergency Services, and a car park for operational vehicles – occupy a prominent position in the CBD,bordered by Colombo, Tuam,Durham and Lichfield streets. As legacy architecture the complex will define the southern fringe of Christchurch’s compact post-quake city centre.

“I feel humbled,” says the artist, “by the opportunity that Ngāi Tūāhuriri have given me
to contribute to this. It’s timely that the rebuild has engaged seriously with mana whenua. We are implementing Ngāi Tahu visual narratives within the city in partnership with the
government and stakeholders.”

Hutchinson’s concept was to wrap the complex in a symbolic kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), alluding to mana of the law. “It’s not making art byconsensus,” Hutchinson says,“but there’s a lot of feedback and critique from the ministry, the architects and Matapopore. I had to make sure to dot the‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s so that everyone was clear what I wanted to do. Matapopore created an extensive brief of Ngāi Tūāhuriri history and aesthetic about what they
wanted to express. Then you have to adapt to any changes in plan.”

The Durham Street facade’s striking glazing’s ceramic frit references the cultural importance of Huia feathers to Ngāi Tuahuriri and Ngāi Tahu. Now extinct, the bird’s feather was worn by rangatira to represent their chiefly mana. It also references Ngāi Tūāhuriri links to the Rātana
movement. In 1936, when Rātana aligned with the Labour Party, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was given a feather and rangatira status conditional on him restoring the Treaty of
Waitangi. In daytime the feathers’ stylised chevrons counterpoint the visual softness with the sharp lines and hardness of the glass. At night, the glass will be lit with yellow light, the colour of the Rātana moon and star.

“The frit,” says Hutchinson, “has to function to practical requirements. It’s about privacy and light. I’ve never worked with glass before. I had to research the process and work from concept. There’s lots of frit in architecture these days. I’ve been involved in the lighting options and every other part down to the colour of the screws holding the aluminium cloak to the wall.
You visualise the work, put together the concept, and mock up the model. I printed off the frit design on Mylar at one-twentieth scale, slid it in, and looked at it out in the sunlight.”

The Tuam Street parking structure will be disguised with a screen inspired by an endangered Kākapo feather cloak, consisting of just over 1000 overlapping, 1 metre-long “feathers” – iodised aluminium lozenges, incorporating cutout Māori motifs.

“The car-park grating was an opportunity for art work and to hide the cars,” says Hutchinson.
“I’ve never worked in aluminium before either.” The lozenges tie into Hutchinson’s broader
artistic practice of sculptural free-standing steel cut-outs. “It can’t be solid,” she says,
“ventilation for vehicle exhaust. It has been challenging and rewarding for the artist.

“It hasn’t been an easy journey,” she says, “but it’s an important one for Ngai Tūāhuriri and Ngāi Tahu whānui to see artworks that speak from a mana whenua perspective in the fabric of the precinct. For Ngāi Tahu and all Māori we operate in a monocultural environment and it’s been an immense honour to be included in changing the landscape in Ōtautahi- Christchurch.”

Written by: Andrew Wood
Graphics: Bridget Webber