The Breathtaking Power of Vernacular Cultural Architecture

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Sometimes it works. A place you have wanted to see for years does live up to your expectation.

Ever since the late 1990s when I edited Timber in Context – a guide to sustainable use by Anne-Marie Willis and Tony Fry, then of the EcoDesign Foundation, one image has transfixed me: three imposing yet remarkably delicate-for-their-height curved timber structures. It is as if they are emerging from the undergrowth and in John Gollings’ photograph, the burnished gold adding to what already was a contemporary, pharaonic presence. 

This May I finally visited Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, to see the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre. It was a public holiday. It was raining. There was no sign of a bus, but my partner and I had to get there. It was today or never. Luckily, we did not have to do anything intrepid, just catch a taxi from the tourist office. We caught the same taxi back as well, and judging by the stream of calls the driver got while on the road, he was one of the very few working that day. 

The centre is on a narrow peninsular between two bays, and we zig zagged at startling speed along the eight kilometres of lushly vegetated coastal road. Jean-Marie Tjibaou was an independence fighter. He was assassinated in 1989, but not before proclaiming his vision of establishing a cultural centre to celebrate Kanak languages and artistry.

The centre is both enveloped by its surroundings while also overseeing them. It opened in June 1998 and just as architect Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou was a modern miracle in Paris, this series of 10 massive but slender pavilions pinpoints how architecture can embrace and yet transform a place. 

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The timber (combined with steel in a composite structure) is Iroko, a hardwood tree from Ghana. Timber in Context explained it was chosen to withstand Pacific earthquake and cyclone belts, was termite resistant and priced competitively. 

The pavilions are based on traditional Kanak domestic structures and Kanak Grand Hut design. They are glimpsed at every angle, often soaring above the treetops. What is known as the Kanak path is a stepped walk leading further in to the core, and the discovery of the pavilions as they spread out across the terrain in the distance interspersed with traditional huts with variegated roofs conical to flatter, wooden statues and patterned welcome ribbons. 

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A full sweep of the pavilions as far as the eye can see is gained from the lush ridge (breezes help cool the air), before a return to the pathway, winding along mangrove areas and then quiet gardens with native essences and plants, and further on to ponds with black goldfish, vibrant bougainvillea and a trickling waterfall.

Inside, there is an art centre, a museum, performance, event and conference spaces and a multi-media library, closed on the Sunday we were there but in the informal meeting area, three tables of students were poring over their books – and sandwiches. It is all managed by the Kanak Culture Development Agency, with a plethora of tribal art and colonial style photographs from English photographer Allan Hughan (1834-1883), who had his own business in Nouméa, and was government photographer. 

Yes, the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre is a centre that inspires at all levels.

  • Article: Deborah Singerman -
  • Images: The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre (Photographer: Deborah Singerman)