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The Story of Rewi Thompson’s Iconic House Design

Rewi Thompson was a Māori architect, who had a major impact on New Zealand, and wowed people with the design of his own home. Join me in discovering his life, career, and some of his most impactful designs.

Rewi Michael Robert Thompson, architect and adjunct professor of architecture, was born in 1953 to Bobby and Mei Thompson. He was one of the first generation of “urban Māori” who were raised away from their tūrangawaewae and in the city, in his case Wellington, where his father worked as a bus driver. He quickly became acknowledged by his peers as a great architect, and went on to work on projects that contributed to the health and vibrancy of the Maori and larger New Zealand community. 

 

Rewi Thompson’s Life and Career

Unlike many other young Māori people living in similar circumstances, Rewi and his older sister, Ngapine, maintained strong connections to their Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Raukawa whānau and marae. These experiences would become formative influences on his conception of architecture as being fundamentally concerned with land and people, and conviction that architecture could return identity and wellbeing to people suffering from cultural estrangement.Rewi originally trained as an engineer at Wellington Polytechnic and, for a short time, worked as a structural draughtsperson at Structon Group before leaving to study architecture at the University of Auckland. Fellow students fondly recall him arriving equipped with a set of highlighter pens and wearing jandals. His exceptional talents became immediately apparent to staff and fellow students. David Mitchell, who was one of his earliest design tutors, recalled that one of Rewi’s first student projects was the design of “a bach on an exposed bush-clad site. All the students tried to tone their buildings in with the bush, all except for Rewi. He painted his bright pink and, boy, did it look good. It was a signal about the future.”

Mitchell would later include Rewi’s Ngāti Poneke Marae student project in his 1984 book The Elegant Shed as an example of how customary concepts could inform large-scale, urban, contemporary building proposals. In 1983, after registration as an architect, Rewi established his own practice. Three years later, his reputation was such that he joined Ian Athfield, John Blair and Roger Walker on a lecture tour of the United States. His highly expressive formalism was articulated across a number of residential, commercial and institutional projects during the “boom” construction period that occurred between the 1984 election of the Lange Government and the building industry’s decline following the 1987 Stock Market Crash.

They included: the undulating terraced Wiri State Housing precinct, built as an urban papakāinga (village; 1986–89); the abstracted fish canopies that gave a Pacific identity to the otherwise bland Otara Town Centre (1987); and the dynamic Capital Discovery Place and City to Sea Bridge that reimagined the creation stories of Te Whanganui-a-Tara, also known today as Wellington (1988, 1990–94). Rewi’s most notable project was his own home in Auckland’s Kohimarama (1985) with its distinctive ziggurat form based on the Māori poutama (or stairway to heaven) tukutuku pattern. Bill McKay recalls Thom Mayne, founder of Morphosis, describing it as the only uniquely distinctive building in New Zealand. Another important, but unrealized, project was the shortlisted proposal for the new Museum of New Zealand building, undertaken with Ian Athfield and Frank Gehry.

Rewi believed that good architecture could, in his words, “improve” the land through responding to its rhythms, forms, scale, stories and needs, a philosophy that found expression in many of his later residential projects and, perhaps more influentially, through his teaching. For him, the land was not just a surface, nor the sea a boundary, nor the sky a backdrop. It begged to be investigated through architectural investigation, as seen in the layers of land/sky/cloud cladding on the Pukanga Māori Studies building at Unitec (Auckland, 1991), and through excavation, which he once (controversially) described as a form of moko (tattoo) for the ‘Ngawha’ Northland Regional Corrections Facility site (Northland, 2005).

His consultancy for the Department of Corrections enabled Rewi to realize his belief that architecture could heal the wairua (spirit) and mauri (life force) of people broken by their circumstances. In the Ngawha project, Rewi advocated for porches facing significant landscape features to enable inmates to reconnect with ancestral places of belonging and look ahead to life outside of prison. In the Mason Forensic Mental Health Clinic Extension project (Auckland, 1998), he and others successfully advocated for the inclusion of large, open foyers to accommodate pōwhiri (Māori welcome rituals), kaumātua (elder) rooms and marae as a means to include whānau in the patient inmates’ rehabilitation.

When practice was quiet, Rewi would pour his energies into another form of architectural expression, studio teaching. He was appointed an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture and Planning in 2002, teaching design while also developing with colleagues a culturally responsive curriculum structure called Te Pare (The Threshold). He developed his pedagogy to respond to the needs of students from all cultural backgrounds who wished to draw on their heritage in their design projects, encouraging them to investigate and understand sites through drawing, painting and model-making. The land, for him, was a font of great personal and collective truths and the architect’s role was to rediscover them. He also championed the contribution of female, Māori and Pasifika students as co-tutors and practitioners. Rewi left us at a time when his professional career was once again blooming. He had recently joined Isthmus Group, where he delighted in practising with others who shared his vision of the centrality of land and people to design. He was regularly receiving invitations to deliver keynote addresses at important industry conferences and to judge competitions. His students and recent graduates were flourishing in their studies and careers.

 

Rewi Thompson’s Famous House 

You don’t see many abandoned buildings in Kohimarama. Homes in this part of Auckland have a subtext: restricted area, significant wealth required. This makes the Thompson House all the more fascinating. Designed by the late Rewi Thompson and completed in 1988, the building piques interest at the very first glance. Thompson built the house for himself in the 1980s. He lived there till he died in the house in 2016, aged 62. In their review of NZ’s top 50 homes, Bill Mackay and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins wrote: “This house… is a staunch example of what Rewi Thompson is all about. It’s different from every other house in the country in its sculptural presence and simplicity of silhouette. Yet it conceals a glazed light-filled side turned to the bush-clad slope behind. It’s quite a simple house, with a living room and sleeping level raised above the garage, but also ambiguous. It challenges us to figure out how it might work, and we’re forced to consider alternatives to how people might live and notions of appropriate materials, weathering and finishing.”

 

Several years later, in 2018, the Thompson House was listed for sale, and a revelation occurred. The trees that had so engulfed the house were finally tamed, revealing an utterly distinctive ziggurat-like form. It was exciting to discover something so different in an area of relatively conformist architecture. At the time of listing after his death, the front of the house was the only visible aspect – there were shrubs growing on the roof. The house, which Thompson never quite finished, attracted record numbers through the open homes.

“We had 298 groups through, 42 private viewings, 29,000 viewings on TradeMe and another 12,000 on realestate.co.nz. There were 140 groups through on the first weekend alone. Huge numbers of architects came through, and students, and they all loved it. Standing there during the open homes, I could see how very well respected Rewi was, and his house also. People love the design.”

An obituary in ArchitectureNow said the ziggurat form of his own house references the Māori poutama (stairway to heaven) tukutuku pattern. The house sits close to the street front: assertive, an undeniable presence. The foundations are cut into the sloping terrain, with concrete block retaining walls left raw and visible. The glass frontage of the ground level connects to a heavy steel roller door, an ambiguous combination that makes the building’s function hard to read. Is it commercial or residential? Steel framework highlighted in earthy red paint forms a division, above which the distinctive plywood-clad walls climb two levels without any hint of delineation.

 

Aside from the glass wall which reveals a floating staircase and little else, there are no windows on the street-front façade. This leaves a visitor with the distinct impression that the house has turned its back on its neighbours, quite disinterested in the local gossip it must have fuelled back in 1988 when it challenged the very notion of what a suburban dwelling should look like. A windowless façade is often confronting, that is not to say offensive, but again our imaginations will seek to fill in the gaps. Could we have imagined the interior of Tadao Ando’s Azuma House (Osaka, 1976), another provocative house designed by an architect for himself? Living in that house, a concrete rectangle with an open inner courtyard, entails a daily commute through the elements on the journey from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom and back.

 

Thompson was one of the few indigenous New Zealand architects practising through the 1980s and 1990s. Guided by a different understanding of the world, Thompson brought an entirely new approach to the practice of architecture in New Zealand. The Thompson House, a fearless and individualist design, became one of its architect’s most renowned works. Drawing on his cultural heritage, Thompson developed a progressive architectural ideology; he was attuned to regenerative design before the concept was even articulated. To quote from an obituary for Thompson by Professor Deidre Brown: “Good architecture could, in Rewi’s words, improve the land through responding to its rhythms, forms, scale, stories and needs.”

Rewi Thompson’s Other Most Iconic Designs

1. Boehringer Ingelheim Office & Warehouse

Built for a multinational pharmaceuticals firm, this project stands on a corner site on the border between industrial and residential zones. This duality is manifested in the arrangement of timber-clad walls to road frontages and concrete walls to the boundaries. The brief called for roughly equal amounts of office and warehouse space. Reflecting this division, access is achieved via a diagonal courtyard that bisects the structure, introducing light
and greenery to heart of the building. The project won a CHH Award (1989) and an NZIA Branch Award (1990), and is now occupied by Raukura Hauora O Tainui, a Maori health provider.

2. Temporary Outdoor Pulpit, Auckland Domain

Designed for Pope John Paul II’s 48-hour visit to New Zealand, this canopy and stage was installed for an outdoor mass held at the Auckland Domain. The platform was an abstracted canoe form, and the canopy above was composed as two wing-like planes. Ross Jenner wrote of this structure: “The canopy anticipates a strong figurative line in Thompson’s work. It evokes the kotuku (white heron), a rare bird hailed as the bearer of good news, a theme common in myths and provided by the tribe from the … Thames region, who hosted the Pope and commissioned Thompson.” The altar is now in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell.

3. Otara Town Centre

Commissioned by Manukau City Council to revitalise this vandal-prone 1960s shopping mall, Thompson was asked to create an identity for the place that more closely reflected the predominantly Maori and Polynesian character of the area. The image of a fish was selected for the project, which Thompson realised as a series of canopies. The strongly Pacific–inflected decoration of the structures was controlled by the local community and carried out by local artists – the lower level concrete elements were painted and lashed with ropes.

 

4. Puukenga, UNITEC

The Puukenga, which translates as “centre” or “focus”, serves as the home of Unitec’s Maori studies program. It consists of a series of metal-clad teaching pods plugged into a large wooden whare-form that contains common space and administration facilities. Created from a palette of raw materials (galvanized steel, particle board, unpainted timber), the building unfolds as a complex narrative involving an internal watercourse, carved structural elements, and lights arranged in the pattern of constellations. The facility was built by Unitec apprentices, and some deficiencies in crafting mean the building is now showing its age. The building won an NZIA Branch Award in 1995.

 

5. Auckland Museum Exhibitions

Thompson has produced a number of exhibitions for the Museum in recent years. Te Kakano (2003) is the Pacific People Information Center, located in the Museum’s Maori Gallery. Within a sinuous translucent glass screen, Thompson created a sunken research and reading area for visitors. In the Natural History Information Centre (2006), bookshelves and other furniture suggest geological formations. The Ko Tawa exhibition (2005) presented a selection of items from the collection of taonga gathered by Captain Gilbert Mair, a key supporter of Maori in the North Island around the turn of the century. Designed as a traveling exhibit, the installation toured New Zealand and Sydney. The Ancient Worlds exhibition (2007) was placed in one of the Noel Lane-designed concrete-walled galleries, and includes the Museum’s Egyptian mummy!

6. City Mission Hobson Street

Designed as part of a competition-winning team that included Thompson, Stevens Lawson Architects, local clergy, and a property developer, this project is to include a courtyard area, a community centre, café and facilities for neighboring St Matthew’s church. Facilities for the City Mission include a homeless centre, targeted housing, offices, a library, workshops, as well as health and recreational facilities. All this is housed in a miniature cityscape of primarily vertical forms with steeply pitched roofs that both reflect and defer to St Matthew’s neo-gothic language. The project has now progressed to Resource Consent stage.

7. Maori Mental Health Unit

Located on the UNITEC campus, the Mason Clinic was created in response to a government inquiry into the care of mentally ill offenders. Designed in collaboration with Maunsell (working previously as Meritec), the three-building facility accommodates secure residential accommodation, community buildings, meeting spaces, dining areas and intensive care areas planned on a Maori village concept. The complex is organized around a courtyard planted with natives and centred on a rock fountain that circulates water creating a symbol of cleansing and healing. Both architecture and methods of care are part of a holistic design that implements a radically new treatment model.

8. Olympic Park War Memorial

Produced in collaboration with landscape architects Isthmus, this memorial is part of a long-running project that will renovate much of the streetscape in the Newmarket precinct. Located in Olympic Park, a small green zone beside the roundabout on Broadway, Thompson designed a collection of red granite stelae that include a number of plaques commemorating the local soldiers lost in the First and Second World Wars. Originally placed in a memorial archway in 1924, these plaques were added to after WWII and have been relocated several times before finding a home in Thompson’s crisply detailed but appropriately solemn design.

9. State Houses, Laurelia Place

Designed for the Housing Corporation, Thompson broke from the suburban pattern with a collection of highly sculptural buildings – a long metal-clad shed with an undulating roof containing semi-detached units, and bach-like detached houses that float over the slope. The site was to be replanted with native species indigenous to the area. The palette of raw materials – fibrolite, ply, tanalised timber, metal – suffered from abuse, and the planting was never carried out, leaving the elevated houses somewhat stranded. Astonishingly, the buildings were recently removed from the site. If you’re in the area, check out Manning Mitchell’s state housing in Rata Vine Drive (1987). Ironically, this development shows the value of planting – while the vivid colour schemes are gone, the now mature trees give the neighbourhood charm.

10. Ngäti Otara Marae

Standing on the edge of a large and well-used reserve, this marae consists of a whare nui (meeting house) and
a narrow block containing toilets and other services. Although its exterior is unadorned by carvings, the whare nui is crisply detailed in concrete, laminated timber, and ply. Despite this simple construction, the building’s sharp edges and clear geometry give it a strong presence. The whare’s side walls splay outwards slightly, and the entry and windows on the front façade have been arranged in a dramatic geometric design – intended to emphasize the sense of transition, this arrangement is especially bold given that it departs from the usual asymmetric composition of door and window.

 

Rewi Thompson is an architect responsible for some of the boldest buildings ever produced in New Zealand. Exploring what bi-culturalism means for architecture, Thompson describes his work as focussing on two things – land and people. Thompson has said of his projects, “Our architecture raises the issue of different cultural values and what is an appropriate architectural response to the site. In this sense the site or context of the work is the land but also the culture because the land is cultural. The land or site can be seen to be an emblem of these divergent expectations.” This divergence is seen clearly in the process through which Thompson’s buildings emerge, particularly in his many buildings intended to serve the Maori community. These projects emerge though the Maori system of reaching consensus; the result of community involvement and discussion, Thompson’s buildings become a focus of negotiation in which past history and future aspirations all have an impact. This holistic approach results in projects that serve needs far beyond simply housing the functions the building is intended to accommodate.

The connections Thompson’s work makes to land and culture are often through metaphor. Buildings and elements within them serve as analogies to or as mnemonics for such elements as topography, mythology, history, and male and female qualities. They transmit cultural values and tell stories that provide the context for the activities the buildings are designed to house. Puukenga, for example, includes a watercourse that reinstates a fresh-water spring once used by local Maori.

For Thompson, buildings exist less as objects crafted by an author, and more as part of an ongoing process. Although low budgets are often a key factor, this attitude is the source of Thompson’s audacious use of raw or untreated materials; rather than create the image of permanence, this work often appears unfinished or temporary. Thompson is content for his buildings to weather and age, an attitude which places his work in the Pacific tradition of periodic renewal of wooden buildings. For a profession that prizes slick resolution, the rawness of Thompson’s buildings is confronting, especially given the formal presence of his often sculptural compositions. Thompson produced high-profile projects in quick succession through the 1980s and early-90s but in recent years has concentrated on teaching and consultation work. However, his recent competition successes – winning the City Mission project with Stevens Lawson, and being short-listed for Te Wero Bridge – signals a new flowering of his career. Thompson has described his work as a “response to the changing nature of New Zealand culture”; with our nation in greater flux than ever, we need him setting the pace again. Andrew Barrie

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