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May 3, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A graceful gazebo: Futuna Chapel, Friend Street, Karori

On 11 April the Society of the Friends of Futuna Charitable Trust opened the doors to what is considered the most significant New Zealand building of the twentieth century. While architects (and architecture students) may on occasion be guilty of over-hyping sculptural masses of glass, concrete and stone, in the case of the Futuna Chapel one would be hard-pressed to track down a non-believer.

It’s not often you will hear any kind of consensus reached on what is considered a masterpiece in a field as subjective as architecture. In fact, you could go so far as to say that in the architectural world we thrive on criticism and actively seek fault in anything which might be regarded as such. However, the Futuna Chapel in Karori is generally regarded by students and professionals alike as one of the finest examples of twentieth century New Zealand architecture and one would be hard-pressed to find someone who would challenge the authority of this timeless work by the late architect John Scott.

To those without the slightest architectural inkling, the brilliance of the Futuna chapel may not be quite so evident at first glance. You could be forgiven for thinking that the roof looks more like one of those origami pick-a-number fortune tellers you used to make at primary school* than an example of great Kiwi architecture. Naturally, to vocalise such naivety would probably have any self-respecting architecture student rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. Consider then, this brief introduction to be an opportunity to understand the chapel’s important contribution to the architectural stock of our fine nation.

In 1958 Hawke’s Bay architect John Scott was approached to design the Futuna Retreat Chapel to commemorate the martyrdom of St Peter Chanel on the French Polynesian Island of Futuna in 1841. In spite of the initial response of the Society of Mary to the design declaring “it’s a gazebo”, the praise of several renowned architects ensured that the Futuna chapel would become an emphatic break from New Zealanders’ “clear but derivative” ideas about what a religious building should look like. It was opened in 1961 as a place for silence and inner renewal for any person of faith who had aspirations of finding deeper meaning in their life. After an uncertain reception in its first few years, in 1968 the New Zealand Institute of Architects finally awarded it a deserved prestigious gold medal, which was followed by a 25-year award for enduring architecture in 1986.

In early 2000 it was decided that the Society of Mary had no further use for the building and it was sold off to property developers who wished to build a number of residential units for Karori retirees. Concern about the building’s future began to surface when it was revealed that the Chapel was being used as a materials store during the units’ construction, and following the discovery that a number or valuable items had been stolen—including a laminated mahogany figure of the crucified Jesus (by Auckland sculptor Jim Allen), an urgent interim injunction was ordered on behalf of the Wellington City Council to stop the chapel being damaged irretrievably. After the successful injunction, its purchase was negotiated by the Friends of Futuna Charitable Trust, who are currently engaged in its restoration and in fundraising the required amount to pay back the loan used to secure its purchase.

While at first approach the chapel seems to be a simple, unpretentious building in the quiet seclusion of a Wellington suburb, it gradually reveals itself as a complex and magical piece of architecture composed of light and silence. In the dark interior the days and the seasons are experienced through the play of the sunlight, projecting ever changing patterns onto the cave-like walls through the vibrant, coloured glass windows (also designed by sculptor Jim Allen).

According to architectural historian and Victoria University lecturer Russell Walden—who has also penned a literary ode to the building in Voices of Silence (1986)—on overcast days the chapel appears “sealed in sleep”, yet on a bright day when the conditions are perfect, the colour and light combine to a truly magic effect that could make even the most sceptical person believe. Having initially been disappointed with his first experience of the chapel on a grey and dreary day, he recounts his second visit whereby “On that wonderful occasion the full primitive power of Futuna was a unique revelation in light. One moment the illumination was gloriously and intensely there—the next moment it was gone again.” He laments that the only means he has to convey his experience are poetic metaphor and colour photography and can only stress how pivotal the embodied experience is in capturing that which is beyond word and image.

From the outside, the chapel is undeniably a modernist building. Its geometrical rigour gives it an outwardly sculptural quality and a purity of form that hides its natural qualities inside. Beneath the strange and irregular appearance of its timber-tiled roof, the chapel’s strong connection with the earth becomes apparent in a rich, roughly textured cave-like interior. Greenstone inlay in the floors and a South African cardinal-red granite altar table add considerable polish to what architect Bill Toomath once described as “a vivid, dramatic setting rivalling the splendours of early Byzantine churches” due to its expression of peace, silence and inner joy through a rich use of texture, colour and moving light.

The building is significantly touted as an early attempt at bi-cultural architecture and it draws upon idioms from both Maori and Pakeha heritage. Scott, who was intuitively sensitive to place and context, included elements of indigenous architecture within more traditional elements of ecclesiastical design to present a new cultural hybrid in Futuna. With its large centre pole, steep sloping eaves, and unpretentious, almost deferential entrance, the building has antecedents in the marae and whare. Its description in the Wellington City Council’s heritage inventory marks its use as a place of contemplation and the manner in which an appropriate atmosphere is achieved as a further reflection of a spiritual dimension influenced by the marae.

The chapel marks what is widely regarded as the finest work for its architect John Colin Scott, who passed away after heart surgery in 1992. As an architect he stood firmly against pretence and was respected for his honesty and straightforward approach, drawing from his cultural background as a Maori architect to present New Zealand with a new model for a national architecture. Although the majority of his commissions prior to Futuna were for private houses, the chapel he designed for his former school St Johns College (Hastings) in 1954 led to the commission for the Futuna project which, through its rugged simplicity and reflection of values held dear by Maori, is now considered a “truly New Zealand” piece of architecture.

Its significance, which continues to this day, is in a large part due to the bold gestures made in terms of its departure from the architecture of the time, which still looked only to a European heritage. As it approaches its 50th anniversary, safe now from developers in its new status as a category one historic building, it still stands as an example of what a bicultural New Zealand architecture could be and its popularity with students today attests its modern value.

While its position at the top of the New Zealand architectural canon is rarely challenged, for many who sing its praises it can be extraordinarily difficult to explain just what it is that makes it so special. For this reason, those wanting to chance upon that elusive architectural epiphany that might help them understand the building’s charm, or perhaps exactly what it is that makes their friends down at the Te Aro campus quiver with orgasmic delight, there is arguably no better chance than a visit to the Futuna Chapel—a much-loved piece of architecture whose significance extends well beyond its time and place. Make sure to head along on the next (sunny) open day and be prepared to leave any preconceptions at the door—as Russell Walden notes, “The chapel only smiles at you if you are ready to be smiled at.”

For more information about the chapel of Futuna check out or read The Voices of Silence by Dr Russell Walden (1986).

*Learn how to make an origami fortune teller or ‘cootie catcher’ at


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