by Jerry ElengicalMay 30, 2022
Presenting an image of cultural reverence and triumph in the face of adversity, Woods Bagot and Warren & Mahoney's Te Pae Christchurch Convention and Exhibition Centre could potentially form an integral component of the city’s rebuilding in the wake of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. A devastating calamity that caused irreparable damage to both life and property, the event had major repercussions on the development of Christchurch, where the rejuvenation of damaged sections of the city is still currently in progress. In its role as an important piece of civic architecture that could be essential to the rebuilding effort, the building pays heed to the natural landscape of its context as well as the cultural traditions of indigenous people that reside within this particular region of New Zealand.
The origins of the building's design stemmed from a flight taken by Woods Bagot architect Bruno Mendes over the Rakaia River on the way to Christchurch. As mentioned by the architects in an official release, “It was 2014 and Mendes was travelling to a workshop early in the design of the building. Seizing the opportunity to photograph the distinctive braided riverbed seeded a prescient and crucial design idea.” This experience was in certain respects, the source of the building’s distinctive façade design, which features chevron-patterned tiles that replicate the texture of river landscapes along the Canterbury Plains.
Fusing craft, culture, and a sensitivity to the homeland of the Ngāi Tahu people, the project was developed with the assistance of Puamiria Parata-Goodall, a descendant of the community and a Board Member at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. She reflects on the reconstruction efforts in Christchurch in a press statement: “The ancestral bones of the Ngāi Tahu people are in this land. Across the rebuilt city, the new Ōtautahi (Christchurch) reflects both its Ngāi Tahu and European history. Māori language, art, and stories are recognised and celebrated like they haven’t been before.”
Facing the Ōtākaro /Avon River, the main entrance features a sculptural art installation, whose winding forms echo the geometries of the building itself. The decision to orient the built form in this manner developed as an attempt to integrate it more holistically into the city centre, where the front façade opens onto Oxford Terrace, providing an easy route towards the new waterfront of the Te Papa Ōtākaro /Avon River Precinct. Landscaping around the structure's front breaks the stretch of paved pathways leading towards it, with an expansive lawn bordering the building on one of its sides.
The building's visual imposition on the site is moderated by a fluid exterior form clad with over 43,000 Fibre C concrete skin façade panels in five different variations, that have been individually numbered and placed. Unique combinations of patterns generate gradients of colour and a gentle rhythm that complements the overall form. The perceived scale of the structure itself is somewhat reduced in this manner, especially due to the layered contours of the exterior, which evoke the mountainous terrain of New Zealand’s Southern Alps - a further reference to the story of the Ngāi Tahu.
Besides its instantly arresting exterior, the building's scale and program also strive to redefine norms associated with convention centres, forgoing the traditional 'big box' model. Although it can accommodate approximately 2,000 delegates at a time, much of the large functional spaces such as the auditorium (featuring seating by Poltrona Frau) and exhibition hall are concentrated towards the centre of the massing, leading to a configuration where preceding areas have unobstructed views of the river through ribbon-like windows cut into the folds of the envelope. This deviation from standards also extends to the circulation routes and public spaces throughout the building, which have been structured to seem more organic and filled with natural light - as opposed to the often 'airport-like' interiors of convention centres. In addition the program also contains meeting rooms, banquet rooms, kitchens, storage spaces, and an administrative wing.
In Bruno Mendes' view, the act of stitching the project into the urban fabric of Christchurch was an essential consideration throughout the design process, as it, in many ways, will form a core part of a visiting delegate's initial impression of the city. Moreover, the sensitivity to the site displayed in the design is also a departure from the traditional image of such a venue, which often impinges upon its context to stand out from the surrounding built environment. This point is echoed by Warren & Mahoney principal, Peter Marshall, who mentions in an official release: "The facility is a much-needed asset for the city, reflecting the identity of its place.” Mendes adds to this in a press release, stating, “From inside, framed views outwards curate the site for you. Views from the function room back to Cathedral Square; the opening out onto Victoria Square; the leaning toward the river—these were very specific moves to make the building engage strongly with what’s around it. I think that's what's special about the project. You are connected to Christchurch and it couldn't be anywhere else.”