2021 Workshop

The Tjibaou Cultural Center: Cultural Agent or Political Foothold?

Lithograph of indigenous people and architecture.
The island of New Caledonia and some of its inhabitants, discovered by Cook on his second voyage, 1772-1775, drawn by William Hodges and engraved by William Byrne, 1777. [Courtesy Wellcome Collection]

The French territory of New Caledonia, an ecologically and culturally rich archipelago in the South Pacific, is home to the native Kanaks. The French colonized the Kanaks and their lands in the mid-19th century, claiming the central islands and relegating the indigenous population to smaller reservations at the archipelago’s periphery. The Kanaks first demanded independence in the 1960s. Their leader was Jean-Marie Tjibaou, son of a Kanak chief and champion of the pro-independence Kanak movement for several decades.1Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Kanaky, eds. Alban Bensa and Eric Wittersheim, trans. Helen Fraser and John Trotter (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2005), xvi. Tjibaou envisioned a stronger Kanak presence in the French-populated regions of the islands, particularly in Nouméa, the capital and largest city of New Caledonia. In 1975, Tjibaou organized a cultural festival, Melanesia 2000, with the hopes of reinforcing Kanak identity through expressions of native culture.2Tjibaou, 15. The festival seeded the idea of a permanent cultural center. Although Tjibaou was assassinated in 1989, the center he envisioned eventually became a reality. The Tjibaou Cultural Center was built at the very site of Melanesia 2000 and bears Tjibaou’s name.

While it was Tjibaou who initiated the idea of a cultural center, the project was primarily commissioned and funded by the French government. The government’s motive, at least in part, was to ease social and political tensions between the Kanaks and the French settlers in the wake of Tjibaou’s murder. President François Mitterrand went so far as to designate the center one of his grands projets, the only one outside mainland France. The Center stands now as a reminder of France’s continued presence in the Southern hemisphere, where it simultaneously promotes Kanak culture and reinforces France’s continued hegemony.

The Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia stands as a reminder of France’s continued presence in the Southern hemisphere.

The French government embarked on building the Center in 1991, siting it, according to Tjibaou’s vision, on New Caledonia’s main island Grand Terre, in the Tina peninsula. An international architectural competition was won by Renzo Piano and his firm, Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Piano’s design process was collaborative. His team worked not only with Tjibaou’s widow, Marie-Claude Tjibaou, but also with Kanak elders, as well as Alban Bensa, a French cultural anthropologist and Kanak culture expert, and employees of the Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture.

Piano’s design was directly inspired by traditional Kanak chiefs’ houses.3Lisa Findley, Building Change: Architecture, Politics and Cultural Agency (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 54. These houses are circular, made with wooden battens and a central pole supporting a heavy thatch-covered conical roof. Piano’s interpretation was to create semi-circular enclosures made of Iroko wood that was manufactured into vertical glulam ribs. Horizontal slats hold the ribs together with steel connectors, and the structure is topped with a diagonally sliced-off roof. Ten such enclosures, varying in height from 65 to 91 feet, create exhibition space, performance venues, libraries, and other amenities. Each structure is placed along a curvilinear path landscaped with native plants and trees.4Werner Blaser, Renzo Piano: Centre Kanak = Kulturzentrum Der Kanak = Cultural Center of the Kanak People (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001), 25.

Cylindrical pavilions with woven wooden surrounds.
The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in Nouméa, New Caledonia, showing Iroko-wood enclosures designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, 2018. [David Stanley via Flickr, under license CC BY-2.0]

Piano’s design also alludes to Tjibaou’s distinct vision of Kanak identity. Tjibaou spoke of Kanak culture as an ongoing, ever-unfolding “process of invention and reinvention,” and of identity as something “beyond us, it is not behind us, it’s just beyond.”5Tjibaou, xxi. See also Cadey Korson, “Nationalism and Reconciliation in Memorial Landscapes: The Commemoration of Jean-Marie Tjibaou in Kanaky/New Caledonia,” Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 52 (March 2016), 84-99, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhg.2016.02.007. Piano’s design took this into account, such that the semicircular wooden structures seem to reflect Tjibaou’s philosophies. As one Kanak elder favorably remarked of the design, “…this is not us anymore, but it’s still us.”6Findley, 76. The current director of the Tjibaou Cultural Center, Emmanuel Kaserherou, agrees that the Center’s architecture aligns with Tjibaou’s understanding of Kanak identity. In Kaserherou’s view, the Center supports the Kanaks’ aspirations for independence.

Renzo Piano’s material decisions reveal a great deal about the ways in which Western influence over colonialized lands lingers.

In key respects, Piano’s process and design are commendable — he worked collaboratively, used timber as a natural building material, and produced a form that satisfied the Kanak people. On close inspection, however, some of these virtues are undermined by Piano’s choice of materials, and the logistics of their manufacturing. The Iroko wood used to build the Center was not native to New Caledonia. Kanaks closely associate their identity with their land, and place high value on native plants, trees, and other life forms, yet Piano used a non-native material and sourced it from halfway across the globe — from Guinea in West Africa, which, not coincidentally, is another French colony. Architect and critic Lisa Findley describes how the wood was shipped from Guinea to France to be fabricated into the glulam ribs, which were then shipped to New Caledonia.7Findley, 44. Rather than procure a local timber by more sustainable means, Piano globally transported products across multiple former and current French colonies.

Piano’s material decision may be one small piece of a large project, but it reveals a great deal about the ways in which Western influence over colonized lands lingers even within well-intentioned architectural design and practice. The problematic selection and sourcing process of Piano’s Iroko wood and its convoluted journey to Grand Terre exemplify the complex geopolitics between France and New Caledonia. These choices also reveal that France’s ostensible commitment to the Kanak culture is compromised by a persistent colonial mindset. Now, 23 years later, the Tjibaou Cultural Center continues to honor the richness of the land and the life of the Kanaks. And yet, at the same time, the Center underscores France’s political foothold in the South Pacific, and the way in which colonialist Western hegemony continues to influence architectural design and practice.

Notes

  1. Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Kanaky, eds. Alban Bensa and Eric Wittersheim, trans. Helen Fraser and John Trotter (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2005), xvi.
  2. Tjibaou, 15.
  3. Lisa Findley, Building Change: Architecture, Politics and Cultural Agency (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 54.
  4. Werner Blaser, Renzo Piano: Centre Kanak = Kulturzentrum Der Kanak = Cultural Center of the Kanak People (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001), 25.
  5. Tjibaou, xxi. See also Cadey Korson, “Nationalism and Reconciliation in Memorial Landscapes: The Commemoration of Jean-Marie Tjibaou in Kanaky/New Caledonia,” Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 52 (March 2016), 84-99, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhg.2016.02.007.
  6. Findley, 76.
  7. Findley, 44.

About the Author

Babita Joy

Babita Joy is a Ph.D. candidate in the Built Environment program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Trained as an architect (B.Arch., M.Arch.) and architectural historian (M.S. Architecture, History, and Theory), she has worked in architectural practice and academia in the U.S. and India. Her scholarly interest is the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture, and her research uses both qualitative and archival methods to examine material and cultural entanglements in architecture.