An exhibition curated by Professor Andrew Barrie, School of Architecture and Planning, presents a miniature paper-model version of New Zealand’s built environment, as if it was all architecturally designed.

Professor Andrew Barrie, working on a paper model of an architecturally designed New Zealand, for the upcoming exhibition, In Context: RTA Studio

In Context: RTA Studio, opening in August at Objectspace, Ponsonby, will showcase 20 years of multi award-winning architecture from the Studio, founded by Richard Naish in 1999. 

Dr Barrie is not only curating it but also, with the help of 40 students, making it; 30 buildings made out of thick paper, laid out on a contoured surface of corrugated cardboard to depict the coastal, rural, suburban and urban zones where RTA Studio’s buildings are located.

The 10-metre-long display forms an imaginary, spliced-together map of New Zealand. “If New Zealand had better architecture, it would look more like this,” says Dr Barrie.

The paper-modelling technique used for In Context is one Dr Barrie developed while studying and working in Japan, uses in his professional and teaching life, and has used in several national and international exhibitions.

“Little-ness is key,” he says, on the appeal of the paper model architectural exhibition. “From puppies to babies to postage stamps, there is always something magical about small things.”

If New Zealand had better architecture, it would look more like this.

Dr Andrew Barrie School of Architecture and Planning

For the 5th Auckland Triennal at Auckland Art Gallery in 2013, however, he used the technique to construct a life-size paper house, Model Home. “We printed out huge architectural drawings and stitched them together to make the walls.”

It was displayed on the ground floor of the gallery, and the interior fitted out with familiar domestic items made out of paper. “It was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on.”

Architectural modeling is a crucial technique for exploring, understanding and refining how a building works. “It’s a way to develop your design, to understand the implications of your idea, but it’s also a communication tool – it means people can easily understand your design,” says Dr Barrie, a practising designer as well as a professor.

“Model making isn’t a particularly strong tradition in New Zealand, but it is a big part of the architectural design culture in Japan, where it’s often thought that if you can make a good model you can make a good building.”

There is an illustrative and playful quality to Dr Barrie’s paper-modelling, evoked in the buildings, but also the silhouettes of people, trees, and in this exhibition, cars, boats, traffic signals, sheep, even grapevines.

Just as little things are appealing “seeing just how expressive a few bits of paper can be is also charming”.

RTA Studio are known as “contextualists”, for designing buildings that fit their surrounding context of architecture and landscape, but adding something new.

This includes designs for the tank farm on Auckland’s waterfront, in the gritty district around Karangahape Road, among the villas of Ponsonby, in the pastoral settings of the central North Island and in the Southern Alps et al.

They are pushing New Zealand architecture in new directions “as opposed to being obsessed with our building traditions,” says Dr Barrie.

Their architecture is keyed into our cultural and physical context without resorting to the clichés of ‘New Zealand-ness’, he adds. “They avoid the usual platitudes of saying their architecture is reinterpreted whares or woolsheds.”

Architecture is often associated with rich people’s houses, but one of the distinctive aspects of RTA Studio’s work is its range. “From little houses to shops, schools, industrial buildings, offices, huge apartment blocks, university buildings, and so on.”

“So while some of New Zealand’s best architecture is accessible only to a few, their fantastic work contributes to the lives of many Kiwis.”

In Context: RTA Studio, Objectspace, 10 August – 7 September.

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