Designed by Renzo Piano; completed 1998
Since the mid-19th century, the Melanesian island community of New Caledonia in
the South Pacific Ocean has been a French territory. Prized for its valuable nickel
deposits, sections of New Caledonia have been extensively mined by the French, leaving
the countryside a disturbing melange of natural landforms and man-made quarries. The
desire for cultural recognition became the catalyst for a strong Kanak nationalist
movement, which formed in the 1980s. However, despite growing French recognition of
the plight of the Kanak people, by 1988 the movement had been largely unsuccessful
political extremists assassinated. In the following year, civil unrest grew in New
Caledonia, among the Kanak leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, and several of his followers.
Tjibaou’s death, and the rift it symbolized between the French government and the native
Kanak people, led French President Mitterand to support the construction of a cultural
center in New Caledonia as the first step in a process of political and cultural
reconciliation. A limited international architectural competition for the Tjibaou Cultural
Centre was held in 1991, and a design from architect Renzo Piano and his Building
Workshop was awarded first prize.
The site for the building is a spectacular promontory on the Tina Peninsula at the
eastern edge of New Caledonia’s capital city, Nouméa. The promontory, a densely
vegetated strip of land, lies between a small lagoon and the Bay of Magenta. It is
sufficiently close to the city that it fulfills Tjibaou’s aims for such a center to be
accessible to urban Kanaks, yet it is also within the natural landscape. Piano’s winning
scheme features a picturesque, and perhaps romanticized, cluster of structures that closely
resemble overscaled traditional huts. In this preliminary scheme, these huts, or “cases,” as
they are known in French, are distributed around a narrow spine that runs along the ridge
of the promontory. Despite being criticized for its complex technical detailing and its
heavy-handed formal references to regional culture, Piano’s preliminary design was
strongly supported by the Kanak people, and work was begun on the project in 1992.
In its final form, as completed in 1998, the Tjibaou Cultural Centre consists of a
central open spine with three clusters of cases, ten in total, all to the southeastern side of
the spine. To the opposite side is a series of lower, rectilinear volumes, which are
recessed up to three stories deep into the site. The largest of these volumes, a 400-seat
theater, is also extended into the landscape to create an outdoor performance space. A
public car park is at one end of the promontory, and visitors approach the building
obliquely, first seeing the distinctive roof silhouette of the cases before rising up from the
lower, lagoon side to the main entry. The spine is entered, as is appropriate for a visitor to
a Kanak building, at right angles approximately one-third of the way along its length. An
underground tunnel, roughly parallel to the spine, provides for servicing to all areas of the
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Each of the ten cases is circular in plan and is clad, for three-quarters of its
circumference, in a double layer of vertical timber ribs that support a
system of in-fill panels comprising horizontal timber slats and glass and
timber louvers. The inner wall of timber ribs is vertical, whereas the outer
wall bows out from the base of the circle and is tied back at its apex like a
billowing timber sail. Both inner and outer ribs are cut away at the rear, or
lower, side adjacent to the circulation spine, and a steeply inclined circular
metal roof is supported on the inner wall. At their peaks the tallest of the
timber ribs reach a height of approximately 90 feet (28 meters) and are
clearly visible from the distance. All of the joints are steel, and the ribs are
constructed of iroko wood, which is naturally termite resistant and is able
to be laminated. The gap between the inner and outer rib walls is carefully
controlled to capture light winds to cool the structure while allowing the
interior to be sealed in the event of cyclones.
Internally, the cases house gallery spaces, a multimedia library, and several small lecture
theaters. The three clusters, although not as obvious as they are in the original scheme,
still divide the cases into different functional zones, with the public galleries toward the
northeast and the more private, or controlled, galleries to the southwest.
The cases, which come in three sizes, are the most visible and iconic elements of the
design. They recall the structure, texture, and spatial distribution of the traditional Kanak
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village. They also have a natural tactility and level of detail that are similar to the
complexity of the surrounding vegetation (particularly the tall Norfolk Island pines). The
cases successfully evoke a regional cultural form, the Kanak village, without resorting to
kitsch representation and without demeaning local tradition. This is arguably the
buildings’ greatest success—they are both stridently modern in technology and detailing
yet able to capture some sense of the spirit of the land and its people. For this reason the
buildings are often identified with critical regionalist practices that reject overt mimicry
of traditional forms in favor of designs that capture some aspect of regional tectonics,
light quality, or spatial practices.
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