Back in the ’50s it was still possible to believe organised religion was moving forward in New Zealand, whatever it was doing in the Old World. Catholics, Anglicans and others were putting up new churches, some of them quite ambitious, to support growing communities of nice people whose kids would naturally move into similar ways of living. After all, what else was there to do in New Zealand?
Looking back from 2020, this was clearly a high water mark and the drift away from religion has been as steady in New Zealand as anywhere else. Combined with the cost of maintaining and upgrading these buildings – in truth some of them are pretty awful, not to mention to cost of earthquake-strengthening and asbestos removal – this means a lot of them are now being pulled down and replaced with housing. Their worshipping communities meet – if at all – in community halls, or have drifted off to Vineyard churches who meet in office premises on industrial estates.
One survivor from these times is the Futuna Chapel in Karori, Wellington, by architect John Scott. It started as a Retreat Chapel on a Brothers of Mary estate at the edge of town; now there are no Brothers and no estate, only a lot of rather odd yellow houses. But the Chapel survives, celebrated as a national treasure, a fantastic piece of modernist architecture, and (perhaps not obvious at the time) a reference to Maori imagery. Its uniqueness centres on the ruthless diagonal plan, the polyhedral geometry, and the fact it’s built to hug the ground: it’s low and dark inside but has with a soaring roof that’s full of colour. Its shape is probably the closest I’ve ever seen to the kind of Lego chapels I designed and built when I was a child.
A further oddity is that a lot of the coloured glass is in external panels; this undoubtedly adds colour and interest, but means maintenance costs are high on windows that essentially serve no purpose.
Whether fantastic or just plain curious, Futuna Chapel is worth a visit on the few weekends when it’s open to the public. There’s more at the Wikipedia site on Futuna Chapel