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The Shimmering Glory of a Modern Indigenous New Zealand Chapel

Designed by architect John Scott, the Futuna Chapel was created for a Catholic religious order with elements adopted from Māori culture.

John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Amid the well-groomed homes and quiet roads in the suburbs of Karori in Wellington rises an unexpected structure, with a steep, folded roof that pierces the sky. Designed by John Scott, a New Zealand architect of Irish, Scottish, and Māori descent, the Futuna Chapel has stood on its plot for nearly 60 years, regarded as “the most complete example of a modern ‘indigenous’ New Zealand design.”

Interior of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington (photo by Gavin Woodward)

While originally created as a chapel in a retreat center for the Catholic Marist Brothers, it also integrates elements adopted from Māori communal spaces, making it a building that bridges cultures. Towering above the rows of standard pews and friezes showing the Stations of the Cross is a large post that branches to the ceiling — it recalls a poutokomanawa, a carved wooden central support of a traditional Māori meeting house, or wharenui.

Today, the Futuna Chapel is nondenominational, hosting occasional concerts and lectures by speakers including architects Alejandro Aravena and Niall McLaughlin. (In April, as part of its annual lecture series, the chapel will welcome a professor of new media art and cultural heritage.) On sunny Wellington days, rays stream through the colorful acrylic window panels designed by Auckland sculptor Jim Allen and fixed into the soaring ceiling. They transform the space into a shimmering jewel box with varying textures. The light casts gridded, rainbow patterns on the roughcast plaster walls and the floor made of pounamu, a beautiful serpentine marble that holds special value for Māori.

Interior of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington
Interior of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington

Although small, Futuna keeps your eyes wandering, like a sculpture that reveals its secrets as you slowly observe it in the round. Scott built it on a square plan, but its regular base is offset by the angular ceiling, which features striking rafters. As you move through the chapel, hidden niches fitted with more windows emerge above you, including one that allows sun to spotlight the altar, made of South African red granite. Its roughness contrasts sharply with the smooth side altars made of white Kairuru marble, above which protrude detailed mosaics showing Mary, Chanel, Jesus, and St. Joseph with the baby Jesus.

Interior of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington

Photographs capturing Futuna in its full glory fill the pages of Futuna: Life of a Building, a book published last year by Victoria University Press that chronicles the building’s history in essays and archival material. In particular, the book’s editors, Gregory O’Brien and Nick Bevin, alongside other contributors, reveal that this architectural gem was once threatened. “Only a decade ago, Futuna Chapel was discarded by others as worn out, unfit for purpose, or simply too forceful an idea,” Futuna Trust member Simon McLellan writes. “Others before us have advocated for the destruction of the chapel. In their eyes, it becomes a challenge — something to repress or expunge.”

Futuna altar and crucifix (photo by Gavin Woodward)

From the beginning, Futuna was built for a very specific purpose: as a haven for the Marist community. It’s named for the 30-square-mile Futuna Island in the Pacific, where the Marist priest and martyr Peter Chanel was murdered in 1841 while on a mission. It was even built by Marist brothers, who, though unskilled (and unpaid), broke ground in 1959 and successfully realized Scott’s design with the aid of volunteers from nearby Catholic communities. As architect Chris Cochran recounts, Scott was actually not the order’s first pick; when the brother who was initially chosen did not produce an innovative enough design, he suggested Scott, who proposed a vision focused on the interplay of light and shadow.

The finished Futuna was, at first, widely appreciated: seven years after the chapel opened in 1961, it won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Gold Medal. In the 1990s, however, it was increasingly used for nonreligious seminars, and eight years later the Society of Mary announced it would close the chapel because of a decline in Marist devotions. What followed was a long battle between Scott’s children and the land’s new owner, a local builder, during which the chapel was damaged by water, had its pews demolished, and even had some internal parts stolen, including a carved figure of Christ on a crucifix. Only in 2003 was Friends of Futuna Trust formed, and only four years later did the group successfully purchase the building. It reopened in March 2008, after nearly two decades spent in glum slumber.

John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington

Futuna sits quietly amid a residential complex, open to the public on select days. I visited on a partly cloudy January afternoon, when its stucco-walled interior, though breathtaking, was dim and grotto-like. I actually had no plans to step inside, as I knew it was a closed day. But while I circled the building to observe its exterior, a trustee driving home to the complex pulled up and invited me and my boyfriend to enter. It was an extraordinary chance encounter that spoke to the trust’s efforts to keep the building as alive and accessible as possible, even if it means members have to take time out of their personal days for a stranger or two.

Futuna has been free of debt for about a year and is safe for now. It stands as a building finally at peace with its still-evolving surroundings, but its history is important to record and remember — not just as a cautionary tale, but also as inspiration for others to fight to preserve their built heritage.

Mosaic work in Futuna Chapel
Mosaic work in Futuna Chapel
Interior of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington
Interior of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington
Interior of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington
Interior of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington
John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington
John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington
Interior of Futuna (photo by Gavin Woodward)

Futuna: Life of a Building is published by Victoria University Press and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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