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.”
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.
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.