Objectspace gallery reinvents itself as an architecture and design destination

by Michael Barrett / 26 July, 2017
Photography by David Straight

Objectspace director Kim Paton stands by Future Islands, the first exhibition to show in Objectspace’s new gallery.

Design Futures

A bold new public destination for architecture, craft and design opens in a former industrial building in Ponsonby.

Two weeks out from opening day and the courtyard of Objectspace’s new gallery on Ponsonby’s Rose Road is resonating with the banshee shrieks of skillsaws and sanders. I can barely hear what architect Richard Naish is saying. The courtyard is out front and we’re looking at the gallery’s new home, a classic of light industry that runs the full width of the site, with a second floor box poking its nose out above the first. To the right, a double-height roller door is evidence of a warehouse back end – an appropriate volume for a gallery.

“Tough neighbourhood?” I wonder to Naish, looking next door. Back in the day, light industrial buildings around here didn’t mind sharing a wall or two with a neighbour; it made per-square-metre sense for mechanics, tyre places or joiners to go cheek by jowl. There’s less light industry around here now, but Objectspace shares a wall with a different sort of Rose Road classic, Megazone Laser Tag, while on the other side, across a carpark that used to be a building, a Pet Stock has sprung up in what used to be a Witchery.

“I had mixed emotions when I saw the building,” Naish recalls. “In a way, it reminded me a little bit of being in London in the nineties and seeing the Saatchi Gallery, which was in an old warehouse at the time. I thought in some ways this could be a bit like that.” In Naish’s concept, the upper floor, clad in white, six-millimetre solid aluminium plates, “floats” out over the front of the building, “like six cubes coming together with amazing precision, very solid by day but by night, light will slip out from the cracks between the plates”.

The exhibition being installed. Originally curated for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 by Charles Walker and Kathy Waghorn, it presents New Zealand architecture on groups of floating islands – light, tough shells fabricated by an America’s Cup boat-building company.

It’s a new home for a reinvented institution. Until recently, Objectspace (which first opened in 2004) occupied a petite former bank building at the Karangahape Road end of Ponsonby Road. A publicly funded gallery, its programme focused on craft, applied arts and design, with exhibitions taking place in the main room of the shop-sized premises. Things changed dramatically in 2015, when the gallery’s board and previous director Philip Clark negotiated a major increase in funding from Creative New Zealand. “They essentially doubled our funding,” says Kim Paton, who has been director since Clark moved on later in 2015. “And that funding was an acknowledgement that, while we’re at a point where the kind of cultural infrastructure nationally for, say, contemporary and performing arts is actually quite strong, it’s a barren landscape for design and architecture.”

Some of the models in the exhibition are large social and educational buildings by established architectural studios; others are tiny structures designed by recent graduates. In the foreground is a black island for visitors to sit on.

The funding allows Objectspace to sharpen its focus and include those disciplines alongside craft – but to do this, the gallery needed to grow, and so began a search for suitable premises. Early on, the decision was made to forego Ponsonby’s main drag for larger (but less spendy) space a block further back. Jo Blair, from Christchurch PR company Brown Bread, came on board and drummed up support to the tune of half a million dollars – just about the amount needed for the building renovation. Naish, whose practice RTA Studio is just a stroll away, was keenly aware of the lack of venues for exhibitions of an architectural persuasion, and happily chipped in much of his time pro bono.

The exhibition features models of more than 50 buildings, including a holiday home by Ken Crosson (left).

Paton, understandably fizzing about unlocking the potential of the new gallery and bigger audiences interested in architecture and design, has been busy talking about potential exhibitions with curators and artists and designers of varied ilks. Her first exhibition is cracker. “We’ve got Future Islands, which was New Zealand’s exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale last year, to open with,” she says, “and we’ve also got the external courtyard, for which Warwick Freeman is our first commission.”

As an aside, Freeman, one of New Zealand’s best known and most interesting jewellers, has had plenty of skin in the Objectspace game. The first chairman of the gallery’s board, as Paton recounts, famously presented the director Philip Clark with a ring and married him to the gallery. “He then divorced him in a friendly fashion when Philip moved on – so there’s a great poignancy in having Warwick here, but he’s also a man who has had an extraordinary career, and he’s devised a project that really speaks of architecture.”

The exhibition’s one pink ‘island’ is in memory of exhibition creative team member Rewi Thompson, who passed away recently. The island’s model is of Thompson’s own house, in Kohimarama.

In the foyer of the building, just through that double-height roller door, there’s a high exhibition wall – where a collaborative piece by the celebrated type designer Kris Sowersby and graphic design virtuosos Alt Group will be the first occupant. The second run of exhibitions will include a ceramics show curated by Damian Skinner – “a classic Objectspace show,” Paton says, “but we’re bringing in a young, recent architecture graduate to do the exhibition design.” In gallery two (including the courtyard, there are four exhibition spaces) there will be a book project by Kathy Barry, an artist known for splendid hand-drawn geometric abstractions. Barry has been part of a limited-edition international book project with John Yau, a New York art critic and prolific writer. “Kathy has handpainted books in response to his poems – there are 12 altogether and we’re showing one,” Paton says. “For us, it’s a project about the relationship between image and text, but it’s also about the object, the book.”

Many of the featured projects are built – including a Lyttelton studio by Michael O’Sullivan of Bull O’Sullivan Architecture (right) – while some are conceptual. Whether real or imagined, says curator Charles Walker, “they’re all stories about this place”.

As we walk through gallery one, the 20 brilliant white, cloud-like forms of Future Islands are laid out under moon-like spotlights, waiting to be hung from the room’s black-steel ceiling lattice. In Venice last year, the exhibition fascinated thousands of visitors during a six-month run in a renaissance Venice palazzo. If not for Objectspace’s interest in architecture, it’s likely the exhibition, a survey of the possibilities of New Zealand architecture, would have been out of reach to Auckland (it’s also getting a run at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery later in the year), and that would have been a great, ironic shame.

New Zealand has a “lack of a cultural language for understanding design and architecture”, Paton notes. “I think – I absolutely hope – that Objectspace will play a role in reframing the way architecture and design are perceived.”

What’s on at Objectspace

In Praise of Volcanoes: Contemporary jeweller Warwick Freeman plays with “volcanic aesthetics” with this exhibition in the Objectspace courtyard.

Untitled: Objectspace has also made showcasing graphic design part of its mission. In this installation, Klim Type Foundry and Alt Group team up to create two new fonts (both named ‘Untitled’) presented on ‘untitled’ artworks.

Midway: A Global Books project (opens 30 Sep): An exhibition featuring one of 12 books handmade as part of a collaboration between American poet John Yau and New Zealand visual artist Kathy Barry. 

Kahoa Kakala (opens 17 Nov): Artist Sione Monu builds on his experimental work with the Tongan fine art of flower designing.

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