New Caledonia was an interesting place and the closest thing to the first world that we had seen in many months when we sailed into the harbor a few months back. I hold such ambivalent feelings toward French territories. You can’t help but admire the passion and drive toward perfection of the French people. I find it easy to excuse their smugness when I stand before the perfection of a French baguette. Marilia and I place their cooking and wine at the top of the food chain. So, when we entered New Caledonia we were ready to ditch the beaches and indulge in a cosmopolitan experience for the first time in a long while. It was the lure of this cosmopolitan experience that led us to the much celebrated Tjibaou Cultural Centre, designed by Renzo Piano.

One of our favorite buildings, the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, was designed by Piano so we were excited to experience his project in Noumea.Unlike the Academy, this project evolved from a dark history. The South Pacific is beautifully remote but that remoteness is something that has led to many atrocities over the years. From nuclear testing to slavery to genocide the South Pacific holds many dark secrets.

Tjibaou was named after an indigenous Islander and social activist. Jean-Marie Tjibaou was born in New Caledonia and was leading a movement toward independence of his native Kanak people. Much of what he was doing was tearing at the fabric that secured France’s control over the island. Jean-Marie was assassinated in 1989 for leading an uprising amongst his people. It was a messy time and the French nationals were exposed at the center of it.

In my opinion, anyone feeling like they don’t have a heritage of unsightly prejudice probably hasn’t looked far enough into their family’s history. The question is how have those who followed changed that course and contributed to a world of mutual respect, love and compassion. In response to the uprising French President, Francois Mitterrand put something remarkable in motion that would lead to an outcome perhaps worthy of Tjibaou’s martyrdom. Mitterrand launched an international design competition that would yield a project later protested as excess due to the projects scale and expense. A truly remarkable project that evokes pride from Tjibaou’s people.

After reviewing 170 design submissions, the jury assembled to review the project with members from France, Australia and many of the Island Nations of Oceania, selected the Renzo Piano Building Workshop team. Their decision was based on the team’s modern approach to developing something of the place and of the people.

It is not difficult to understand how Marilia and I could be captivated by this story. What was amazing was to see how our children were inspired when standing before the project. At first glance, the project provoked a feeling close to sacred for the four of us. We were careful where we stepped and enjoyed turning every corner as the facility unfolded before us.

Words By: teamnogal

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