As capital of our islands and the heart of Tahiti, Papeete’s surprising assortment of architecture reflects its rich history as a melting pot, its evolutions and revolutions. Here is a discovery of Papeete.
Architecture in French Polynesia underwent major changes after the second half of the 19th century, notably with the urban planning of the city of Papeete for business and military reasons. Let’s go back even further in time. At the very beginning of the 19th century, the arrival of Christian missionaries on our islands was synonymous with major architectural upheavals that were only visible through religious buildings such as cathedrals, churches, and temples. However, these structures did use materials from nature such as coral, natural fibers, or earth. As far as dwellings, Polynesians have long preferred wood as a primary building material. The abundance and diversity of wood in most of the islands made it a readily available resource for people who took risks through building homes on stilts with large openings in areas near the ocean or rivers, and therefore prone to humidity. Climate conditions and French Polynesian industrialization led to using new types of materials, including concrete and sheet metal.
Puzzle, patchwork and melting pot…
Papeete can be compared to a giant puzzle, an architectural patchwork or melting pot, in which one can play a game to try and pinpoint all the different influences it has had, and all the different eras that the island has experienced. The buildings are somewhat stratified, and each building bore witness to the exact moment it appeared. This chaotic impression that spreads throughout the city may be difficult for many tourists to grasp at first glance, yet perhaps this is what adds to the city’s character and essence that make it so unique. Papeete is possibly one of the best examples of how its people live. In the words of epic poet Horace, only today counts, no one worries about tomorrow. Carpe diem. Seize the day! The architecture has three major influences. There is the Chinese influence due to the large number of French Polynesians who are of Chinese descent. Next is the historic colonial influence from November 6, 1843 when the Pomare Chiefdom became a French colony, until 1946 when Tahiti became a French overseas territory. Finally, there is the modern influence that has deeply etched the development of Papeete’s urban landscape with concrete, which was necessary to build very quickly, efficiently, and cheaply.
French Polynesia’s colonial past constitutes an important part of Papeete’s history. It in fact marked the architectural landscape of Tahiti and the islands in a lasting way. Today, it represents a legacy worth keeping at all costs because the remaining structures have become rare. Most of the few buildings that survived hurricanes and the 1914 bombing of Papeete by German warships in the Pacific have been restored. As far as French Polynesia’s colonial architecture, some elements are more or less constant, such as colonnades, which are usually out of metal, and a four-sloped roof covered with Romanesque tiles. There is also the use of two main colors for the façade, or even still, an accent color for the trim and angles.
The city of Papeete is far from being what most first time visitors to Tahiti expect. It is nothing like the clichés of the Polynesian straw dwellings, or fare, which are used to promote French Polynesia all over the world. Despite all this, Papeete still deserves the benefit of the doubt. Once visitors overcome any first impression of a disorganized city in which buildings seem to just exist for their own sake without taking into consideration what is around them, it still contains some little surprises for those who know how to look for them. A sneak peak follows.
French Polynesia underwent two waves of Chinese immigration. One occurred around 1863, and the other during the first quarter of the 20th century. This Chinese presence is easily identifiable when looking at Papeete. Numerous buildings are scattered around that have more or less pronounced Asian features.