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Papeete: a Polynesian marriage between the modern and traditional

Detail of the architecture of the shopping mall Vaima - © G. Le Bacon Building of Brasserie de Tahiti - © G. Le Bacon A view inside the Tahiti's Chamber of Commerce - © G. Le Bacon Taaone Healthcare Center with his immense nave - © G. Le Bacon The New Harbor Station - © G. Le Bacon Colored buildings in Papeete - © G. Le Bacon French Polynesian Assembly in Papeete - © G. Le Bacon Cathedral of Papeete - © G. Le Bacon New main building of the "Haut-Commissariat" departments - © G. Le Bacon In Papeete, the High Commissioner of the Republic's official Residence. He is the highest ranked representative of State in French Polynesia. - © G. Le Bacon
Papeete: a Polynesian marriage between the modern and traditional
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We continue our exploration of Papeete, Tahiti’s capital city, via its architecture through which contemporary mindsets foresee a Polynesia evocative of ancient times. This provides an unanticipated reflection of the people of our islands. Between tradition and reinterpretation, between the past and the future, here is a stroll through the Papeete of today.

The modern era that we refer to as the post-CEP period (Centre d’Expérimentation du Pacifique or Pacific Testing Center) marked profound architectural changes in French Polynesia’s capital. Everything was built efficiently and cheaply. Papeete’s city center was quickly transformed into concrete. Buildings juxtaposed against each other possessed a logic unique to each structure. Importantly, the 1970s brought a new dynamic to French Polynesia that led to the Tahitian cultural renaissance. This dynamic refers back to a “pre-colonial golden age” to renew ties with a cultural identity that was squelched after the arrival of the missionaries at the beginning of the 19th century.

A striking example from this period that merges modernity with the revival of a long-abandoned Polynesian culture is Vaima Centre. Indeed, its architectural qualities are extremely debatable. However, it is important to notice the efforts made to engrave the concrete beams with traditional Polynesian motifs. Although downtown’s 20th century buildings may not all reflect a local style, some of them still reflect a connection  to the Polynesian world though using similar motifs plastered onto the façades.

Individual homes, the fare (word in Reo Tahiti, the Tahitian language, for house—pronounced fa-ray), built during the second half of the 20th century tend to be out of cinder block. The corners and openings are reinforced through cement poured over rebar. The fare are almost always single-family homes with a roof overhanging a porch. This overhang usually rests over steel beams. The sheet metal roof is practical since it is light and inexpensive; however, it does present shortcomings as far as thermal efficiency, even more so in regions where protection from the sun is vital. As it isn’t feasible to lay rooftop tiles that hold their own weight, wooden splints are sometimes nailed to the roofs, but this requires frequent re-roofing. There are still a few hotel roofs made out of pandanus leaves, but this is a luxury reserved for tourists.

In recent years, a new trend has surfaced with the construction of public buildings that may bring a smile to those who have always hoped for the emergence of an architecture reflecting Polynesian culture. This style consists of merging innovative contemporary architecture with undeniably Polynesian shapes and designs that will certainly beautify the constructed Polynesian landscape. These steps must be encouraged for the future. Thanks to new technologies, they bring a new identity to the capital that indicate a true connection between the local culture and feats of architecture. However, it must go hand in hand with the establishment of safeguards to prevent abuse and destruction of natural landscapes amid significant financial investments that may override respect for the building site. As far as neo-Polynesian architecture, there are several examples in Papeete.

A challenge for tourism

It is easy to see while walking the streets of the French Polynesian capital that it has never been subjected to drastic urban regulations (one may even wonder if there ever were any). This raises the question as to why almost all the buildings in the city center follow the same principle with arcades on the ground floor overlooking the street. Perhaps they serve as protection from the weather in a way that optimizes available space or entail an unconscious link to the colonial period

Two things appear to limit the quality of the buildings. One the one hand, there is the absence of norms, and on the other, the quality of the finished project. For a longtime, construction has been performed with a base of steel beams that rust if installed without protection from the sea spray. Concrete is hardier; however the rebar must not have contact with the air. Prefabricated components would obviously increase the quality of concrete structures and their use would become more common as well.

Architecture and urbanism need to be reconsidered in regards to tourism and society in general. However, Papeete has potential. Imagine biking and walking paths, exclusive public transport lanes, and an emergence of a neo-Polynesian architecture within the capital city. Hopefully, these changes are already in process.  

Contemporary architecture

High Commissioner of the Republic

During extensive renovation work in Papeete during the 1960s, the ancient residence of the governors was demolished. It was rebuilt in 1966 in a neo-Polynesian style. Its five very sloped roofs represent the five archipelagoes of French Polynesia. This residence is occupied by the high Commissioner of the Republic, known as the “haussaire.” He is the highest ranked Representative of State in French Polynesia.

L’Assemblée de la Polynésie française (French Polynesian Assembly)

« Tetuna’e » is the name given to the new French Polynesian Assembly building in honor of the first Polynesian legislator. This six-story office building, created by architect Michel Baccino, has a high glass front. The building is located on Rue du Docteur Cassiau, right across from the site of old Assembly on Tarahoi where the Pomare royal palace once stood.  The former president of the institution Philippe Schyle explains, “The initial project included a complete renovation of the Assembly, but could not be adopted due to budgetary reasons. This ecological project includes a remediation system that reuses wastewater from Mc Donalds and the EOM (Institut d’Emission d’Outre-mer).

Tahiti’s Chamber of Commerce

October 15, 1956 signaled the official inauguration of the offices of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the French Establishments of Oceania. The site was renovated in 2010 and received a new glass front to enclose the old 50s-era façade. This exemplary feat of architecture reconciles the past and present.

Taaone healthcare center

With its immense nave covered with a monumental overturned pirogue, Tahiti’s new hospital is a perfect example of this new tendency to develop neo-Polynesian contemporary Tahitian architecture.

Benjamin Lugrezy

Papeete:  a Polynesian marriage between the modern and traditional
Papeete: a Polynesian marriage between the modern and traditional
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We continue our exploration of Papeete, Tahiti’s capital city, via its architecture through which contemporary mindsets foresee a Polynesia evocative of ancient times. This provides an unanticipated reflection of the people of our islands. Between tradition and reinterpretation, between the past and the future, here is a stroll through the Papeete of today.
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