The Over Use of Blockwork

Oct. 3, 2017, 6:03 a.m.

The Over Use of Blockwork

Arched roofs, vaulted ceilings, pavilions and other facets of native architecture are decadently applied to much of Fiji’s upmarket resorts, private island resorts and chic homes.

These properties encapsulate the distinctive ambiance of pre-colonial craftsmanship as a modern showpiece of traditional dwellings.

The 96 years of British imperialism are also palpable in the surviving civic buildings scattered throughout Suva, Levuka -Fiji’s first capital and UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, and other early civil service settlements, such as the Colonial Sugar Refinery (now Fiji Sugar Corporation) compounds. And while there are many relics of these formative years in Fiji’s built environment, their aesthetic quality has gradually been replaced by the common use of block work, turning residencies and CBDs into a sea of basic concrete infrastructure.

As an award-winning architect highlighted, challenges lay in the availability (and recurring unavailability) of quality materials that conform to Australian and New Zealand standards.

“This shortage in construction material delays the completion, limits the design process and poses the risk of poor designs,” noted Conway Beg, who scooped key accolades at the revived Fiji Architects Association Awards in late 2016.

Much of the coveted native hardwood used in the country’s original, vernacular architecture is exported, and while its local use is mostly evident in hotels and resorts that aim for a glamourized version of traditional dwellings, it is ironically the tourism sector that has highly influenced the development of local architecture and its direction into heavy blockwork.

The revival of traditional architecture was pioneered in the 50s by the Korolevu Beach Resort, which debuted the iconic, thatched-roofed, self-contained units now universally known as bures.

In the early 70s, the Regent Hotel (changed to Sheraton Royal and now as Westin Denarau Island Fiji Resort & Spa) opened as the first property on the tourism mecca of Denarau Island. It was originally designed by Belt Collins (Hawaii), which co-published a report – Tourism Development Programme for Fiji in 1973.

Financed by the UNDP and administered by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development alongside the Fijian Government, the document detailed master plans for developing Natadola as an integrated tourist resort and a long-term development of tourism in Fiji, with recommendations on areas that should be developed in the first 5 years, following an intensive 14 months of surveys, analysis and meetings around Fiji, except Rotuma.

The Over Use of Blockwork

Tourism stalwart Bob Kennedy (Snr), noted some designs wasn’t too well received by some Australian and New Zealand tourists, who had a differing notion of what the comforts in the tropics should be. Eventually, hotel infrastructure turned concrete, with high ceilings and air-conditioning changing the ambience of traditional architecture. Beg noted the heavy influence by the tourism industry and lifestyle change for foreign visitors. “There will always be demand, provided that infrastructure support is available.

In some ways, the hospitality industry has had the most dramatic influence on local architecture. I believe the existing concrete industry has mostly influenced the coherent state of the local architecture. The overuse of blockwork and metal clad roofing has had a more radical impact on the current blurry – and at times depressing- state of local architecture.”

Beg’s colorful portfolio spans award-wining homes and upmarket resorts and he appreciates the opulence of traditional architecture, woodwork and décor, and laments their paltry, almost non-existent application to regular houses and buildings.

“We need to introduce more appropriate sustainable materials that are readily available. These materials should meet our harsh climatic conditions, and conform to Australian and New Zealand standards. Hopefully, this may inspire architects with a more robust design palette, to conceive innovative designs. It will certainly raise the design standards and influence the local vernacular.”

Timber, Beg highlighted, remains on the core materials and could be better utilized in the design but sadly, most good timber is now exported. The recurring shortage of quality material has no doubt been exacerbated by the mass homelessness and construction-demand of natural disasters, such as the devastating Tropical Cyclone Winston in early 2016, a calamity that also exposed the urgent necessity for more durable infrastructure.

Its disintegration of some 40,000 homes and public structures has challenged the endurance of local architectural capability and called forth for more innovative and stringent designing and buildings.

“Clearly, our local architectural capability has never before been challenged as it is now after the damages caused by Tropical Cyclone Winston,” architectural practitioners were reminded by Assistant Minister for Infrastructure & Transport, Vijay Nath, at their awards night.

“It is a wakeup call for us to be more innovative, more stringent and more rigorous in our approach towards designing and building. It has also raised expectations of ordinary Fijians that you- our local architects- will develop the capability to design the building we want and need in Fiji.”

Nath called forth the necessity of better, more efficient, more modern and more self-critical architects, challenging them to explore designs and the use of materials that would stand the test of current elements and time.

“Fiji will face many challenges as we go forward: the challenge of climate change, the challenge of urbanization and the need for better urban design, the challenge of keeping in sync with changing technology, and the challenge of increasing population and what they will require in terms of our architects.” Beg noted that other challenges plaguing the industry include draughtsman personnel who lack the qualification, pose as architects and take on unsuspecting clients. The Fiji Architects Act has been reviewed by the Architects Registration Board, awaiting Government implementation. Also necessary is an update and review of the National Building Code.

“Hopefully, this can be implemented. Planning authorities also need to enforce the use of registered architects, engineers, Quantity Surveyors, planners and Environment Impact Assessment consultants on all building and planning submissions.”

Local architects are faced with producing designs that will address the challenges of urban planning and natural disasters, particularly in a developing country on the cusp of further municipal boundary extensions and a plethora of large-scale real estate developments.

“Architects need to commit to design excellence with an innovative, pragmatic approach to problem-solving, which is essential to the current coherent state of architecture. We will survive, and the good architects will apply their talent and skill set to produce innovative design with current limitations.”

Touching on the continuous reach of tourism on architectural developments, Beg hopes that it will encourage new ideas and innovation, bringing out architectural expressions that are fresh and non-repetitive.

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