Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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A tale of two suspended cities

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posted on 2021-11-23, 12:54 authored by Dench, Jacob

Thesis investigation looks to allegorical architecture as a means of enhancing our awareness of our environment.  This investigation began in early 2016 with the discovery of a little-known architectural history of the Muaūpoko people and their suspended treevillage, Te Pā Rākau, in Horowhenua Aotearoa. Later, the invitation to participate in the construction of a treehouse for the 2016 Terni International Performing Arts Festival in Italy, provided an opportunity for the development of two unique design projects for this thesis – and to explore how allegorical architecture could respond uniquely to two tales of two very different cities: one, a mythological tale called Octavia - born of the urban unrest of post-industrial Italy; and two, a true but little known tale called Te Pa-Rakau from the extraordinary architectural history of precolonial Aotearoa.   The tale that is told through the Octavia project is quite different from the one told through the Te Pā Rākau project, yet the formal outcomes have many similarities. In this way the two bodies of work are effectively reflections of one another. Each project is unified by the reseach aim of enhancing our awareness of nature through the creation of an ephemeral architecture of lightness as a starting point – but then each branches out in different directions based on a response to a unique narrative, unique cultural needs, environmental and contextual factors.  This investigation seeks to enhance our awareness of the importance of a human cultural context within two ‘natural’ environments of two antipodean countries.   Both environments have been transformed by humankind, fractured, to such a great degree that in Aotearoa while we still have some remnants of the original condition of our ancient lowland forests, they are just tiny fragments of what once was, and they are devoid of much of their former wildlife. In Italy this investigation focuses on an urban site in a region where there exists no intact original forests; the wild trees have been completely broken, reformed, reshaped by humankind so that they do not even look like naturally occurring trees anymore.  Both scenarios explore how architecture can be used to make people aware of how important a relationship to nature really is; how beautiful it is; and how we need to enable it rather than disable it. This design-led investigation addresses the following aims:   TAHI: To create a lightweight, tensile architecture that touches lightly upon the delicate forested environment in which it is sited.  RUA: To create an architectural environment capable of inspiring a sense of human belonging within the indigenous forest; and to encourage an understanding and custodianship for this environment.  TORU: To incorporate storytelling design elements into architecture to encourage the telling of oral histories; and to re-imagine the tale of suspended cities through contemporary architectural intervention.  WHA: To create an anthropomorphic architecture that expresses itself as a living part of the forest; and to express, through built form, the narrative of the vibrant wildlife that once existed in this environment.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Architecture (Professional)

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

University Library

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Alternative Language


Alternative Title

Octavia and Te Pā Rākau

Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Architecture


Brown, Daniel