The Task of the Translator
Humanity’s relentless lust for precious resources hidden within the surface of the Earth has resulted in countless scars and derelict landscapes. In the modern age, many sites are remediated, yet some have become so damaged during the lifespan of industry that they cannot return back to their original state. Aotearoa/New Zealand is seen globally as a pristine nation. As one of the last major land masses to be discovered by humans, it escaped much of the exploitation that the rest of the world experienced prior to the Industrial Revolution. Māori lived as one with the land, but the arrival of the European saw the initiation of mass exploitation of this sacred land and its resources.
Many post-industrial sites within Aotearoa/New Zealand have slowly returned back to their natural state due to abandonment. Yet as technology progresses and our ability to terraform advances, many of these scars have become too deep to ever fully heal. These scars are the focus of this thesis, intervening with architecture as the catalyst for change by allowing future generations to observe and learn from their ancestors’ mistakes. The township of Waihi, at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula, has a mining history spanning three centuries. Here, the land has been inexorably violated in the search for gold and silver. Waihi is thus the site for this design-led research investigation. Mining operations here will continue till 2035, where the landscape will then begin a stage of rehabilitation. This investigation proposes that by integrating architecture into these rehabilitation efforts, an ‘afterlife’ can emerge for the scars and memories of the area, allowing stories of the changing landscape to be remembered long into the future.
Geographic layers of history build up over time, from prehistoric through precolonial to post-industrial. Each layer is a transformation from the previous, creating chronotopes of time and space. In his essay “The Task of the Translator”, Walter Benjamin maintains that translation is an active and aggressive process that challenges the purity and unity of the original. In doing so, the translator takes advantage of the internal conflict of languages and their state of flux in order to recreate them. The task of the architect in post-colonial contexts can often be compared with the task of the translator—carrying out a critical mediation between a vast diversity of cultural elements, often antagonistic, in an attempt to produce adequate spaces to satisfy the needs of specific societies and cultural groups. Employing translation theory in the realm of architecture opens a dialogue in the translation existing as an ‘afterlife’ emerging from the original.
When applied to architectural theory this investigation may begin to interpret a unique and meaningful intervention for the ‘afterlife’ of post-industrial landscapes affected by mining in Waihi. An important coalescence of the historic mining industry and local Māori oral histories will inform the narrative of the sites, engaging in a dialectic and responding to alternative narratives of the heritage that shaped the site context. Using Benjamin’s essay as a framework to begin this thesis, the investigation asks the question: How can the histories of a scarred landscape be translated through an architectural narrative to inform and restore memory for the present and future? This research investigation proposes that architecture can activate voids left by industry in narrative ways that can enhance a visitor’s understanding of the place and its turbulent past. Jerome Bruner, senior research fellow at New York University, outlines a foundation by which to develop a successful narrative. Jacques Derrida, French philosopher and a major figure associated with the development of deconstruction, connects translation theory with the realm ofarchitecture and unveils further possibilities. Juhani Pallasmaa, architect and former professor at the Helsinki University of Technology, focuses heavily on how memory creates ‘place’ and how this can inform an imagined future in relation to the built environment. Leading heritage architect Jennifer Hill describes how preserving visible scars in a landscape can provide an affordance for a site’s ongoing translation over time, contributing to the overall narrative of ‘place’. Robin Evans, architect and architectural historian explores the architectural drawing through translation, and Catherine Hamel, associate professor at the University of Calgary, focuses on the use of drawing as confrontation and how this allows a visual dialectic to form between varying methods of representation.
This thesis proposes to integrate theoretical arguments from each of these theorists in a design-led research investigation designed to rehabilitate a historically scarred settlement. In the thesis, a communication between narrative and translation will be established in order to revitalise the place’s identity. It will also fill the social and economic voids left by the industrial processes and find a benevolent approach to guide Waihi into the future.