THE BLOG
12/06/2010 11:29 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Live-by-Design" Wholeheartedly

I just came across a video recording of a talk by Dr. Brene Brown, Ph. D., a social worker-researcher-author, exploring the meaning of vulnerability.

I watched and took notes. Dr. Brown argued that it takes courage to accept ourselves for who we are, to feel compassion -- not shame -- for ourselves. She insisted that it takes courage to accept ourselves with all our flaws and to say: I am enough. She explained that being vulnerable made us beautiful.

As I internalized this information and mentally applied Dr. Brown's approach to my own life, I started wondering if vulnerability is something that can be addressed and expressed with architecture. I had my answer the following day when Rebecca Rickman shared images of her family's voyage to explore Tjibaou Cultural Center in Noumea by Renzo Piano with me.

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Photograph courtesy of Rebecca Rickman

Authenticity. Italian architect Renzo Piano sees architecture as an opportunity to design "...buildings that breathe with, work with, and make use of nature so that it's not just architecture-as-usual plus a bit of green on top."

When the Renzo Piano Workshop won an international competition to design the Tjibaou Cultural Center in Noumea, a Pacific island territory in New Caledonia, the goal was to recognize and honor the culture of the Kanak, the indigenous people of the land.

It is named after Jean Marie Tjibaou, a philosopher and former leader of the Kanak Socialist Liberation Front who was assassinated in New Caledonia in 1989 while leading the fight for his country's autonomy from the French government. After the assassination of Tjibaou, François Mitterrand, then French President, agreed to construct the Cultural Centre as the only Grand Project to be built outside of France.

Vulnerability. Renzo Piano wholeheartedly designed a building that represents a culture in its vulnerability, exposed and accepted the way it is. Based on the shape of the traditional Kanak ceremonial "Great" houses, the ten structures comprising The Center belong to the landscape.

Opened-up and left as if unfinished, they are connected by a long, gently curving enclosed walkway, reminiscent of the ceremonial alley of the traditional Kanak village. This meandering path is lined with "mythological" gardens.

The gardens affirm the prevalence of Kanak culture as the Tjibaou Cultural Center by Renzo Piano carries history and mythology that have been around for 3,000 years into the modern day.

Connection. The Center's cultural director, Emmanuel Kasarherou explains: "You can read the landscape if you know it. Our history is not in books; it's just in the knowledge of people and in the landscape."

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Photograph courtesy of Rebecca Rickman

The first garden encountered upon entering is centered on a pond representing birth, origin of clans, and origin of the world. The plants here are the ones used for traditional medicine.
Up ahead, two gardens, one with plants grown by the women and the other -- with plants grown by the men, are combined to represent, according to Emmanuel Kasarherou, "...a kind of reciprocity, a kind of balance between both."

The third garden is all about the plants used around the house. It symbolizes "the organization of humanity into families." The next one deals with the relationship between the visible and the invisible worlds. The last one is the garden of rebirth.

Courage. It seems to me that this building is an appropriate metaphor for vulnerability, as defined by Dr. Brown, no? Just like a human being is wired for constant struggle, it addresses the prevailing winds on the site, which is located on a peninsula between the storm-tossed Pacific Ocean and a calm lagoon. Just like a human being, the building asserts its worthiness to belong wholeheartedly.

Its outer cladding is designed to filter the ocean wind by employing horizontal wood slats composed of iroko wood (a type of wood that is impervious to rot and can withstand cyclone-force winds). In addition, it is equipped with a second layer of skin, an inner façade of glass louvers which open or close according to wind speed, allowing wind to flow through the building for passive ventilation.

Here, the architecture is courageously embracing the world without guarantees. It endeavors to tell the story inspired by one of the important teachings of Jean Marie Tjibaou whose belief that our identity is beyond us -- not behind us -- just beyond, implying that culture is always unpredictable, in the "process of becoming," always unfolding, created day by day is at the core of joy and gratitude.