The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 281-284
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Ethnologie et Architecture: Le Centre Culturel Tjibaou, une réalisation de Renzo Piano
Ethnologie et Architecture: Le Centre Culturel Tjibaou, une réalisation de Renzo Piano, by Alban Bensa. Paris: Adam Biro, 2000. ISBN 2-87660-240-7; 202 pages, photos, sketches, notes, bibliography, index. 290 French francs; US$40.
This is a very fine work by Alban Bensa, an anthropologist at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, who has specialized in New Caledonia over the past thirty years. While the book might easily adorn a coffee table, being full of glossy photographs (150 in 200 pages) on high-quality paper, its contents reveal that it is also worthy of a rather different destination.
In 1990, Bensa's book La Nouvelle-Calédonie: Un paradis dans la tourmente appeared in a popular series by the French publisher Gallimard. The work came to the attention of the Italian architect Renzo Piano just as he was about to tender for the construction of a cultural center in Noumea. This project had first been evoked in the Matignon Accords in 1988 and given further impetus following the assassination, a year later, of one of the signatories of those accords, the independence leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou. Unfamiliar with the Pacific, Piano invited Bensa to be part of his team, which successfully bid for the project, and for the next seven years the author played a leading role as consultant.
This association with Piano represented for Alban Bensa "a new opportunity to carry forward the political struggle on the cultural and symbolical front where Jean-Marie Tjibaou had so wished it could also develop" (175). The author here situates himself [End Page 281] firmly in the tradition of Tjibaou's Union Calédonienne, promoting the primacy of cultural over political "action" (against, for instance, the more politically radical line of PALIKA, another of the groups making up the FLNKS), that is, that culture is the art of politics by another name. Indeed, one of the features of Ethnologie et Architecture is the constant cross-referencing of the traditional-modern dichotomy with political considerations, which is also a way of deconstructing such a dichotomy.
Architecture here requires anthropology to confront history. Bensa mistrusts the past as such, as being a place to which "prehistoric" Kanaks are relegated in the long tradition of banishing them from the present. The project had to avoid the twin traps of reconstituting a traditional Kanak village, which would have been necessarily picturesque and kitsch--the "regionalist replica"--and the construction of a purely European building--the "functionalist credo" (162).
This "Promethean challenge" in Piano's words (200), is solidly and largely successfully taken on by Bensa in this book. For him, anthropology is engaged dynamically, with no essentialist view of culture. The ethnographer and the architect are in his eyes both translators, with all translation involving interpretation, that is "symbolisation" (181) and reformulation. In this perspective, social formations project into the future, meaning that their relation to time, that is, history, is constitutive of their identity--or as Jean-Marie Tjibaou put it, "our identity lies ahead of us."
The book is divided into ten chapters beginning with a potted historical and ethnographical description of New Caledonia's Melanesians, from their migration from southeast Asia some three thousand years ago through to the 1990 s via the devastating effects of European colonization. There are also an introduction and a conclusion followed by a transcribed French radio interview with Bensa and Piano.
The backbone of the work, however, is a presentation of and reflection on the buildings, the site, and the garden of the Tjibaou Cultural Centre and their place in the Kanak world, as well as in New Caledonian society generally. This produces some very sensitive and detailed analyses and much inspired and beautiful writing, in a "manifest desire to exalt the Kanak universe" (156), reminiscent (despite Bensa himself, no doubt) of pages from Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques. Some of the...