Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel commissioned internationally renowned architects Kengo Kuma and Associates to design his controversial lakefront hideout in Wānaka. Choosing Kengo Kuma – a practice renowned for its careful consideration of context and materiality – seems surprising. Kuma’s modest design ethic comes in stark contrast to Thiel’s futuristic and libertarian fantasies. Still, the decision to acquire a computer scientist of such caliber for the project mimics the velvet glove, an iron fist tactic previously used by Thiel to gain citizenship in 2011. Although the commissioning of Kengo Kuma and Associates does not quite have the taste of the Bolsonaro-Bjarke Ingels Saga, it still exudes a complex mixture of arrogance, sincerity and naivety.
Misconceptions about Aotearoa’s comparative isolation from the rest of the world continue to spread both locally and internationally. Like all good myths, this tale contains a bizarre combination of eccentric protagonists and takes place in an idyllic setting – a setting that provides the nation with a childlike sense of security in times of global fragmentation. This myth of isolation sells well in the ideas market and has drawn a number of prominent figures to the shores of the “Pacific playground”.
Thiel bought the 193 hectares of lakefront land in Damper Bay, near Wānaka, in 2015. Speculation around Thiel’s intentions peaked at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic in 2020, with many people wondering what the billionaire was planning to do with the site. However, conjecture around the construction of bunkers diminished after reports surfaced that Thiel was choosing to wait for the pandemic at his seaside home in Maui.
Until, that is, late August, when Thiel’s company, Second Star Limited, submitted a resource consent request which has since been publicly notified by Queenstown Lakes District Council. Although the conceptual drawings for the application, as notified, are by Kengo Kuma and Associates, it appears that local landscape architecture firm Rough and Milne will act as the field liaison for the project. The project is made up of a series of free-standing buildings that appear to be seductively hiding in the polarizing landscape. Like most of Aotearoa’s farmland, the Damper Bay site is subject to the usual fragmentation and disorientation that accompanies the colonial project. The proposal was instantly opposed by local custodians, the Upper Clutha Environment Society, whose founder extinguished attempts by previous owners to build on the Damper Bay site. The Company says that residents who visit these “busy public places will be assaulted by a large number of buildings spread out laterally on the site in question.” Here we find local nimbyism disguised as eco-conscious stewardship; while sovereign seclusion tries to camouflage itself in a humble idealism.
On a lighter note, one band had unlimited influence on the project. Any self-respecting Kiwi will be quick to point out the project’s affinity with Hobbiton’s grassland-like mounds. Like the popular tourist attraction of Matamata, the proposal is made up of a series of unique pods that blend into “bumpy hill landforms”. Spread over two levels, the main lodge is home to four Guest Pods and is equipped with all the luxuries needed to await the collapse of the welfare state. The lodge itself can accommodate up to 24 people, while the Owner’s Pod – offered north of the lodge buildings – provides asylum for six. The relatively small meditation pod is found closest to the lakeside, inside a small ravine in the northeastern part of the site. All the pods undergo a similar formal treatment: a Gaussian curvature with an additional green roof.
“In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit. Not a dirty, dirty, damp hole, filled with worm tips and the smell of suet, nor a dry, bare, sandy hole, with nothing in it to sit on or eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort. (JRRTolkien – The Hobbit).
Kuma’s – and, by proxy, Rough and Milne’s concept for Thiel’s Burrow has a lot in common with a variety of contemporary buildings in Aotearoa. The project strives to achieve a topographical integration with an “organic architecture that blends into the landscape and respects native nature”. Much like Architecture Workshop’s Lindis Lodge, the design ripples both horizontally and vertically, in an attempt to establish a symbiotic relationship with the scenic views of the site – the same views used to continue to promote the ‘purity’ of the site. Aotearoa in the world. Effusive descriptions of the project’s relationship with the site and the surrounding landscape are common in architectural discourse in Aotearoa. The trope of an architecture that blends into its surrounding landscape is also a common theme in Kuma’s work and is something the director and his overall 200-year practice is often highly regarded for.
And yet, this so-called “organic architecture” is not perceived as true “nature” by those on the other side of the fence. The Upper Clutha Environment Society said, “The development is likely to cause significant negative physical changes in the appearance of the natural landscape when viewed from nearby public places. Here, the age-old narrative of an external “nature” is instrumentalized both by local community pressure groups and by the architect and their representatives. Meanwhile, the continued quest for ecological interrelation is further clouded by the ideologies of a client who shamelessly sees himself as an autonomous individual capable of bending nature to his will. In his citizenship application, Thiel said he had found “no other country that more closely matches my vision for the future than New Zealand.”
Ultimately, this continued quest for a self-sustaining community – whether it’s a breech hole in Wānaka or a lot on Barrier – perpetuates mythical tropes of nationality that continue to limit the ability to ‘Aotearoa to respond to the challenges of the present. It would seem that it is not only architecture that needs to reframe its fetishization of the landscape, but society as a whole. We must fight collectively for a form of mutual interdependence. The one that allows us to criticize and modify the spaces in which we are anchored and which are, in turn, anchored in us.