Contemporary PNG Architecture and some initial thoughts on design

By Emmanuel Narokobi

In a past post I made a small mention of active architects in the 70’s (and 80’s) and how they drew inspiration and influence from their surroundings to create their works. One of them who I’ve been emailing lately due to my latest interest in PNG architecture has been Ken Costigan.

I caught up with him this afternoon for a short chat before his trip back to Brisbane, but a little about him first. Ken Costigan is a 1999 Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) award winner. As mentioned on the RAIA website, “his award came from over two decades of work to develop architecture for Papua New Guinea which takes seriously the country’s evolving culture, climate, resources and dual economy. His work has involved hundreds of building projects, training programs, material production and the development of innovative construction management. His work was intended to create architecture that was accessible to ordinary citizens.

A recent example of this approach is the Brown House near Rabaul. Designed through extensive client consultation, it relates to local architectural traditions, family structures, economic systems and resources. The inland rural site is held under traditional land tenure and is surrounded by coconut plantations, small houses and a school. The house is a series of scattered pavilions used for different purposes. Some are open walled ‘haus wins’ and all have steep roofs with wide overhangs, vented at each end of the gables. Locally harvested timbers and bamboo were assembled in post and rail forms lined with 22mm boards.”

As less developed communities emerge within the growing globalisation phenomenon, it is inevitable that their cultural and design origins are threatened by new technology, foreign economic influences and the overwhelming influence of the “imprinting” inherently carried out by the larger, developed communities on their smaller, less developed neighbours. The recognition of the importance and sustenance provided by the traditional design and crafts in PNG has led a group of architects working in PNG to take seriously the country’s culture, climate, history, materials, human resources and economy, as the country evolves. Their work has focused on finding solutions that reflect realistically on the financial, cultural and physical needs of the ordinary citizen. In resisting the temptation to simply import the solutions concurrently finding favour elsewhere, Ken Costigan, David Week and Iain Stevenson have produced over the last twenty years a body of work which draws from traditional building methods and materials and explores design solutions that reflect an understanding of local cultural priorities.

The success of their efforts and design philosophy is seen in the broad body of work carried out over a long period of time rather than in any one particular project. Their consistent yet evolving design solutions show a convincing celebration of local cultural aspirations, skill and pride. The communities within which they work are, as a result, the richer for it.

Now, when Ken asked me what my interest in Architecture was, I was taken aback somewhat as I hadn’t actually thought it through in my mind before I came to see him. I guess it started with some level of aesthetic appreciation of what you recognise as traditional design and what your tumbuna’s did when building houses and then recognising some of those elements in modern designs around PNG. But to be honest, I’d be hard pressed finding a new building today that incorporates any of these traditional design elements.

There are still examples that we can take inspiration from, for example the Raun Raun Theatre in Goroka which was designed by Rex Addison and Paul Frame and was completed in 1982. Basically what they did was take a traditional village Round Haus, then they upscaled the entire design while using the same materials.

On another design, from another ARIA award winner, have a look at James Birrell’s designs for the PNGBC building (now BSP) and the PNG Development Bank.


Even outside of PNG, Australia’s Pritzker Prize winning architect, Glenn Murcutt has been influenced by PNG. So I gotta ask, what happened? Both aesthetically and architecturally, why did the innovations stop? Maybe on a small scale they have continued, but with the number of large grey blocks going up, is it any more expensive to design something appealing to our senses and their budgets?

Ken and I rambled on about many other things, but his question about what my interest was in architecture got me thinking more about design. Maybe I need to write more about it on this blog, maybe I could host an exhibition of past work or maybe organise a series of talks by people like Ken to discuss ‘effective’ design for PNG. I’m still thinking about this and not sure yet how I want to express my thoughts about this subject.

Consequently though, I’ve also come to realise that architectural design will just be one part of a whole lot of different areas where design and innovations can not only add to aesthetics but to possibly cheaper projects, better living and maybe less ‘imprinting’. For example most people have heard about the Bougainville Coconut Fuel story and so its other areas of design like this, besides architecture, that makes you wonder whether a better PNG can be built through better design?


NB: Read Also ‘Touch the Earth Lightly‘. A post on architect Glenn Murcutt.

11 thoughts on “Contemporary PNG Architecture and some initial thoughts on design

  1. I agree, it would be wonderful to hear from PNG architects who have assisted and learned new techniques with their own designs along side expatriat architects. I’d love to hear about their contribution and ideas for future innovation and design for ‘a better PNG’… I am currently writing a paper on contemporary artists in PNG, architects are artists in their own right and I would really love to get in touch with a local architect who is passionate about making a change with their new design for a more sustainble environment. Best, Tali

  2. Hey Tali, certainly Architects are artists, but I imagine its more a question of what the clients want perhaps…but will let you know if I come across any inspiring architects

  3. Yeah guys I understand what are saying and thats true. I’m a 4th year student at unitech doing my degree and am very interested in trying to come up wit a concept or idea in trying to blend our own traditional architecture wit modern styles and methods of construction. but the thing is the cultural ideals of our traditions makes it really hard. take the parliament house for example. haus tambaran blo ol sepik wit stronge cultural background and it is serving as the big house for png. ethnically to me it is wrong. I think to abstract a traditional architectural type the building must also meet the cultural taboos it. But once some one comes up with it we can truly call it our own. Hybrid architecture if I may say so!

    1. Hi Derreck,

      Thanks for your input and glad to hear that you are thinking of these issues.

      Tell us what would your dream design be?

      And could you explain abit more about the cultural taboos to designing from a traditional source?

  4. Thank you Emmanuel as this has been a favourite topic of mine! With the amount of investment in construction in all areas of PNG and the inherent creative nature of Papua New Guineans it is almost criminal that so little creative content makes it into our daily environment.

    I’m inclined to think that, as with many artistic mediums, it takes courage to step outside of the norm and many of the decision makers briefing and signing off on developments and designs are thinking purely of functionality.

    It was confirmed last year that legislation is still in place that demands 1% of total development spend on government properties be invested in arts. I believe it may be in the architectural design, like the PNGBC/BSP building or internally but the enforcement of such an allocation would go a long way in positively altering the community. I would love to hear Ken Costigan’s views and thoughts and would suggest maybe Chamber of Commerce breakfast or some similar function to access the senior business/development community may get a healthier discussion going.

  5. thanks Emmanuel for those thought provoking coments. its a challenge to PNGn architects to step up and showcase our multicultural heritage in build form and also showing functionality.

  6. Thanks Emmanuel. Love the topic. Could the fact that only a handful of people have jumped on board and commented on this story since 2009 be a reflection of how important it is to the public? Even your learned friends??? I hope not.

    I think one of the problems may lie in the way Architecture is taught in PNG. I didn’t study in PNG (I studied Arch in Brisbane) so I can’t comment but I do know that there is an Architectural Heritage Centre at UniTech that gets next to no funding and contains an amazing archive documenting our architectural heritage. Though there is one very dedicated woman working there who is digitally copying the archive, the process is long and slow and only happens when there is funding for it. In the meantime unique and rare documents of buildings that don’t exist anymore are deteriorating possibly to be lost forever. What message is that sending our Architecture students?

    1. Hi Stephanie, unfortunately I don’t think its on allot of developers minds. Most people I know that build a more concerned about return on their investments. A case in point you should see the colour of the paint they use for some building and houses.

      But on a building regulation point of view, if we can’t effectively regulate land sales and building regulations right now, there’s no hope in trying to incorporate heritage listed buildings. Again our old Parliament House is another great example of that.

      I’ve noted however that the Super funds are making some effort to incorporate some history into their architecture but no one has taken it head on in a bold direction. I think the Government building you worked on in Brisbane CBD was an interesting piece of architecture. How does that come about? Is it the influence from the Government or random individuals in management at the time?

      1. Yes – developers are driven by the bottom line – they are in the business of making money usually not iconic buildings. Governments are most often the clients who want iconic buildings to put their town “on the map” (tourism) – ie. Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.

        In the case of the State Library of Queensland (which I think you were referring to my involvement in) and the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, the then State Government wanted to extend the existing cultural precinct with iconic buildings that defined Queensland. They held a design competition and many leading architectural practices from around the world entered. In the end Australian architectural practices were selected.

        Both buildings are considered by the “architecture world” as excellent examples of sub-tropical Australian architecture, a “style” that the Architects you mentioned earlier – Rex Addison, Russell Hall and James Birrell helped to establish along with others.

        Australian architects looking to produce buildings that are appropriate to sub-tropical environments have been inspired and influenced by the architectural traditions of the Pacific (including PNG) and Asia and particularly Japan. They are specifically drawn to buildings that reflect the cultural traditions and climatic conditions of their location.

        As Port Moresby (for example) is a small city with the potential for a lot of growth, there is a great opportunity to develop stronger building regulations to ensure the built environment evolves in a more culturally and climatically appropriate direction.

        I’m not an expert in all this. It would be so wonderful to have a lecture series in PNG with guest speakers from around the world who are involved in developing, for lack of a better word, post-colonial architecture. Something like this could stimulate a contemporary Papua New Guinean architectural “style” and the flow on effect could be more support for more effective building regulations.

  7. Great piece Emmanuel. Yes Ken Costigan is an inspiration to some of us who were fortunate enough to have a masterclass with him in Architect school (Unitech) Much of what you mentioned about his contemporary PNG style Architecture was actually the basis of our education back then. As soon as I started practing I realised that most of what we learned under people like Ken may not necessarily the trend in our current building industry. The change was spurred by certain factors:
    1. Cost. If only clients in PNG were prepared to spend that extra buck, then that contemporary PNG style of design can be showcased in more modern buildings. Our economy plays an important role.
    2. Outside influence: Like most other things, modern PNG buildings are influenced by international architecture
    3. Foreign firms are doing a majority of the design and project management work.
    4. In the the end, the developer or client has the last say.
    Several times, I have been part of a team workedon several projects that started off as traditionally iconic buildings or a mixture of modern and contemporary but ended up being a box with makeup due to these factors.

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