Though Bougainville Island has been settled for tens of thousands of years, the past century has undoubtedly been its most turbulent. Claimed by various European empires as well as Australia, it briefly fell into the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War before Australia took hold once more. When Papua New Guinea laid claim in 1975 a civil war soon erupted and the troubles lasted for over 20 years. In 1997 New Zealand acted as mediator and the peaceful resolution, which came to be resulted in some autonomy for the island. Mr Pip, the internationally acclaimed novel by New Zealander Lloyd Jones later made into a movie of the same name, is set to that civil war. The Kiwi connection is further cemented thanks to a library designed by Wellington architect Paul Kerr-Hislop and built with the help of Kiwi carpenter Barry Binding.
“There was a certain distrust towards any western influence because of that history,” says Paul. “We had to tread very carefully to ensure that the project was seen for exactly what it was: a gift from New Zealand to the people of Bougainville to try to help them heal from that terrible conflict.”
The project was funded by donations to the Bougainville Library Trust, founded by Lloyd Jones. Paul, a friend of the author, donated a lot of his time for free. “The people were very aware of the book, and even more so the film,” says the architect. “Lloyd had insisted the movie be shot on location and there are some remnants still there such as the old colonial house where the character Mr Watts lived. There are people living in it now, which is quite incongruous, but it’s a nice reminder of what went on.”
You couldn’t just plonk an air conditioned western style library there… It (the Library) had to be sympathetic to their culture, their way of life
Paul describes the location as a “Paradise Lost”, one that takes two days to reach. “Bougainville’s an unusual place,” he says. “Such a long way from anywhere. I never saw anyone who was overweight. There is no fast food, very few motor vehicles, so a lot of people walk. There’s an open fresh fruit and veg market
at Arawa, all local produce. It’s quite wonderful, but the locals don’t see it like that of course. They see it as being deprived of all the wonderful things that the west has to offer.”
The locals played a massive part in the project which was completed in 2013. Builder Barry Binding was already residing on the island working for the Volunteer Service Abroad and had set up a local carpentry school. “Barry was a very successful builder in New Zealand, but he decided to spend a number of years
helping those on the island,” says Paul. “It was a marriage made in heaven as we had all these youngsters he’d trained helping to build the library. They were all more than up to the task.” Paul had never before designed a building for tropical climes and he relished the challenge.
“It’s such a foreign environment,” he says. “But there are certain principles you follow that are fairly fool-proof, such as allowing for plenty of air flowing through the building. So long as you get those right, it should work. And it does. The building was beautifully executed by Barry and his team.” Having the community on-side was fundamental to the success of the entire project, which, says Paul, would probably have been burnt to the ground if deemed inappropriate. “It had to be sympathetic to their culture, their way of life,” he
adds. “You couldn’t just plonk an air conditioned western style library there. The locals decorating the outside with the bamboo screens was the tour de force that really made it belong to that area.”
It was satisfying to see people from the whole island come together and work in harmony. “Mr Pip was based around Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations,” says Paul, “and I suppose there were great expectations of what the library will could achieve. It’s still early days and we will see if it does achieve that. I certainly hope that it does.”