Bula! Planning and heritage on Fiji

Bula! Greetings from Fiji

Karin Taylor, CHF Trustee writes...

It’s four years since I was last in Suva, and, despite the interruptions of a global pandemic and life 10,000 miles away, it suddenly doesn’t seem that long! I’m back with the National Trust of Fiji (NTF) for a month, but also this time representing the Commonwealth Heritage Forum (CHF).  I’ll be finding out and talking about all things Planning and Heritage. It was good to return to the NTF offices in Ma’afu Street and to meet up once again with Elizabeth Erasito, the Director.  We’ve been in touch remotely many times over the past four years, but there’s nothing like meeting face-to-face.  And there’s a lot to catch up on!

I spent Monday settling in and acclimatizing (it’s rainy season again…) and, since I’m staying in a much more central location this time, I was able to walk into the city centre to see what had changed.  The answer was not much, but some of what had changed was pretty obvious.  The huge tower block under construction at the rear of the NTF offices is still under construction but, I suppose, being positive, it looks marginally better in its near-finished state than how it looked four years ago.  It remains a huge geopolitical statement in the governmental quarter of Suva.  The ”Chinese Tower” as it’s called locally, has now been joined though by another tower block, being built rather more rapidly.  Suva’s bid to go high-rise proceeds at some pace…

Here’s a “spot the difference” challenge for all you Planners; it’s not hard…

Left Feb. 2020 and right Feb. 2024.

The Government Buildings with their clock tower are Protected Buildings.  They were built in the Colonial era after the capital of Fiji was moved from Levuka, on Ovalau Island, to Suva which is on the south eastern side of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island.  The buildings are still in active use by the Government today, and the park in the foreground, Albert Park, is a popular and well-used sports ground including – unsurprisingly – for rugby.

Whereas on my last visit I was staying in a pleasant northern suburb of Suva, this time I’m at a B&B very close to the NTF offices.  It’s a family home owned by an Anglo-Fijian couple, Harry and Litia, and the other three guests are all working in Suva, for the United Nations and the IMF.  This makes for fascinating conversations over breakfast and supper, on subjects ranging from international debt to climate resilience, and already I’ve made some interesting connections.  A chat about buildings insurance problems in a small island developing state (SIDS) made me think about the relevance of this to sustainable development and conservation in coastal communities such as Levuka (a World Heritage Site), where a recently-restored and NTF-owned building fell down during a particularly severe cyclone a couple of years ago.  There’s no money to rebuild it.

Traditional Fijian homes in villages such as Navala, which I visited in 2020, are built from natural materials, which can be blown away during storms – but quickly and relatively easily and cheaply rebuilt using skills handed down through generations.  The Government were encouraging people to rebuild their homes using more durable materials such as concrete blocks, but is it better during a cyclone to have palm leaves and other thatching materials blowing around, or sheets of corrugated iron?   Plenty to think about in terms of what comprises sustainable and resilient development.

Navala (left) and Lavena (right), 2020.

One of the purposes of my current visit is to progress a CHF-funded initiative to establish two one-year posts for young built environment professionals with NTF, and one of the ideas Elizabeth and I have been talking about that these postholders could help with is researching the current resource and geographical extent of traditional bures and their associated building skills, and working on ideas to develop appropriate sustainable building methods that would increase climate resilience whilst maintaining the local character that the residents of Navala and other traditional villages are rightly so proud of.

Then there are other issues like the appropriate planning and management of the Levuka WHS, for which NTF and Elizabeth along with other agencies are currently working on an audit of the WHS with a view to revisiting the management of this important place in Fiji’s more recent history.  More of that anon.  There’s going to be plenty to keep me busy!

Talofa Samua!

 The other guests at my accommodation at Fale Yau have international roles which involve travel around the South Pacific – Hawaii, Vanuatu, The Soloman Islands, Nauru, Niue, PNG*, FSM*… and last week I had the chance to go off on an adventure of my own, having been asked by the Commonwealth Heritage Forum to go on a fact-finding trip to Samoa.  We had little awareness of the situation in respect of historic/heritage buildings there, either colonial or traditional.  With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Ministers meeting (CHOGM) due to take place in Samoa in October this year, and the King attending, all eyes will be turning to this small island nation.

I travelled from Suva back to Nadi to catch a Fiji Airways flight to Apia, the capital of Samoa which is on Upolu, the larger of the two islands that comprise western Samoa – the eastern islands having been ceded to the USA and now being known as American Samoa.

On arriving at the airport at Fale’ula, a few miles west of the capital Apia, I was impressed by the large, new-looking airport terminal with a roofline based on characteristic Samoan buildings could fale.  (I subsequently found out however that two large, actual fale had been demolished to make way for the new building.)  As soon as we started driving away from the airport I saw innumerable fale dotted around – it seemed as though every house had a fale in its front garden, taking the garden gazebo to a new level.  Indeed, the ever-informative taxi driver explained to me that Samoans live in family or extended family groups within villages; each family has its fale which fulfils a whole range of purposes from hosting weddings or village meetings, to drying the washing – the latter function being aided by their characteristically open sides.  Additionally, each village will also often have a larger, communal fale, perhaps next to the church – and there are a lot of churches.  Whilst the large fale were roofed with corrugated iron, or in the case of the very big structures with roofs shaped like upturned ship’s hulls, timber shingles, I noticed many small fale with palm frond thatching – which I assumed was the traditional roofing material for fale of all sizes.

Large village fale (left) and a small fale used as a bus stop (right).

For the first two days of my visit I was fortunate in that the weather was fine – though hot, very hot, and humid.  My first priority was to visit Villa Vailima, the former home of Robert Louis Stevenson, who settled in Apia with his American wife Fanny after they concluded their travels around the south seas.  A beautiful, South Pacific plantation-style house, it was painted gleaming white – Fanny’s choice, apparently to remind her of California.  Robert Louis would have preferred to paint it peacock blue, the favourite colour of the Samoans.  Stevenson, or Tusitala, “Teller of Tales”, as he was known, was regarded with great fondness by the local people, and on his death they honoured his wish to be buried at the top of Mount Faia, a jungle-clad hill overlooking Villa Vailima.

After my visit to Villa Vailima I explored Apia, hoping to discover a wealth of colonial era buildings, only to find that very little remains.  Apart from an old timber building accommodating the Police dog management unit, a small number of old commercial and warehouse units, a department store and the Clock Tower (there’s always a clock tower!) very little appeared to remain apart from churches.

During my visit I met two academics from the University of Samoa, Dionne Fomoti and Mohammed Sahib, who explained that there is no mechanism for protecting historic buildings in Samoa, and that if a building is no longer appropriate for its use, has no current use, falls into disrepair and is considered unsightly, it tends to be summarily demolished.  This happened recently to the former Courthouse building on the waterfront – still marked on my visitor map as the Old Courthouse and Museum. Despite being on the World Monuments Fund Watch List, this was demolished in March 2020, leaving vacant, rough ground now used as a police HQ car park in prime position close to the Cathedral, the Visitor Centre and the cruise ship dock. This is what all eyes will see when visitors arrive from all across the Commonwealth in October. It would have made a lovely hotel, restaurant or craft centre.

The former Courthouse; photo: Samoa Observer.

In five days I only scratched the surface of this beautiful country. Despite the feeling that most remaining commercial, residential and administrative buildings from the colonial era are doomed, I was encouraged that Samoans are firmly rooted in their traditional settlements, which suit their needs well, and that the skills associated with building fale are very much alive. Their churches, many of which are historic, are maintained and cherished, and their plots and open areas are beautifully kept, litter-free and planted with all manner of scented tropical plants and fruit trees.  The taxi drivers emphasized that Samoans are peaceful and happy people and they are very excited about the prospect of the King’s visit.

* PNG: Papua New Guinea; FSM: Federated States of Micronesia

The Clock Tower, Apia.        

Heritage Buildings in the Governmental Area of Suva

One of my objectives for this trip was to make a photographic record as part of an audit of Protected Buildings in Suva, with this work hopefully to be followed up by the new Training Champion that we are hoping to appoint through the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Commonwealth Heritage Skills Training Programme, administered by the Commonwealth Heritage Forum and to be hosted by the National Trust of Fiji (NTF).  The weather however has not been kind – not only is it cyclone season, but it’s an El Niño year.  Many of the photos I’ve taken so far therefore have a rather cloudy background rather than the bright blue sky I would have hoped for. As I write this, it’s absolutely pouring down outside.

It's been interesting to compare the condition of the Protected Buildings now, with what I saw four years ago. Generally there has been little change – which is both good and bad. A number have been subject to some radical proposals for their modernisation and re-use, plans which have not gone ahead – which is good from the heritage point of view! There is still no information readily available to the interested visitor about Suva’s history and heritage, but happily this is changing; NTF has developed a Heritage Trail with an associated leaflet, and is currently commissioning a series of descriptive panels to be placed in prominent locations in the city centre, explaining the areas’ histories and describing notable buildings, both past and present.

One building that attracted my attention back in 2020 was the old boys’ grammar school building, St Stephen’s.  It was empty and was the subject of radical modernisation plans, possibly to create a National Art Gallery. Happily, less destructive refurbishment work has now commenced, still with the aim of creating a national centre for art.  

(Left) The former Suva Boys’ Grammar (St Stephen’s). (Right) The former Suva Girls’ Grammar School.

The former Girls’ Grammar School building, a little distance away in Selbourne Street, is in commercial use, but in a deteriorating condition.

St Stephen’s is just one of a number of buildings dating from the colonial era in this part of Suva.  Suva only became the capital of Fiji in 1882, replacing Levuka on the island of Ovalau.

Many of the buildings remaining from the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century were built for the purposes of government and administration, commerce, accommodation and recreation and a number, such as the Government Buildings, the Grand Pacific Hotel, South Seas Hotel, Mercury House (Fintel Building) and the Carnegie Library, still retain their original uses. State House, formerly the Governor’s Residence, is a splendid building set in extensive grounds overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and is now the President’s residence.  It adjoins Thurston Gardens, the former botanical garden and the original site of the first settlement of Suva, which was moved to the west of the city in order to make way for the new colonial capital.

The Carnegie Library, next to St Stephen’s on Victoria Parade, opened in 1909 and additional wings were added to its classical frontage in 1929 and 1930.  Named after the Scottish-born American philanthropist who financed its construction, it is now run by Suva City Council.

Just north of the Carnegie Library is the Old Town Hall building, with its characteristic galleried frontage, now housing restaurants.

(Left) The President's Residence (Centre) The Carnegie Library (Right) The Old Town Hall.

The Grade A protected art deco Government Buildings themselves still dominate this part of Suva – although the prominence of the old Clock Tower is now rivalled by the tower block that was (and is still) under construction in 2020, and also by a further tall block being built nearby (see photos in my first Diary blog, “Bula!”).

The original buildings were designed by the Chief Colonial Architect, Mr Walter Frederick Hedges, and were completed in 1939, with an additional wing being opened in 1967.  They replaced some timber buildings that had been moved from Levuka to another site nearby in Suva, and were the seat of colonial administration and the Legislative Council of Fiji.

Parliament sat in the buildings from Independence in 1970, with Fiji’s first Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisesi Mara, having his offices there.  After the coup of 1987, a new parliamentary complex was opened a little distance away in Veiuto and was used until the 2006 political upheaval.  Parliament returned to Government Buildings in 2014 after the return to parliamentary democracy. The buildings are set in formal gardens, with statues of two of Fiji’s great leaders, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, and Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau.

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