Te Ahu centre, Kaitaia. Image: Leonie Hayden

‘We want to wear this building to bits’: Te Ahu, the beating heart of Kaitaia

Kaitaia’s Te Ahu centre is a lot of things to a lot of people – a taonga, a service, a symbol of progress, a happy distraction. 

Te Ahu looms large in the relatively small Kaitaia township, but it does so with its arms flung open wide, welcomning you inside. The 2300-square metre complex is a building with purpose and meaning. The new beating heart of Kaitaia, it houses a library, IT service centre, cinema, theatre, art gallery and museum, community hall and banquet room with full service kitchen and courtyard. The coffee at the café is pretty good too.

I meet general manager Mark Osborne on the front steps where he explains that the architecture was designed to the last detail to embrace the different cultures of the area.

“Even this handrail; as functional as it is, it is also symbolic – that’s seven pieces of laminated swamp Kauri. We talk about the seven peoples of this part of the far north coming together as one; so that’s the five iwi, Pākehā and Dalmatian. That’s quite a common theme that you’ll see as we go through the building.”

The Dalmatian influence can be felt far and wide throughout the Far North – migrants came from Croatia and the former Yugoslavia to work in the kauri gum fields at the turn of the 19th century, working side by side with Māori and European migrants. Tri-lingual signs pop up throughout the area.

Osborne points out other design features you might not notice: big steel pillars representing whale bones holding up the whare; the faceted glass representing the lighthouse at Te Rerenga Wairua.

“These pillars are actually arms of embrace, representing the Tasman Sea meeting the Pacific Ocean.”

The sliding doors that welcome you into Te Ahu are particularly impressive – bringing Māori and European together with a handshake and a hongi.

Once inside, you’ll find yourself surround by seven giant pouwhenua, each seven metres tall, as different from each other as the people they represent.

“You have the Pākehā, which is quite traditional. Over here we have the Dalmatian pou. They also or point to the places on the compass which each of the iwi come from. Te Rawara, for example, are to the west and the southwest. To the east and to the southeast is Ngāti Kahu, and then if you go around the top – Ngāi Takoto, Ngāti Kuri and Te Aupouri.”

The pou were completed and installed at different times, with the final Ngāti Kahu pou being revealed this January.

High above suspended in blue, a hundred migrating kūaka are making the long journey home.

“They represent the fact that everybody that’s come to this part of the north has made a journey to get here – be it Pākehā coming up overland from the south, iwi coming in waka, the Dalmatians; everyone’s come from a long way away. The kūaka, or the bar-tailed godwit, is recognised as being one of the longest flying birds; it goes up to Siberia in the autumn and it comes back in the spring to feed.”

Kūaka (bar tailed godwit) migrate to Siberia and back each year. Image: Leonie Hayden

At the heart of the library, a floor to ceiling fibreglass kauri tree towers over the stacks of books, and huge panels telling the story of Māui and his brothers fishing up Te-Ika-a-Māui, the North Island, line the walls. Two children clearly new to the library gaze up with wonder when they see the forest giant

Osborne’s a local boy – raised on the west coast, just south of Ahipara. After the standard OE, he returned to Northland in 2005 and now lives in Taipa with his wife and kids. He says there were other job offers on the table but he wanted to make a difference in the community.

“Back in the mid-2000s, there were a number of community facilities around Kaitaia. As you can see across the way here – the old i-SITE, further on was the museum, up on the next corner was a council service centre, in Melba Street was the library. None of those buildings were really fit for purpose. They were too small, getting older, needed maintenance etc, so the museum trust and council had a conversation together and said, “Well what are we going to do?” There were a number of options obviously; fix up the buildings where they are, expand them where they are, or to do something completely different.”

Te Ahu general manager, Mark Osborne. Image: Leonie Hayden

The Te Ahu Charitable Trust was born and formalised in 2007. The first job was to raise funds. “We pulled together about $14 million which gave us the opportunity to do up the existing building.”

He says the idea moved towards a single multifunctional community facility. A number of locations were considered including a park across the road, but they settled on the old community centre at the entrance to town, which was absorbed into the new building.

“It was a hell of a rollercoaster, blood, sweat and tears no doubt. I remember chugging along quite nicely, then getting the first negative letter to the editor about it and just thinking, ‘how could someone not think that this is the most wonderful thing for Kaitaia?’ Through to death threats! You’ve got a town with a population of 5000 people, a catchment of 20,000 people; you build something like this, there’s always going to be someone who thinks their rates are going to go up…”

Three mayors and three CEOs came and went throughout the construction of Te Ahu. And then in 2011, they opened their doors.

Does he think there’s been a palpable improvement in community life as a result?

“We’re getting massive community participation; 250,000-odd thousand visitors a year. It’s probably one of the, if not the biggest visited facility in the Far North.

“Kaitaia gets some pretty tough press out there, and it does face all of those challenges that other lower socioeconomic poor communities have. Social cohesion and bringing people together in an affordable and appropriate way has been great. I think the cinemas have been great for youth, in terms of giving them something to do. But we’ve still got our challenges, don’t get me wrong – every community does.”

With revenue coming in from tenants, the cinema and the café, and a long term lease on the council and Te Rarawa land it’s built on – Osborne says there’s nothing to do now but use it for all it’s worth.

“We want this building to fall over because of overuse. If we can wear this building to bits, then we’ve done our job.”

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