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Photo: Auckland Council. Design: Archi Banal.
Photo: Auckland Council. Design: Archi Banal.

ĀteaNovember 6, 2023

The new downtown space inspiring Aucklanders to look after Te Waitematā

Photo: Auckland Council. Design: Archi Banal.
Photo: Auckland Council. Design: Archi Banal.

So close to the harbour you can hear the waves lapping from inside, Te Wharekura is a mātauranga Māori space that aims to teach visitors about how the mauri of Te Waitematā was depleted, and how they can play their part in replenishing it.

In Auckland’s CBD stand countless monuments to the city’s colonial connection – colonial facades, English place names and imperial statues. Conversely, very few reminders of tāngata whenua remain downtown. The Waihorotiu awa and the original shoreline were paved over, and mansions and high-rises now sit atop pā sites.

But recently, a champion of te ao Māori arose in the CBD. On September 14, on the shores of Te Waitematā, Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei – in collaboration with Auckland Council – opened Te Wharekura, a cultural and environmental education space. Situated on Quay Street in a 108-year-old heritage-listed former ferry ticket kiosk, Te Wharekura is so close to the moana you can hear its waves lapping from inside. The Spinoff headed along to chat with Kīngi Makoare, pou hāpai tikanga taiao for Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei. 

Kīngi Makoare, delivers the mihi whakatau at the dawn blessing of Te Wharekura. (Photo: Auckland Council)
Kīngi Makoare delivers the mihi whakatau at the dawn blessing of Te Wharekura (Photo: Auckland Council)

A celebration of Ngāti Whātua

Te Wharekura – the nexus of the Ngāti Whātua downtown presence – celebrates the pūrākau, kōrero tuku iho and activities of the iwi. Robbie Pāora from Ngāti Whātua explains that Te Wharekura blends kōrero tuku iho with western science “to inform and uplift all who visit the space”. Makoare adds that Te Wharekura embodies “[Ngāti Whātua] getting our presence back in the CBD. It’s an expression of who we are.” Diverse members of the iwi supported the project to personify multiple facets of their culture – from tamariki kaikōrero to adult artists and elderly knowledge holders. But alongside being a Māori monument, Makoare says Te Wharekura “is an outpost for the environment”.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei perform haka at the opening of Te Wharekura. (Photo: Auckland Council)
Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei perform haka at the opening of Te Wharekura (Photo: Auckland Council)

Te taiao

The principal function of Te Wharekura is to encourage kōrero about the Waitematā harbour’s health to inspire people to protect it. Talking about the mauri of Te Waitematā, Makoare says billions of dollars must be invested into the harbour to restore its health. “There’s nothing there; you put your arm in, and it’s just a foot of sediment,” he says, adding, “before dredging, Te Waitematā was carpeted in mussels.”  

Ngāti Whātua is using mussels to revive Te Waitematā. “Putting mussels back into the water elevates the mauri of the water,” Makoare explains. One mussel filters a bathtub of water per day. Quay Street’s rain gardens – co-designed by Ngāti Whātua and Auckland Council – work alongside the mussels to filter CBD runoff. Councillor Kerrin Leoni, Auckland Council’s Māori outcomes lead, says Te Wharekura manifests the shared mana whenua-council commitment to improving the mauri of Te Waitemata. 

Te whare

Ngāti Whātua worked Wellington based experience design company Gibson International on Te Wharekura. Half the whare has information about te taiao, and the rest tells Ngāti Whātua stories. “It’s a small space, but you get bang for your buck,” says Makoare. Pāora adds, “The walls of Te Wharekura celebrate our reo, our pūrakau, our kōrero, our waiata and the beauty of our unique mita through a variety of interactive media housed within the space.” Alongside the interactive screens’ information, stories are told by the kaimanaaki, Prince Davis. 

Te Wharekura is currently in a pilot phase to investigate how to advance Māori interests downtown. Ngāti Whātua wants to prove to Auckland Council that Te Wharekura should become a CBD staple after the pilot phase ends. The iwi wants “to grow roots here”, says Makoare – including expanding the space’s offerings, for example, weaving workshops, performances and ta moko sessions. 

The interactive display to learn about Te Taiao. (Photo: Auckland Council)
The interactive display helps visitors learn about te taiao (Photo: Auckland Council)

Te ingoa

The literal translation of Te Wharekura is the house of learning, but for Ngāti Whātua, the ingoa has a whakapapa connection. Its namesake is Te Wharekura o Manukapua, the first building built on the shores of the Kaipara by the tūpuna of Ngāti Whātua. Taonga from Hawaiki were stored inside Te Wharekura o Manukapua. Similarly, Te Wharekura is also filled with significant artefacts (more on those later). Kura can also refer to the red-ochre colour and red feathers – tohu of rangatiratanga. As an expression of the Ngāti Whātua mana, kura is a staple through the whare, from its terracotta roof tiling to the red cushions. 


Continuing its namesake’s legacy, Te Wharekura houses taonga, including raranga and whakairo. Makoare describes them as a “smash-in-case-of-cultural emergency” taonga. The rangatahi who created this space wanted to modernise these taonga alongside paying homage to the past. For example, two are 3D prints of one-of-a-kind taonga. 

3D printing makes taonga accessible to the general public and not just those who can access tribal archives. It also allows visitors to use these taonga, something less likely with their precious parents. “Every use deposits mauri into the taonga. It’s not designed just to be stored; it’s meant to be alive,” explains Makoare. 

Mahi toi

The mahi toi adorning Te Wharekura was done by a team of Ngāti Whātua artists: Graham Tipene, Hana and Joanne Maihi, Jodi-Ann and Leah Warbrick, Kororia Witika and Beronia Scott. Of particular note are the four illuminated pou at the entrances and the koru shrouding the roof and floor. The koru is a takarangi (time continuum) symbolising the past, present and future converging – a suitable tohu to represent Te Wharekura, where people learn how historic actions depleted the mauri of the modern Te Waitematā while exploring its future. 

Two of the entrance pou and the takarangi.
Two of the entrance pou and the takarangi. (Photo by Dan Mace, courtesy of Gibson International)

Sharing the space

Although the mātauranga currently shared at Te Wharekura is primarily from Ngāti Whātua, they’re keen to ultimately open it to other mana whenua to share their mātauranga a iwi and mātauranga a hapū. “We’ve got to talk over things; we’re all going to be here for a long time,” says Makoare, who hopes the space will spur further connections among the iwi and hapū of Tāmaki Makaurau.

Te Wharekura

Te Wharekura stands proudly in its indigeneity as one of the few – but growing number of – Māori monuments in a colonial CBD. Ngāti Whātua hopes the roots of reindigenisation sprout from Te Wharekura to decolonise Auckland and give it a unique point of difference to comparable global cities. This new cultural and environmental education space offers visitors “a little taste to hear and see what is Māori”, says Makoare, who adds, “In its rawest sense, Te Wharekura is about what people see when they enter the harbour. Yes, they’re in Auckland, but how do they know they’re in Tāmaki?”

Te Wharekura at 139 Quay Street is open from 10am to 4pm every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Entry is free and no bookings are required. 

This is Public Interest Journalism supported by NZ On Air.

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