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Kahu Matarau by Lonnie Hutchinson, Te Omeka Justice and Emergency Services Precinct in Christchurch.  Photo: Jade Kake
Kahu Matarau by Lonnie Hutchinson, Te Omeka Justice and Emergency Services Precinct in Christchurch. Photo: Jade Kake

ĀteaJanuary 7, 2020

What does Māori architecture look like today?

Kahu Matarau by Lonnie Hutchinson, Te Omeka Justice and Emergency Services Precinct in Christchurch.  Photo: Jade Kake
Kahu Matarau by Lonnie Hutchinson, Te Omeka Justice and Emergency Services Precinct in Christchurch. Photo: Jade Kake

Architectural designer Jade Kake looks at the role tikanga and hapūtanga plays in Māori architecture and design, and how tauiwi architects can support Māori practitioners.

The notion of tikanga Māori as it relates to architecture is something I’ve had reason to give some thought. This discussion has become increasingly vital as the prevalence of iwi, hapū and whānau-led projects, as well as the integration of cultural design within civic, commercial and education projects, becomes more widespread here in Aotearoa. Leading practitioners and academics in our field (such as Rau Hoskins, the late Rewi Thompson, Dr. Deidre Brown, Dr. Rebecca Kiddle, Elisapeta Heta, and Jacqueline Paul, just to name a few) have contributed various perspectives to this evolving discourse through writing, research and practice. Many others have also contributed through their work in practice, both as directors and kaimahi within small kaupapa Māori practices, and larger mainstream practices, as well as those holding ‘architecture adjacent’ roles in policy, planning, research, and Māori and community development.

‘Māori’ architecture, landscape and urban design cannot, in my view, exist without mana whenua involvement. Hau kāinga, ahi kā and mana whenua always take primacy, and practitioners are always secondary. A designer is a conduit and facilitator, and equity issues aside (a separate but important issue), a Māori designer can and likely will be more sensitive to the needs and aspirations of Māori communities, and skilled in appropriate processes. But we cannot separate ourselves from the whenua, or the people of the whenua. There is no Māori design without mana whenua involvement. Otherwise (as Rau Hoskins brilliantly articulated in the Tāmaki Makaurau Cultural Landscapes episode of the podcast Indigenous Urbanism) we are just recolonising the people and the landscape. This is why I don’t believe that all buildings or landscapes designed by Māori built-environment professionals can necessarily be classified ‘Māori design’. Our buildings and landscapes can never exist independent of context.

A fort designed and built by a rōpū of young tama from Kaikohe East School, mentored by Ākau in Kaikohe. Photo: Ākau

In the Western practice of architecture, we have a bad habit of prioritising the individual over the communal, glorifying mostly white, mostly male ‘starchitects’ and treating architecture as the domain of inspired geniuses who craft bold concepts for others to implement. This is not how architecture is actually practised. Architecture is intensely collaborative, and requires active listening, and working collaboratively with communities, stakeholders, and other professional consultants. The end result should be a design that responds sensitively to people and place, is financially viable, and appropriately documented so that it can be consented and built. How we communicate is also important. In my mahi, I always try to describe what I do in language our people can understand. I tend to prioritise mātauranga and tikanga Māori over the lens of my profession, and save the technical and discipline-specific language for the council, consultants, and other architects.

On a personal level, my Māoritanga is grounded in my hapūtanga, and my profession is always in service of hapū outcomes, never the other way around. I never think of my profession as the core of my identity. Being a hapū member is at the centre, and whatever I do professionally is in service of that. I often find that I feel much more comfortable in hapū spaces than in professional ones, mostly because I find the centring of architecture (or any other profession) unsettling, an unstable basis for identity. I find being valued for my whakapapa and my community contribution a more stable platform. If we talk hapū rangatiratanga, then this must apply in all aspects of our lives, including our professional practices. This is always a tension, and there will always be uneasy compromises as we seek to exist and retain and strengthen our social structures and rangatiratanga within the settler-colonial state.

Many of the communities I work with find it difficult to accept the need for resource and building consents. I agree that these processes can at time seem restrictively bureaucratic, implementing Pākehā ture we did not consent to, and at times it feels like participation equals consent – accepting the sovereignty of an illegitimate settler-colonial state. I tell people that if resale, access to finance and insurance is not a consideration, then by all means, exercise your mana motuhake. It is possible to adhere to the same safety and quality standards without seeking consents. Without seeking to takahi on those who chose to erect unconsented buildings and dwellings on their whenua, until our sovereignty is returned and control once more becomes the domain of our hapū, my professional training compels me to seek to reform the current system. The steps are incremental – but we are making progress.

By virtue of our training and our commitment to our communities, as Māori architects and designers we necessarily become bridge builders between te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. This can be an intensely challenging process for those of us who are urbanised, disconnected and reconnecting. Sometimes it can feel that we are neither experts in our culture or our profession. I’m incredibly grateful to those such as Te Hononga studio, MAU studio, Ākau and Ngā Aho who have taken on the role of nurturing, educating and supporting tauira, graduates and emerging practitioners, both inside and outside of academic institutions. Although we are now seeing an increase in Māori tauira and graduates, I worry about the lack of professional pathways available to our young practitioners (still, the promise and potential of a new indigenous and community-focused architecture school at AUT is particularly exciting, although the outcome is yet to be seen). Acknowledging the dearth of viable alternatives, I’m still not at all eager to see our talent absorbed by mainstream non-Māori firms. To my mind, this approach does very little for hapū rangatiratanga.

Matariki Paparewa, a design and construct project by students of UNITEC’s Te Hononga Māori Architecture Studio as part of the 5th Auckland Triennial Lab. Photo: Auckland Trienniel

As someone who works mainly outside major urban areas, I find there is often a tension between the desire to retain resources within communities and the reality that the majority of Māori live outside the hau kāinga. In assembling project teams, there is often a trade-off between hiring local (predominantly Pākehā) consultants, and engaging consultants with hapū affiliations who are based elsewhere. Moreover, much of our architectural talent works for mainstream, largely urban firms where they may have limited cultural support and limited ability to lead or direct projects. The process of doing so is not always easy or straightforward, but I am hopeful that in creating bridges between our rural hau kāinga communities and our mostly urban practitioners, we create a realistic possibility of contribution, reconnection and return.

As I’ve sought to build my own small kaupapa Māori practice, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the tension or conflict between tikanga Māori and our restrictions, rights and responsibilities as Māori practitioners, as opposed to Pākehā practitioners who are not necessarily bound by tikanga. I’ve often felt extremely uneasy about mainstream practices receiving lucrative commissions and accolades (often without appropriate mana whenua acknowledgement) for major projects that are either Māori-led or incorporate significant cultural design elements. If we are to apply tikanga Māori to practice, to me this means accepting that you do not have the right to go anywhere and everywhere (yes, this can mean turning down jobs). The priority, in my view, should always be to strengthen hau kāinga communities and mana whenua practitioners. Although much of the responsibility rests with clients, in particular those within the public sector, I believe we as practitioners also have a responsibility to uphold that.

Practically, this can mean not competing with mana whenua designers and not working on or tendering for ‘cultural design’ work without the express invitation of mana whenua. It may mean referring opportunities to designers with more direct whakapapa (where there exists capacity and capability to deliver), actively seeking out collaborative partnerships, or else supporting less experienced practitioners to lead projects with their own whānau, hapū or iwi. As a profession, I want us to create opportunities for Māori built environment practitioners in areas they whakapapa to. I want our designers to be able to utilise our skills in service of our whānau, hapū or iwi, and be valued for their contribution. Although kaupapa Māori design is often seen as a niche, occupying this niche is only ever an interim step, not the end game. I and many other Māori practitioners are attempting to make culturally-based and community-based architecture mainstream, but we want this to be led by us, Māori/Indigenous designers. For Pākehā and tauiwi practitioners, this may mean listening, ceding space, supporting others to lead, and sharing power.

Keep going!