Tūranga, the new central Christchurch library. Photo: Supplied

The buildings are ‘uniquely Aotearoa’. Their Māori designers are ignored

When the new Christchurch library Tūranga – widely praised for its indigenous motifs and design references – won a major award last week, the significant Māori input into its design apparently warranted no mention at all. Such erasure is becoming a trend, writes Rebecca Kiddle.

I woke up on a grey winter’s morning last week and an app notification alerted me to something interesting on LinkedIn. The post was design firm Architectus congratulating itself and its client/developer, construction company, engineers and a partnering architectural design company on winning not only the Best in Category but the Supreme Award at the recent Property Council New Zealand Rider Levett Bucknall Property Industry Awards.

Now if one has time to write that doozie of an award name, surely one might have time to acknowledge the integral role that Matapopore Trust – the group tasked by local hapū and iwi Ngāi Tūāhuriri/Ngāi Tahu to be their voice on rebuild projects following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes – played in the design and realisation of what, by all accounts, is a beautiful piece of architecture: Tūranga, the new library in central Christchurch.

Rhys Head, a Matapopore trustee, points out in the comments below the post that Matapopore’s input and inspiration was present throughout the design.

He writes:

“From the inspiration of Harakeke in the facade, depiction of Paikea by Riki Manuel and Morgan Hales on Colombo St facade, Fayne Robinson’s stairway Pou carving as a light box, the roof top native gardens pointing to Aoraki, the Peninsula, Maungatere Mt Grey. Without the assistance of Matapopore this Auckland and Sydney Architecture company would have been bereft of inspiration….come on Architectus at this point it is appropriation of indigenous design. As a Trustee it is disappointing our team have received no acknowledgement from the core project team.”

Debbie Tikao, Matapopore’s general manager, commented in an email to me:

“This is an outstanding building and worthy of this award, however, for us at Matapopore, this is incredibly disappointing. We worked with the Library team and architects for years to make this project a true reflection of our connection to place. Our input has added so much beauty and meaning. For this not to be considered something worthy of acknowledgment is a truly sad reflection on us as a nation!”

A quick Google search reinforces Tikao’s and Head’s point, with Christchurch City Libraries acknowledging on its website that Matapopore Trust had been “a key partner in the development of our new central library since the beginning of the project” and that “Cultural values, aspirations and narratives are woven throughout Tūranga’s entire experience”.

On Matapopore’s own website, you can find a full eight-page PDF outlining the ways in which Ngāi Tuahuriri are now able to be seen in this place through the efforts of Matapopore. A beautiful narrative that connects Ngāi Tahu back to Ngāti Porou grounds the building in a history that spans the two main islands of Aotearoa.

This is by no means an isolated incident. Just last month, the Tirohanga Whānui walking and cycling bridge in Auckland won a prestigious award at the 2019 Auckland Architecture Awards. Ngāti Whātua artist Graham Tipene, whose artwork arguably defines the bridge, was never even invited to the awards ceremony by the architects involved, despite the lead consultant, engineering firm Aurecon, describing the bridge as “a bridge design that echoes the richness of Māori culture and will leave a legacy for bridge design in New Zealand”.

The Tirohanga Whānui Bridge, connecting the Albany and Pinehills sides of the Northern Motorway, Auckland. (Wells Architects/ NZ Institute of Architects)

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These two examples are the tip of the iceberg. Talk to almost any iwi or hapū group who have worked with built environment professionals and they’ll tell you stories of where their mātauranga (knowledge) has been taken, appropriated and the resultant building, bridge or space’s success attributed only to the design skills of the firms putting themselves forward for these awards.

Where, though, do the award-givers sit in all this? Surely they – in this case Property Council New Zealand – should have mechanisms in place to ensure the designs submitted are fully credited to those who had input into them.

Come on, designers, engineers and award bodies. Don’t be dicks and acknowledge and celebrate the hefty contribution Māori, iwi and hapū are giving to these projects creating uniquely Aotearoa, ‘could only be in New Zealand’ places.

Dr Rebecca Kiddle is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.


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