A render of the concept designs of the Mahitahi Trust housing development in Ōtara. (Photo: TOA Architects)

No more token tack-ons: Building mana into Auckland design

Tāmaki Makaurau is a city under construction, but are Māori and Pasifika architects and designers being given the opportunities they deserve?

It seems everywhere you go in Auckland right now, there’s a new development of some sort. Whether it’s a new bridge, playground, some public housing or a refreshed streetscape, almost all these projects include some cultural designs, patterns or art. 

But are these visually prominent pieces the work of local Māori and Pacific artists and designers or are these elements just tokenistic add-ons by any Tom, Dick or Harriet? 

Ōtara-Papatoetoe Local Board chair Lotu Fuli says her board wants to see local artists and architects used – but it’s not as easy as it sounds. 

“When our kids can see themselves in the designs around them, that makes them feel visible and valued – and as a Pacific person, I know how it feels when that happens,” she says.  

“But it’s a constant battle from the governance end – to ensure local businesses get on that procurement list. There’s also been some examples of cultural appropriation where projects have used Māori or Pacific design, without actually working with a mana whenua or local designer – but that’s what we’re working towards. And it needs to go beyond just consulting with Māori or Pasifika artists and actually work with businesses owned by the Māori and Pacific architects.”

However she’s pleased to have advocated for Ōtara-based architect Waikare Komene to secure work on Panuku’s Transform Manukau project. 

“Waikare was given a small job to design street art along Putney Way in Manukau – that’s a good example of where we really had to push. But now Panuku is using him a lot more.”

South Auckland-based architects Waikare Komene, left, and Tuputau Lelaulu (Photos: Justin Latif)

The architects

Despite securing a few contracts, Komene, who is Māori, shares Fuli’s frustration. He also runs the Papatoetoe Food Hub and such has been the popularity of this community café focused on affordable, healthy kai, the prime minister herself popped in for a visit while on the campaign trail in South Auckland. Komene says being given the opportunity by council to turn a under-utilised netball court and clubrooms into a café has been great, but he would also like more opportunities to showcase his abilities as an architect.

“We’re on the council’s supplier list and we’ve ticked the boxes but it’s been so difficult getting jobs, so that’s why we’ve got into events, planning, community engagement and consultation. We’re doing a bit of everything. I’d love to be [designing] projects in our backyard of Ōtara. But instead I’ve noticed the firms that get these contracts are outsiders. I’m a born and bred Otarian, but my voice doesn’t feel like it’s valid.”

Before launching out on his own as an architect, he worked at a large firm in the city, but left after feeling like his talents weren’t valued.

“When I first started this [architectural] journey, I was at a Pākehā-led firm,” he says. “Over time I felt I was just a number, and they only pushed my number when it was appropriate for them. When people visited our offices, they’d get me to do the welcome. Or sometimes they wanted to use us to win the big Pasifika/Māori design projects, but as soon as they’d win the contract we would become an afterthought and I realised I was just their token Māori card.”

He says architects and designers shouldn’t just use Māori or Pacific patterns as on overlay on existing projects.

“You can’t just draw a pattern on your piece of paper and call it Pacific or Māori culture. It’s a lot deeper than that. You have to ask what that pattern means. A lot of these new buildings with cultural designs are just tack-ons. They build the building and then they just tack on Māori stuff, call it a Māori name and then ask Māori to welcome people in. They don’t give us the mana to drive the whole design to create the mana behind it.”

Māngere-resident Tuputau Lelaulu, who is of Samoan descent, is another architect frustrated by the lack of opportunities for Māori and Pacific architects. Through his business MAU Studios, in partnership with Unitec’s architecture school, he’s hoping to ensure more young people like himself enter the industry. 

“There’s a large wave of Māori and Pasifika designers, particularly around architecture, who are finding it very difficult to find work, and one of the growing issues which feeds the under-representation is the uncomfortability Māori and Pacific architecture students feel at university and the low retention rates. This is why I took on a role at Unitec to look at retention, to explore pastoral care and how it can employ strategies within the school to embed mātauranga Māori and Pacific values into how it teaches.”

Tongan architect Andrew Tu’inukuafe is Warren & Mahoney’s Auckland studio principal and head of the interiors team, and was also a Designers Institute of New Zealand award judge. As someone with 27 years’ experience, he sympathises with his younger colleagues and has a lot of respect for what Komene has tried to do with his work.

“I know from experience that it’s pretty tough for Māori and Pacific designers to come in and thrive in this environment. It can be quite a foreign environment. But with the government’s increased focus on achieving wider outcomes, there will be a greater opportunity for Māori and Pacific practitioners to demonstrate their value. There’s still not enough Māori and Pacific in the design profession but we are a Pacific nation, within the Pacific, and while we may have turned our back on Māori and Pacific culture for years, there’s a growing sense that we’re now looking for ways to express it.”

Tu’inukuafe cites the work of Auckland Council’s Māori design leader Phil Wihongi as a good example of how to ensure Māori design is done in a way that honours where the ideas originate from. 

A render of what Quay St will look like once complete (Photo: Auckland Council)

Auckland Council’s ‘brave’ move

Wihongi has led Auckland Council to launch a refreshed Māori Design Hub, which aims to ensure mana whenua are appropriately engaged with by private and public developers to bring Māori design thinking to the shaping of built environments. Wihongi says the hub is essentially a resource for developers to understand what good practice looks like when working with Māori on a project.

“The Māori Design Hub brings fresh Māori design thinking, resources and exemplars that place Māori design and identity at the heart of Auckland,” says Wihongi.

The transformation of the waterfront area around Quay Street, due to be completed by mid-next year, is being touted as one of the leading examples of how to integrate Māori design thinking into a project.

Auckland councillor Chris Darby, chair of the planning committee, is encouraged by the emphasis given to Māori design in these key city centre projects.

“I’m thrilled that Māori design has been front and centre in the development of our new downtown public space, Te Wānanga, and Quay Street,” says Darby. “A thriving Māori identity is Auckland’s point of difference in the world. It’s crucial we work with mana whenua kanohi ki te kanohi [face to face] to reflect our unique identity in our design processes and finished projects.”

Wihongi says it’s pleasing to have mana whenua groups, architects and the council collaborating as they have on this project, but the next step is to involve mana whenua at every step of the decision-making process. He believes by involving mana whenua from the beginning of a project right through to decisions around which firms are contracted to do the build, and which businesses provide the ongoing maintenance, would have a transformative impact.

“You can get some great outcomes in that design space, but if you’re serious about identity and wellbeing, you need to consider the whole picture, so mana whenua need to be a part of the shaping of the idea … and procurement can also be a really powerful tool to make change in terms of getting opportunities for Māori businesses.”

Auckland Council’s Māori design leader Phil Wihongi and TOA’s Nick Dalton (Photo: Justin Latif)

Part of the Māori Design Hub’s resources includes design solutions on urban Māori housing, and council partnered with Tāmaki Makaurau Office Architecture Limited (TOA) to create the Kāinga Hou housing concepts. The concepts show how higher-density Māori housing can make better use of land as Auckland continues to intensify.

Nick Dalton (Te Arawa), the founder and director of TOA, says the concept plans don’t just look aesthetically pleasing, but by being underpinned by Māori values, the housing will ensure better outcomes for the residents. 

“Normally when you start to design a housing development, it’s a conversation around ‘how do the cars get around the site?’ But then they are a concrete jungle – super dangerous for kids – and the whole thing is taken up by a car park. Instead, this project has Māori values underpinning it, like manaakitanga, kaitiakitanga – it’s good for everyone. And it’s not underpinned by a car park.”

The hope is that social housing developers would see the value in using these concept plans, and Dalton says they have already implemented it at a development in Ōtara.

“We’ve worked with Mahitahi Trust on a small social housing project. It consists of two waka made up of 20 units around a central courtyard. Normally when you start to design it’s a conversation around how big, how much, but instead we got to really think about Māori design values, for a project on Māori land, and it was quite a revelation in many ways. I showed 600 architects in Australia and their jaws were on the ground – they were shocked it was for a social housing project. 

“This is quite a brave avenue to go down as it’s not standard practice. So while it’s sad that it’s seen as being brave to go with Māori design, the tide is changing in a really beautiful way, and there are a lot more people calling for proper engagement and higher-level design.”

Rau Hoskins is a director of the designTribe architectural practice specialising in kaupapa Māori design. Hoskins has lectured in Māori architecture at Unitec’s School of Architecture since 1990. He’s optimistic about the opportunities for Māori and Pacific architects if initiatives like council’s Māori Design Hub can be built on. 

“The big firms will always get the big jobs, but compared to where things were 10 years ago, the industry is going in a good direction as you have mana whenua getting seats at the table, and it’s their artists who are involved right from the start in the process. Projects like the CRL and Commercial Bay are good examples of this.”

And Komene reiterates why going local is always the best option. 

“If you give us an opportunity we’re going to do it better than anyone else, because we’re born and bred and know this community better than anyone else. We don’t clock out at 5pm, we’re constantly thinking about it, because we want to leave our mark as architects and create something for our community that can make a difference.”




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