‘This is our beautiful castle’: the stunning new buildings expressing Māori pride | Architecture

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A bright red ribbon of metal buckles out of the ground in suburban Auckland, ramping up at a sharp angle before cranking over in a lopsided arc. It frames a big glass wall, folded in a diagonal crease, whose striped surface is covered in a riot of patterns, with abstract motifs of waves, fish and stars swirling together in a polychromatic frenzy.

This is Taumata o Kupe, a new Māori meeting house and education centre for the Mahurehure community, and one of the brightest beacons of Aotearoa New Zealand’s burgeoning contemporary Māori architecture scene.

“It’s quite hard to miss,” says Wayne Wharepapa Asher, an elder member of the community. He recently moved into an apartment in a new terrace next to the building, where the homes open on to a pedestrian mews and a shared deck faces a lush babbling brook. “It feels like a different world here now. It has given us a fabulous place to share our culture with visitors from all walks of life.”

The project is the work of Māori-led practice TOA Architects, who designed it as a dense microcosm of mātauranga, or traditional Māori knowledge. Just like the decorated meeting houses of the past (known as wharenui), whose wooden surfaces were carved and painted with the iconography of ancestral stories, this building’s form and decoration have been designed to tell the tribe’s founding legends.

Riotous Māori PoMo … inside the Taumata o Kupe. Photograph: David Straight

“This is our beautiful castle,” says tribe member Shannon Wilson. “It celebrates how our ancestors discovered this land.” He is standing inside the hall, having conducted a traditional pōwhiri ceremony of songs and speeches in te reo Māori (the Māori language), to welcome me on to the marae, the tribe’s sacred meeting grounds. It is a lofty space, where the window patterns cast swirling graphic shadows across the floor and walls, giving the impression of intricate Māori carvings. “The images tell the story of the great Kupe,” says Wilson, “one of the first Polynesian navigators to arrive in New Zealand. His wife gave our country the Māori name Aotearoa, meaning ‘long white cloud’, after seeing the clouds hovering above the island from their waka.”

The sails of the waka (or canoe) were the starting point for the building’s form, with the diagonal crease across the glass facade echoing the stays, while the faceted frame alludes to the shape of a rudder. Such nautical themes are frequently found in the region’s Indigenous architecture: Polynesian shelters were often made from upturned boats, raised on poles, while sails became floor mats and vice versa. This building brings the approach into the 21st century, sculpted with the aerodynamic styling of a modern racing yacht (fitting, given it received funding from the 2021 America’s Cup), and collaging historic references together in a kind of riotous Māori PoMo.

Inside, the spaces unfold as a cosmic diagram. The ground floor represents the terrestrial world, with space for 300 people to gather, while a raised mezzanine is associated with the celestial realm, the ceiling studded with a constellation of lights. The Māori tradition observes a strict separation of tapu (sacred) and noa (profane), so toilets are housed in a building outside, while the mezzanine provides an elevated meeting area for communicating tapu knowledge. While most of the materials are modern, the entrance is lined with timber milled from 3,500-year-old swamp kauri, prehistoric wood unearthed from peat bogs in the north of the country. This ancient timber holds a spiritual importance for Māori, whose tradition tells that the kauri tree created all life. An intricately carved piece of it hangs above the entrance, a pare (lintel) featuring the openwork spiral patterns of a war canoe prow, another reminder of how the tribe’s ancestors arrived here more than 700 years ago.

This colourful pavilion is one of many such projects that have been cropping up across Aotearoa New Zealand in recent years, authored by a new wave of Māori architects keen to make their mark. The country’s Māori population now numbers 17% and rising, and the new generation’s enthusiastic embrace of tribal cultural identity is making their presence more visible than ever.

Shifting shadows … Deidre Brown. Photograph: Adrian Malloch

Many young urban Māori now sport traditional facial tattoos, or moko kanohi, and greet each other with a hongi, gently pressing the nose and forehead together. Te reo Māori is becoming more widely spoken, with a kind of creole emerging as Māori words are sprinkled into English conversation and official documents. There are two dedicated Māori TV channels – one of which recently aired a series on contemporary Māori architecture – and Māori design principles have even been written into urban planning policy.

“Things have really changed in recent years,” says Deidre Brown, professor of architecture at the University of Auckland. “When I was a student, I wanted to explore Māori architecture in my project. But my tutors told me to ‘leave it on the marae, where it belongs’.” Last month, Brown was awarded the prestigious gold medal by the New Zealand Institute of Architects, the first Indigenous woman to receive the accolade, for her work in championing Māori architecture. Student projects now regularly explore such themes, like MA graduate Victoria Carran’s design thesis for an architectural educational campus in a former quarry, informed by Māori ideas about repairing the landscape and working in harmony with nature.

The Aranga Māori design principles were adopted by Auckland city council in 2016, but they have had mixed results so far. The seven principles cover everything from using historic Māori placenames to enhancing the natural environment and integrating cultural narratives, but vague wording leaves them open to interpretation. Walking around the city, you see many surfaces adorned with geometric patterns – from tiled facades and coloured brickwork to etched glass canopies and paving slabs – variously referring to Māori tukutuku (woven panelling) or kōwhaiwhai (scroll patterns). But it often looks tokenistic, thin surface decoration stuck on to pre-existing designs.

“The principles can be misused,” says Jade Kake, a young Māori architect whose practice, Matakohe Architecture and Urbanism, often collaborates with larger firms to ensure their projects are culturally appropriate and take into account the needs of Indigenous communities. “But it’s more about the process than the product, ensuring that the consultation and co-design process is meaningful to the mana whenua” – a term that refers to Indigenous people with historic and territorial rights over the land.

Kake is working on several housing projects for Māori iwi (tribes), designing forms of collective dwelling known as papakāinga, where communal facilities are shared in a similar way to co-housing. The homes are designed to be flexible to respond to changing family patterns, where cousins might come to stay for months at a time, or floors might be adapted to accommodate older relatives. The separation of tapu and noa must also be taken into account (the laundry can’t be in the same space as the kitchen, for example), and traditionally Māori wouldn’t sleep above other people, sometimes making multistorey apartment configurations tricky to juggle.

Never give up … Kāinga Kaumātua homes for elders. Photograph: Courtesy of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Whai Rawa

But the biggest hurdles come from wider structural issues and the legacies of colonial injustice, including access to funding and land. “The pieces of land available to the tribes are often not the best bits,” says Kake. “We have to make do with the leftovers.” The site of the Taumata o Kupe used to be the city’s tip, while one of the sites Kake is working on can only be accessed through a swamp.

One tribe that is fiercely battling the country’s intense housing inequality, against historic odds, is the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. They once lived on a prime piece of land facing Ōkahu Bay, one of the idyllic natural inlets that fringes the coastline in Auckland, or Tāmaki Makaurau, to use the Māori name. “First, the council put a sewage pipe in our bay,” says tribe member Anahera Rawiri. “That killed our food supply and made our people ill. Then, in 1952, ahead of a visit by the young Queen Elizabeth II, they bulldozed our homes and forced us up on to the hill.”

Some residents were relocated into a handful of council houses on Bastion Point, above the bay, and the rest were dispersed around the region. “But we don’t give up easily,” says Rawiri. She is driving me around the streets up on the hill, where rows of houses are rapidly rising out of the ground – part of a masterplan for a potential 5,000 new homes. “We are prepping for our people to return to their land.”

Following the Waitangi Tribunal, established in the 1970s to settle Māori claims, the tribe received 100 acres and NZ$3m (£1.4m) from the government, which it has since invested to become one of the country’s wealthiest tribes – with land holdings worth NZ$1.4bn (£670m). It has used its funds to build award-winning housing, including Kāinga Tuatahi, by Stevens Lawson architects, and a recent street of low-rise housing for elders, or kaumātua, by Jasmax, where Rawiri now works. The former comprises terraced houses, unified under a long folded roof plane and arranged around shared gardens, with playgrounds, barbecue areas and vegetable plots. We pass a big communal kitchen block, a weaving house, a wood- and stone-carving studio and a gym, while the streets are full of children playing out. The properties are collectively owned by the tribe, in a similar model to a community land trust, keeping the homes affordable in perpetuity.

“This is housing by Māori, for Māori,” says Rawiri. “It is self-sovereignty to the max!”

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