Half-caste or bicultural?

Sketch of Maori Battalion Building from Te Ao Hou (June 1964)

Bill McKay, “Halfcaste or bicultural: John Scott, Maori and architecture in the 1960s”, pp.365-371 in Contested Terrains SAHANZ Perth 2006, Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand (SAHANZ), 2006.

Commentary in the Maori press was overwhelmingly positive when John Scott’s Maori Battalion War Memorial Building was finished in 1964.  Mainstream architectural writing did not share this enthusiasm, taking more than 30 years to begin according the building a place in New Zealand’s architectural history.

This difference in acceptance essentially arises, Bill McKay argues, from differing aesthetic values that reflected differing views of cultural relationships. Pakeha generally prefer the abstract melding of Maori and Pakeha elements in buildings such as John Scott’s Futuna Chapel (1961), which reflects the cultural policies of assimilation and integration that were being pursued up until the 1960s.

The harsher juxtaposition of elements in the Maori Battalion War Memorial Building (witness the front facade’s rhythm of block concrete and traditionally carved panels) suited a bicultural vision of relations, and was therefore viewed more positively by Maori. That it may sit uncomfortably with the aesthetic tastes of the dominant culture may be proof, according to Peter Wood who McKay quotes, that this ‘bicultural nationalism’ has been achieved.

It is a tempting thesis. Clinging to the traditional can be seen as ignoring the interaction between cultures (a preservationist isolationism perhaps), whilst an abstracted engulfment of Maori elements within a dominant Pakeha architectural system does the opposite – almost denying that the Other exists (and if it does it is only through ‘acceptable’ elements).

The bicultural, or halfcaste, does not seek to deny either side of the relationship, but rather recognises one alongside the other. At times these will sit harmoniously together, but at others a tension will exist, as with any relationship between two distinct personalities. There is no romanticisation of the interactions, no expectation of a cultural nirvana.

But is this asking too much of the building? We could run a line that the combination of elements is more of a pastiche, the carved panels stuck on to an otherwise Pakeha building. Purely selected adornment or decoration that is thinly applied rather than thickly endowed, and perhaps one step closer to disappearing altogether. Or we could ask whether the Maori appreciation of the building was limited to a certain circle, pointing to the fact that such design did not flourish afterwards as being the stronger indicator of cultural preference (although this could be equally revealing).

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