Ngawha prison

The write-up in Architecture New Zealand (Nov/Dec 05)of Stephenson & Turner’s Northland Region Corrections Facility (that means ‘prison’) made much of the sensitivity to the local hapu and the history of the area, extensively driven by a design report from “cultural design advisors” Mike Barns and Rewi Thompson. Taking Maori seriously here is all about taking on board a few adaptations to what must be one of, if not the, most violent manifestations of the state’s power. The claws of the beast now have some pretty nail polish on, and the colour is of the choosing of those being mauled. That doesn’t make it any less violent.

Ngawhat prison (from Architecture New Zealand)

Ngawha prison (from Architecture New Zealand)

The article mentions Ohaeawai, the battle where British troops were outsmarted by the defensive tactics of the Ngapuhi chief Kawiti. Ohaeawai pa was one of the most innovative military fortifications devised, using trenches and pits dug into the land to protect the small Maori force from the might of the attacking British soldiers.

James Belich in The New Zealand Wars notes that the British began firing upon Ohaeawai as soon as they arrived at the pa, and maintained barrage from their cannon for six days – including the use of the then heaviest gun to be used on land in New Zealand (a 32-pounder).  Kawiti’s architectural innovations meant that not only was the pa garrison able to survive the bombardment, but also the assault by the British storming party despite being outnumbered six to one.

Excavated pits (rua) covered with beams of timber, then layered with earth, stones, and fern, created artillery-proof bunkers that kept the garrison safe (less than 10 casualties from six days of bombardment). Extensive perimeter trenching was designed to enable the greatest amount of firepower to be concentrated at any particular point in a very short space of time, and also avoid enfilading fire (i.e. no contiguous straight line trenches).

Oddly, a key concept from the cultural design advisors “was that intervention or incisions (Ta Moko) to the site be minimal.” Sloping terraces on the site were retained upon inspiration from local pa sites. Given that nearby Ohaeawai pa’s earthworks were substantial, the Department of Corrections’ initial intention to bulldoze the site was probably more in keeping with Kawiti’s massive movement of earth of 150 years earlier. Kawiti’s construction was not tamed by the natural contours of the land, instead he manipulated the land to create the salients and flanking-angles necessary for victory.

In fact, when looking at the Architecture New Zealand article’s two-page panoramic image of the prison, the only thing reminiscent of a pa is the layers of surrounding fences. This time, unlike Ohaeawai, the fortifications are built by the European to keep Maori in. While Kawiti’s ingenuity won the battle of Ohaeawai, Ngawha prison shows all too clearly that the war was lost.

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