Traditional vs. Hybrid vs. Kiwi

I used to party hard in John Scott’s Maori Battalion Building. Back then it was the Wild Horse Saloon (bar and band venue) and Portofinos (bar for old soaks). The architectural significance of the building was lost amongst the alcohol and the noise, its place in the development of ‘Maori’ architecture obscured by the dim lighting and late-night starts. Some ten years later it would reappear to me through architectural writings, revealing an identity I was unaware of in my original encounter.

Bill McKay’s interrogation of the Maori Battalion Building’s identity raised the question of whether it was ‘half-caste’ (a type of hybridisation) or ‘bi-cultural’ (aligning to official government policy of reflecting both cultures existing together).  McKay set the Maori Battalion Building against Scott’s Futuna Chapel which some saw as a more ‘successful’ integration of Maori and Pakeha elements, creating a ‘Kiwi’ architecture.  At the time of the Maori Battalion Building’s opening, Katarina Mataira’s made a similar observation, and also foresaw that the Maori Battalion Building would lead to the end of the traditional wharenui (which would disappear within 50years).

So where does the Maori Battalion Building fit in the field of ‘Maori’ architecture?  From the descriptions above we can create a model to help us place it.  We can describe the field as having three strands – the traditional, the hybrid, and the ‘Kiwi’.  Under each we can categorise a range of buildings that have been created over the last 150 or so years, forming a history for each strand.


For ‘Maori’ architecture, the traditional revolves around the wharenui.  Jeffrey Sissons points to 1850 being ‘year zero’ for the meeting house, a time where colonial encounter caused the gelling of a number of practices into what we now recognise as the wharenui.  To this (for starters) we can add Ngati Tarawhai’s houses for the New Zealand International Exhibition in 1905-06, and the revival under Apirana Ngata’s School of Maori Arts and Crafts in 1927.  There is a strong strain of the ‘authentic’ in this history.

The ‘hybrid’ in draws heavily on the buildings of the various religious movements that gained popularity in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  This includes the buildings of the Ringatu faith (Te Kooti’s large meeting houses modelled on Pakeha congregational churches and community halls, and Rua Kenana’s settlement at Maungapohatu) and Ratana churches.  Deidre Brown also reminds us that two Maori parliamentary movements (the Kauhanganui and the Paremata Maori) developed an architecture that can be viewed as ‘hybrid’.  One of the distinguishing features of these buildings is that they are very ‘untraditional’ in nature, a combination of styles or piecing together of two or more distinct aesthetics, and as Deidre Brown points out are often termed folk art or similar in order to remove any sense of legitimacy.

The ‘Kiwi’ strand captures those buildings that aim to create a New Zealand architecture – a blending that seeks to arrive at the New Zealand vernacular.  Here we find a home for designs that reach for the bicultural, as well as those that could be argued are assimilationist in nature.  Te Papa is a recent example, which Mike Austin has noted as explicitly attempting to be a bicultural building.  John Scott’s Futuna Chapel can also be placed in this category, especially if Russell Walden’s reading of it as ‘a faithful celebration of Maori and Pakeha’ and ‘a new synthesis’ is true.

These three strands are not being used to create distinct and separate silos.  As a model they are there to help us understand potential differences, but also similarities.  Many examples of ‘Maori’ architecture straddle the space between strands, or even potentially occupy two strands (either at the same time or separately depending on the angle of argument).  Placement on the model is not absolute either, but instead can be done in relation to another building or piece of architecture.

Back to the question of where to place the Maori Battalion Building.  It could perhaps be seen as an extension of the ‘traditional’ history, a development of the wharenui with its panels exposed and paepae on the roadfront.  But at best it would be an excursion on the ‘traditional’ path, or a development well before its time (the wharenui is not dead yet).  Mataira also raises the possibility of it heralding a new ‘Kiwi’ architecture, although she is the only author of the time (or later) to do so, and no similar claim has been made by a Pakeha critic or architect.

We are therefore left with McKay’s claim that the Maori Battalion Building is best described as a hybrid, an architectural half-caste.  More combination than integration, it is neither traditional nor aiming to be the Kiwi vernacular.  Unsettling in its juxtaposition of two styles, the Maori Battalion Building has for most of its existence been denied a sense of legitimacy by the architectural media.


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