Deidre Brown – ‘Maori Architecture’

Deidre Brown, Maori Architecture. From fale to wharenui and beyond, Raupo (Penguin), Auckland, 2009.

This is a long awaited book.  Back in 1976 Mike Austin’s thesis finally broke the academic ground that Maori buildings were acceptable for architecture study.  Thirty-three years later we get the first book to be devoted to the topic of Maori architecture – before this you had to scour specialist journals to get your fix.

Being the first was always going to be difficult.  You can’t be too scholarly or else you’ll be assigned to university textbook status, but you can’t be too bland and non-committal or you’ll be assigned to the coffee-table picture book genre.  Even if you manage to strike a balance between the two you will never be able to cover all the territory desired by enthusiasts like me.  And so my criticisms below (and in subsequent posts) should not be taken as a lack of gratitude – Brown’s book is doing its job in sparking debate.

There is no engagement with the question of whether there is even such as thing as ‘Maori’ architecture (as proffered by Rewi Thompson), and the concept of architecture is quite narrow (left pretty much to built form).  But I’ll pick up on these points in other posts.  Here I want to examine Brown’s idea of how Maori architecture has evolved over time.

Brown’s view is that Maori architecture developed in two main branches – the first is the development of the whare whakairo through Ngata’s Arts and Craft School and Te Puea Herangi, the second are the more hybrid buildings of leaders such as Te Kooti, Rua Kenana, and Wiremu Ratana.  The development has not been even, however, with the first strand ‘winning out’ over the second.

Why Ngata’s architectural stylings won out is, according to Brown, a result of the specialist carvers being trained to not only carry out their work but to also pass on their knowledge to the next generation.  This educative goal was what led the meeting house form to dominate the Maori architectural aesthetic to this day.

Such a conclusion seems to deny the intense political environment that Maori architecture developed in.  Even stranger is that Brown hints at these other possibilities.  For example, she points to Ngata’s styling emphasising a traditionalism that pre-dated the New Zealand Wars, making no artistic reference to conflict with the Crown or confiscation, and was therefore a style that Pakeha were more likely to find appealing and support.  Brown also notes that the projects of the Arts and Crafts school were ‘distinct, visually and politically, from Pakeha architecture’ – that is, in more explicit terms, far more identifiable as the ‘other’, and therefore much more acceptable to the dominant culture who preferred to avoid the complicated ideas of hybridity or ‘half-castes’.

Brown’s construction of Maori architectural history also gives the stylings of Ngata and Te Puea Herangi’s houses an air of authenticity – Ngata’s work is called the ‘recovery of tradition’.  The counter argument is that this was actually the creation of tradition – yes they did draw on pre-European forms and styles, but in no way should the modern wharenui be seen as an ancient building form that was simply revived (a point, funnily enough, made clear in Brown’s well-researched earlier chapters).

What Brown is correct in is that the branch pioneered by Te Kooti, Rua, and Ratana, has stalled.  Modern Maori architecture is much more concerned with biculturalism, being able to express Maori cultural values alongside those of Pakeha in a socially acceptable manner.  It is as though the conflict between cultures is something of the past, and that architecture has no place reflecting this because it is about the present and future.  What then does architecture have to say about the raids on Ruatoki, or the Whanganui ‘H’ debate?  These are argubaly far more architecturally significant events than the buildings discussed in Brown’s final chapters – yet somehow she ignores them, as do all New Zealand Architects.

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