Smoke and mirrors

“Although we no longer, like our nineteenth-century tupuna Kawiti, fire bullets at the ‘other’ across trenches or, like Heke, chop down strategic British flag poles, we do at times engage with one another in a war of words and images.”
Rangihiroa Panoho, 2004.

There is very little politically motivated Architecture in modern New Zealand.  The war of words and images has been taken up far more by Maori artists, who in recent years have certainly been much more confrontational in their work than architects.

Examples do exist – Rua’s settlement, Te Kooti’s, and even Ratana’s churches are all politically motivated and confrontational.  More modern buildings can also be read in a similarly confrontational way, though it is difficult to know if they were politically motivated – for example, Rewi Thompson’s Kohimarama home or John Scott’s Maori Battalion building.  And if we go away from big ‘A’ Architecture, enduring images of encampments at Bastion Point, Moutoa Gardens, and Waikaremoana are all politically motivated architecture.  We can also point to works such as Wellington’s City to Sea walkway with its use of politically charged religious symbolism (though 99% of those walking by would never know how subversive the imagery is).

But for the most part, architecture has been a servant of what Rangihiroa Panoho calls ‘a design exercise involving overtones of new cultural formations’.  The pinnacle of Maori architecture for many is its use as part of the development of a ‘New Zealand’ architecture – witness Russell Walden’s praise of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel or Gordon Moller’s dedication to integrating the porch and ‘whare slant’ into his buildings.

In contrast, Panoho points to the use of subterfuge and mimicry as central to Maori artists’ response to the theme of cultural encounter.  This involves being acutely aware of the ‘other’, entering into “a game perceiving and deceiving”, gently toying with and mocking the ideas of the ‘other’.  Such a strategy is not new to Maori culture, having been practised for millennia between iwi and hapu.  Utilising mimicry and subterfuge as an approach can also be “seen to indicate an uneasiness with attempts at external control and the channelling of culture” by prevalent Western narratives, gaining time  “required for clarification and new directions” within the externally-imposed boundaries Maori artists quickly find themselves.  Witness, for example, Shane Cotton’s use of gang patches in works such as He Pukapuka Tuatahi (1999-2000) or the image of the Four Square man in Sold (1994).

How could this work for architecture?  Could common modern elements be adopted and turned back upon the ‘other’, all the time being infused with a gentle toying and mocking – perhaps floor to ceiling glazing being used in places where no views out or in are possible?  Or should subterfuge take precedence like at warfighting pa – ordering of building elements that usually externally signal a certain internal usage, instead being ‘fake’ to introduce uncertainty about what is happening in the building?

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