Flying Flags in the Field of Architecture

Flags have been a part of the Maori architectural canon for a long time, flown in pa, on whare, alongside occupation structures, or as markers of occupation on their own, despite not being traditional and only adopted upon contact with Pakeha.

The use of flags in conflict has been the focus of academic attention, and while not primarily about architecture, works such as Bryan & Gillespie’s Transforming Conflict: Flags and Emblems nonetheless traverses the importance of flags in demarcating territory and space.  Bryan & Gillespie even note how murals that contain painted flags are just as powerful, and at times more so, than the ‘real’ thing.

There’s no shortage of New Zealand examples that prove Bryan & Gillespie’s ideas.  Hone Heke’s attacks on the flagpole at Kororareka was driven by the interpretation of the flag as a symbol of claiming possession of land.  At the siege of Gate Pa during the New Zealand Land Wars a flag was placed toward the rear of the defensive pa position, drawing a substantial amount of British artillery fire away from the main body of the Maori contingent.  Juidth Binney’s books on Te Kooti and Tuhoe are replete with images of flags used as part of resisting colonial efforts.  We can race to modern times where flags are an integral part of occupation protests and land marches – think of Tame Iti’s theatrical display of shooting the British flag with a shotgun.

Most likely the Te Whaiti version of the flag of Te Whitu Tekau, c.1874 (Binney, Encircled Lands, p.241)

But flags aren’t usually considered to be part of architecture, instead left to the field of vexillology.  The ignoring of flags in the New Zealand context is seen by Bill McKay as part of a wider issue regarding the recognition of anything other than the whare whakairo as Maori architecture:

“Generally Westerners have admired the highly crafted whare whakairo (meeting house) and are baffled by some other buildings such as the Ratana churches, Rua Kenana’s buildings or the niu poles of the Pai Marire movement for instance, that seem to lack traditional motifs or indigenous authority. The processes of Pakeha selection and representation have reflected the political and cultural concerns of the times. For example, our knowledge of Maori architecture in the post-contact period has been channelled by politics, museums and texts into a focus on a stereotyped form of meeting house, rather than exploring the diversity of buildings, structures and flags that often trade forms, materials and motifs across cultures.” (McKay, Maori Architecture: Transforming Western Notions of Architecture)

One exception to this rule is Deidre Brown’s work on niu poles which considers the flags flown from them, and in doing so places them in an architectural context.  Niu poles were a combination of church and ancestor architecture, a placed for worship that could be quickly erected during times of conflict.  Brown also notes how ‘Pai Marire flag motifs, which were an integral part of niu construction, were an important development in modern Maori meeting house construction.’ (p.2).

Drawing of niu pole from notebook of Te Ua Haumene, c.1863 (Binney, Encircled Lands, p.75)

Artists such as Shane Cotton, Para Matchitt, Laurence Aberhart and Leigh Davis have drawn on flags in their work.  Art historian Francis Pound even talks of how important flags have been as part of the cultural to-ing and fro-ing over the last couple of centuries, noting how they “uproot…European signs from their original contexts, deny them the meaning they had there, and provide them with entirely new meaning.” (p.143)  Examples include the appropriation of playing card symbols (especially the clubs symbol) or even a semi-colon.  While a viewer may feel that they can ‘read’ these symbols, the fact that the original meanings have been removed and replaced complicates any reading by any but those who did the removal and replacement.  Pound calls this complicated existence ‘the space between.’ (see excerpt here).

Architecture could learn from flags in two ways then – first, their role in defining and claiming space as part of resistance or occupation , and second, how flags engaged in the cross-cultural exchange of signs and symbols.  The latter was taken forward by architects such as Te Kooti and Rua Kenana, but pretty much stopped after them.  The former has had an uninterrupted usage since the earliest colonial times.  Reinjecting flags into New Zealand architectural discourse would therefore reinvigorate a previous practice as well as deepen our understanding of a very modern occurrence.

Te Kooti's triangular pendant, Te Wepu

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