Whare Maori – leaving the field wide open

It is fair enough to say that Whare Maori breaks ground for Maori architecture.  No other television programme has done as much to educate the public or to showcase examples of Maori architecture.  It isn’t a tentative venture, being impressively wide in its scope and coverage (for example, 13 episodes compared to 6 for The Elegant Shed).  Whare Maori deserves any accolades that it gets, though perhaps the best accolade is that it generates debate and discussion.

In the introduction to each episode Hoskins poses the question ‘What is Maori architecture?’  I don’t think he actually answers this question.  His survey of various buildings presents us with different ways in which people have drawn on Maori culture and created architecture from these influences.  He takes us through some themes – papakainga, manaakitanga, and the connection to the land – and how these are reflected in built form.  Episodes are also devoted to specific types – the wharenui gets two episodes, whare karakia, whare kainga, whare wananga.

But is it all Maori architecture?  Most people would nod in agreement when seeing the project at Hamilton Gardens to faithfully recreate a pataka whakairo, but some will be less convinced by Fred Stevens’ house that melds elements of the wharenui with Dutch and Greek styles.  We aren’t given any help to navigate, we either have to accept it all as being Maori architecture or we have to make our own decisions on what could or should be part of the collection.

Perhaps architectural whakapapa is enough.  Swung from historical examples through to those built in recent years we are offered threads that tie these eras together.  That some form of thread exists is arguably sufficient – we don’t want to be defining the equivalent of an 8.125% architectural bloodline to be officially classed ‘Maori architecture’ (such a percentage method was officially used to define Maori identity up until the 1986 census).  References, links, ties, quotes, citations and allusions could all serve to claim descent, regardless of the depth of blend.

Rewi Thompson once wrote that the notion of Maori architecture is a myth.  He’s obviously changed his view given his appearance in episode twelve of Whare Maori, and his work being referenced in episode thirteen which looks at the future of Maori architecture.  Either that or he is gently toying with us, being in on a joke by Rau that there is no such thing as Maori architecture.  Posing the question at the start of each episode simply leads us to look for something that doesn’t exist, a way of teasing the audience.

Professor Hirini Mead has pointed out that before Te Maori there were no big discussions about how to define Maori art.  Commercial and government funding imperatives following Te Maori have meant that definitions have become more important.  To Professor Mead the question of whether there is anything such as Maori art would be like questioning whether Maori culture exists.  He offers one definition, which if we adapt to architecture comes out like:
“Maori [architecture] might then be defined as [architecture] that looks Maori, feels Maori, is done by Maori following the styles, canons of taste and values of Maori Culture.  A Maori [architect] might be defined as a person who identifies as Maori, is Maori by whakapapa and has some proven ability in Maori [architecture].  A Maori new to the field of [architecture] is Maori but not yet a Maori [architect].”

Such a view favours the traditional and would rule out much of what appears in Whare Maori, and not necessarily just the newer designs (Hiona at Maungapohatu doesn’t ‘look Maori, feel Maori’ and nor does it follows the ‘styles, canons of taste and values of Maori Culture’).  Professor Mead’s view doesn’t preclude advances in the field, where Maori cultural symbols are modified or reinvented to continue to be of great significance.  But such innovations must maintain ‘the integrity of Maori [architecture] so that it will always look and feel like Maori [architecture]’.

Professor Mead may be right or wrong with his definition of Maori [architecture], but that isn’t the point here.  It provides us with a framework to help us navigate the ever-developing world of Maori art/[architecture], something we can overlay upon what we see in order to make sense of it.  Throwing the door open to all or claiming there are no boundaries doesn’t help us deal with questions of appropriation, obligation, or authentication that are raised when asking ‘What is Maori architecture?’  Perhaps we’ll have to wait for a second season of Whare Maori to get our answer.


Professor Hirini Moko Mead, Maori Art Restructured, Reorganised, Re-examined and Reclaimed”, He Pukenga Korero, Koanga (Spring), 2(1), 1996, pp.1-7


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