Wharewaka vs Novotel – a fork in the road?

The settlement of Treaty claims is slowly starting to impact on New Zealand’s Architectural scene.  Two projects instigated or enabled by Maori funders were winners in the 2012 New Zealand Architecture Awards, both in the commercial category.

If your architectural world was restricted to that promoted by the New Zealand Institute of Architects, then the appearance of these two buildings in the awards would be a monumental shift.  The only other examples to incorporate Maori design were all government funded (for example, Te Kohanga Reo & Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Mana Tamariki by Tennent + Brown Architects in 2010 (see here and here)).  None of these have won any of the Supreme Awards or Architecture Medals given out by the Institute.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Maori Architecture didn’t exist in New Zealand.

Convener of the awards jury, Hugh Tennent, was careful in his media release to not call these two finalists ‘Maori buildings’ or ‘Maori architecture’.  Instead the Novotel Auckland Airport and Te Wharewaka on Wellington’s waterfront are described as conveying “a sense of what is physically and culturally unique about New Zealand” through their design. He is confident describing Te Wharewaka, noting its well-detailed steel cloak that gives it a prickly and armour-plated demeanour, but much less so when describing the Novotel (which only gets nods to it ‘capitalising on opportunities to add distinctiveness to an inevitably generic building type’ and ‘the splayed legs on the exterior structure’).

Of course, there have been plenty of buildings and structures funded and designed by Maori in the last decade.  That they have not been recognised by the New Zealand Institute of Architects says more about the Institute than it does about the buildings themselves.  What will be interesting is whether coming years will see more Maori-funded and Maori-commissioned buildings, and the direction that these will take.

We can look at the 2012 examples as pointing in two different directions.  The Novotel is a case of a generic commercial typology being ‘Maori-ised’ in the service of its core function.  Warren & Mahoney’s website beautifully details the inspirations and references from Maori culture that enhance the ‘New Zealand experience’ for tourists staying at the hotel.  Te Wharewaka on the other hand is the placement of traditional Maori building forms into a modern context, to the point where the usually separate wharewaka, wharenui, and wharekai are fused together.  Its core function is effectively being ‘Pakeha-ised’ to offer a range of services in order to pay its way, and undoubtedly to fit in with its neighbours.

Breaking the government-funding bond in no way guarantees an easy future for Maori architecture.  As Deidre Brown notes in her bookMaori Architecture: from fale to wharenui, government funding for capital projects often brought with it a commitment to engage in bicultural design processes and to strive for an outcome that honestly reflected this partnership.  With this commitment gone, there is a chance that other imperatives will step in and be the dominant force.  The responsibility will then sit solely with the Maori organisations and individuals who commission and fund these buildings – the future direction is now up to them.

The other dimension to this future is the role that the New Zealand Institute of Architects will play in defining what is ‘Maori Architecture’.  The risk is that only those buildings that stray into the Institute’s prescriptions will get recognised (as has been the case to date), rather than some shift the other way.


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