Cloaking devices

Cloaks are one of the oldest garments – simple in form and function.  Wrapped loosely around the wearer, a cloak serves to protect what lies underneath from the elements outside.  Construction can be elaborate to denote high rank or importance, or can be the most basic single piece of fabric aiming to achieve its immediate task.

The cloak is appearing in New Zealand architecture with increasing frequency, particularly as part of buildings commissioned by or built for Maori clients.  In describing his designs for Te Kohanga Reo & Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Mana Tamariki (see here and here) Hugh Tennent points to the adoption of korowai concepts as a way to avoid falling into the common wharenui references.  Architecture+ also proudly talks about the exterior ‘cloak’ on Te Wharewaka (see here), in this case giving protection to the building just as an outer layer giving protection to the human body.

You can see the appeal of the kakahu (cloak) as driver – it has less historical baggage than whare, its functions translate easily to an architectural context, and everyone can relate to it (or at least to a cloak).  We’ve all at some point put a coat or cloak on to protect ourselves from the cold and rain, and so can easily follow the translation to a roof structure and fabric which is helping do the same.  Very few have this same familiarity with whare, especially wharenui or whare whakairo. Cloaks are safer.

Neither of these two examples explore the kākahu design reference in any great depth.  Tennent Brown keep it straightforward, looking to the korowai as a sheltering element for the educational work taking place under its span.  Like the Wharewaka, the korowai-derived roof at Mana Tamariki serves to draw the functions of the building together, in its case helping make clear that kohanga through to kura kaupapa are part of one educational body.

Front view of Mana Tamariki from

But there is no sense of weft or warp here, just long run.  There is no exploration of what the different forms of kākahu could mean architecturally.  Imagine the detail that could be extruded from examining the construction of a korowai, the translation of hukahuka (tassels) moving on the surface, or the technicalities of any taniko creating ornament whilst being an integral extension of the cloak.

Even the pākē, the most basic form of kākahu with its purely functional purpose and lack of ornamentation, had construction elements such as flat tags of thicker plant material that could lead to various interpretations for a roof.  And even if we didn’t want to be too literal, there is always the opportunity to explore how the process of colonisation nearly saw the disappearance of kākahu, and how far removed today’s usage of korowai is from pre-contact times.  In fact, how our modern eyes view kākahu (we only tend to think of the decorated korowai) perhaps denies more nuanced interpretations along the lines of senior weaver Eddie Maxwell’s belief that it is the mana of the wearer (i.e. in our case the building and its purposes) that determined the value of any kākahu, regardless of construction material or style.

Te Wharewaka takes the most complex approach to kākahu.  It achieves a korowai reference through the appropriation of a comb reference, via the abstractions of an artist (Richard Killeen) whose strongest influence was Gordon Walters.  That is one way to do it, a very black-polo-neck sort of way.  It is almost as though a Pakeha architect cannot engage with matters Maori without the safety of a well-respected modernist artist acting as translator (or is that medium?).

Not that it is a bad reference path.  Killeen’s triangles spark interesting architectural discussion in this setting – Hamish Keith has described his paintings as a “perpetual and restless struggle between the darks and the lights, and between ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ – a struggle in which neither gains superiority, and neither cancels the other, and in which unassimilated difference is always preserved.”  Quite appropriate given the context – it has certainly been a long struggle to get a local iwi presence back on the waterfront.  And it is interesting to think where the ‘unassimilated difference’ remains preserved in Te Wharewaka, or whether we can sense a struggle where neither gains superiority.


Deidre Brown, “Clothed not Clad. Maori Woven Architecture”, pp.59-63 in Celebration: Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, SAHANZ, Napier, 2005.

Linda Tyler, “Te Raukura Te Wharewaka O Poneke”, Architecture New Zealand, 4, 2012, pp.51-56 (see here).

Awhina Tamarapa (ed), Whatu Kakahu: Maori Cloaks, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2011.

Francis Pound, “The Escape from the Frame. Richard Killeen’s Cut-Outs”, Art New Zealand, 20, Winter 1981 (see here).

Francis Pound, Cut-outs Killeen, A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Art History, University of Auckland, 1991 (see here).



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