Surface treatment

Two recent Wellington buildings display an alarming approach to engaging with Maori aspects of their design.  Both Te Raukura Te Wharewaka o Poneke on the waterfront and Massey University’s new Creative Arts Building Te Ara Hihiko proudly announce themselves as Maori-inspired architecture, both appearing in Architecture New Zealand’s recent edition on bicultural architecture (and appearing on the Architecture Now! website here and here).  Yet both hold the most obvious Maori elements of their design at a distance, separate from the structure, at worst tacked-on.

Te Wharewaka’s maihi and amo when viewed from directly in front are what you’d expect, an integral part of the building. Rangi Kipa’s design leaves the poutahu unadorned – leaving us the raw steel column – and also denies us any connection of the maihi at the apex (no koruru here, which makes you wonder whose arms are reaching out).  But as we venture around the side of Te Wharewaka, we can see that the maihi and amo are held apart from the main structure of the building.  In fact, this separation is twofold – firstly the maihi and amo are attached onto a steel backing, and secondly this is then attached to brackets which hold the whole lot apart from the main structural elements.

The usual view is that Maori architecture does not have design applied to the structure, rather they are one and the same, integrally connected.  Pulling them apart therefore raises questions of the relationship between them, particularly whether the designs become so detached that they start to act more like the motifs that the arts and crafts movement pulled from Maori architecture and used as decoration on their own buildings.  This is especially interesting in the context of Linda Tyler’s opening comments on how appropriation of Maori motifs in art and architecture has ceased to cause cultural anxiety.  Perhaps she is right because we cannot recognise the new forms it is taking.  Tyler instead looks to the Killeen-inspired triangular roof pattern as an example of ‘a sophisticated nod to the cultural politics of yore.’  You see what you are looking for, I suppose.

Te Ara Hihiko gives us a different angle on the same theme.  Justine Harvey’s article in Architecture New Zealand mentions acoustic and soffit ‘artwork’ by ‘artist’ Jacob Scott (#1).  A nod is made toward the mythological aspects of the artwork, after which the article returns to ignoring any bicultural aspects.  The use of the terms ‘artwork’ and ‘artist’ are important – it separates Jacob and his work from the architecture.  This is probably an honest representation given the panels are stuck onto the structure like a decorative element (whilst serving an acoustic function).  This implicit definition as applied decoration is reinforced by the two-page cover image opening the article – it was taken before the soffit ‘artwork’ was attached to the entranceway, magnifying the fact that the building was architecturally complete before the art was stuck on.

In slapping Maori onto the building, Athfields missed an opportunity to explore innovative ways to integrate structure and Maori-inspired design.  The structure of Te Ara Hihiko is dominated by LVL, solid chunks of layered timber that adda weigthy feel to the building.  Jacob’s CNC technique could have been used to apply the concepts of Te Kore directly as part of the beams and columns, dissolving any notion of separation or distance.  The inscribed LVL would have come to life as the light (and darkness) danced across the undulations of the machine-carved designs.  But this would have required the architects to view the Maori design elements as an integral part of the building, and to view the likes of Jacob Scott and Rangi Kipa as architects not just artists (if there is such a distinction in this case).  Then we’d end up with some depth to bicultural architecture, rather than surface treatment.

#1 Note that in Architecture Now’s second article on Te Ara Hihiko there is much more space devoted to describing Jacob Scott’s work (about two paragraphs) than in the printed version, and Jacob is also referred to as ‘architectural designer and artist’ in the online second article (see here).

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