Whare Maori contained

Whare Maori series, Maori Television

Part of my purpose in writing an earlier post was to make up for what I perceived to be a lack of decent commentary of the impressive Maori Television series Whare Maori.  However, hidden away on the net and appearing in 2011’s Interstices 12 is an excellent review of the series by Carin Wilson of Studio Pasifika.  It isn’t a light review at all, taking us further into the thinking behind the series rather than just describing it at face value, in doing so adding some depth to the debate and discussion that the series deserves to provoke.

The question ‘what is Maori architecture?’ was posed at the start of each of the 13 episodes, but was never answered in my view.  Wilson agrees, but gives a reason why and then translates an answer from the series.  A literal reading of Whare Maori would point to a Maori house, but this is a superficial answer and one that does not describe the breadth of the concept.  Whare has meanings that “can be widely applied in relation to almost anything that collects or contains”, from easily recognisable forms such as buildings or gourds through to “more esoteric” bank of clouds. Wilson even points out how the term Maori is not simple to lock down.

Interstices 12 Cover

The answer, then, is that Whare Maori shifts us past the built form and the individuals involved and instead takes us to the cultural context they sit in, are derived from, and which they continue to shape.  Built form is simply “the structures defining space” which is “the stage that allows tangata (people) to embrace in a common social and cultural intent.”  Such an answer relies on a rigid view of architecture, as arguably that field in its Western sense is just as interested in how buildings shape and are shaped by their cultural and social context (immediate and more broadly).  Maori architecture is therefore the application of this thinking in a Maori context .  Yes, this is broader than the “familiar gabled roof form of tahuhu (ridgepole) and poupou (poles)”, but this only means the big shift is away from common misconceptions rather than shaking the foundations of architectural knowledge.  Perhaps that is the point – defining Maori architecture is as pointless as defining Western or New Zealand architecture.

Wilson’s use of the concept of container is an interesting one.  Whare Maori is contained within Maori Television, a predominantly government funded entity introduced in 2004 in part recognition of the Crown’s responsibility under the Treaty to actively protect Te Reo Maori.  Maori Television is therefore contained within a complex system of colonial relationships where its survival is only guaranteed by that which took it to the brink of extinction.  Wilson’s review is similarly contained within an academic journal that strives for excellence in the Western academic tradition, consuming any commitment to Te Ao Maori.  Similarly, Maori architecture is contained within a complex set of social, legal, and cultural contexts, all of which deny it (if it is an ‘it’) any sort of existence independent of these.  Whare Maori may well help us “to understand what differentiates the world-view that gave us these Maori structures”, but this differentiation is limited by the containment of Maori architecture within the field of architecture of the dominant culture.

For a review that speaks highly of Whare Maori’s success at differentiating Maori architecture from that which it is contained in, the choice of John Scott as Wilson’s pick of series high point is surprising.  In a passage seemingly channelling Russell Walden, he states how John Scott “effortlessly achieved a synthesis of two cultures” and “may have unintentionally written the manual on the quintessential New Zealand house”.  Is this implying that the contained has dissolved to the point of being indistinguishable from that which contains it?  Or is it a hope that the contained has somehow managed to reshape that which contains it?  Either way, there is no differentiation anymore, trying to answer ‘what is Maori architecture” is indeed pointless.


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