He aha te whare?

Sitting in the Palmerston North City Council Archives is a little booklet promoting the need for a community centre that would serve a number of purposes for Maori.  On the cover of the booklet is a design for a three-storied building (the front of which is raised upon piloti) with an open courtyard at the first floor level, a three-bay barrel vaulted roof structure, and seven carved panels running along the first floor facade.  The title of the booklet is “Proposed Maori Community Centre for Palmerston North’ (click here for a pdf version).  The plans were included on the back cover, with a date of January 1956 and the architect noted as John Scott of Haumoana, Hastings.

MBB Front PageMBB Back Page

The building would become the Maori Battalion Memorial Building when finally opened in 1964.  The final building lost many of the January 1956 scheme’s elements, but the carved panels survived and gained prominence.  Te Ao Hou in 1959 had a write-up on John Scott and used a photograph of a model of the 1956 scheme, this time with only four carved panels.  Sometime between then and when construction started in 1963 Scott’s design became decidedly more influenced by Japanese architecture, with Vanya Steiner pointing in particular Kezno Tange’s well publicised 1956 community centre (although visually the eventual building perhaps owes more to Tange’s own house of 1953 (see below).  Tange was of course grappling with how to synthesize traditional Japanese building form and symbols with modern architecture, a theme that Bill McKay and Vanya Steiner both pick up on in their writings on the Maori Battalion Building.


Sketch of Maori Battalion Building from Te Ao Hou (June 1964)

Sketch of Maori Battalion Building from Te Ao Hou (June 1964)

The text of the booklet supports the view of the Maori Battalion Building being a complex negotiation between two cultures.  It reaches back to the early years of World War 2 where the local Maori War Effort Organisation saw demand for a building that could provide:

(1) Bed and meals for some of the Maori people visiting Palmerston North so they can be near sick relatives at the hospitals

(2) A Social-rest room for Maori people from as far afield as Feilding, Foxton, Rangiotu, Opiki and Shannon, who frequently visit Palmerston North for shopping, business and other reasons

(3) A meeting place for the Maori Youth Club.

By 1953 local Maori had raised $3,500 and bought the land in Cuba Street for the community centre to be built on.  By this stage another requirement had been added – that the building must serve as a war memorial “associated with the name and fame of the Maori Battalion”.  The brochure also notes that urbanisation of the Maori population had gained pace in recent years, and that “Maori people who come to Palmerston North belong to the four winds and are thus bereft of the sheet anchor of tribal community existence.”  This separation could be solved, the booklet says, “in a new centre of communal life” where Maori can find “the spirit, companionship, and sense of community which they have known from their early childhood.”

These elements of the evolving brief support Steiner and McKay’s arguments that this building is less an unsuccessful blending of cultures and more a realistic representation of their interaction.  Forced to come to an urban environment that is not their making, the Maori Battlaion Memorial Building must offer sanctuary to all who come but must also sit as part of the urban environment.  Added to that the building also had to commemorate what Apirana Ngata called the ‘price of citizenship’ – the loss of many Maori lives to show that they were equal in society to the majority Pakeha.  Synthesis would have been a misrepresentation of this complexity.  What they got was what they were after – a design that represented the tensions and accommodations that existed, and continue to exist.

Bill McKay, “Halfcaste or bicultural: John Scott, Maori and architecture in the 1960s”, pp.365-371 in inTerrance McMinn, John Stephens and Steve Basson (eds), Contested Terrains: Proceedings of the 23rd Annual SAHANZ Conference, 2006.

Vanya Steiner, “(Mis)appropriation in New Zealand Architecture’; An Incriminating Cite”, Interstices 4, Auckland University (CD-ROM), 1995. See here.


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