Te Wharehou O Tuhoe – who’s view of sustainability?

Ivan Mercep from Jasmax is perhaps the first architect to get a commission in Taneatua.  The small Bay of Plenty town (officially its 800 residents means it is classified as ‘a populated area less than a town’) is experiencing a flurry of construction activity as Ngai Tuhoe build their headquarters – Te Wharehou o Tuhoe.

Monsoon Pictures is letting us keep in touch through video updates, posted on the ‘wall’ of the Facebook page devoted to Te Wharehou.  Here’s the links to the first instalment, the second on the piling work, and the third which is an extended trailer for what looks like an upcoming documentary.

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I’m intrigued by all the buzzwords used to describe sustainability in the videos.  The word sustainability itself drips constantly from the mouths of the architects – particularly Jasmax’s Sustainability Manager Jerome Partington – and even gets punctuated with ‘truly’ just to make sure we know this isn’t any ordinary sustainability we are talking about.  The usual concerns of architects pop up – energy use, materials, efficient resource use, pollution, waste, and that term that no architectural conversation can be without, vision.  Jerome proudly announces that success will be achieving New Zealand’s first living building – an international standard that you only know you’ve met some two years after completion.

The language of the Tuhoe people is slightly different.  Energy and materials make an appearance when they describe sustainability, but there’s more emphasis on community, unity, bringing people together and bringing people home.  Later on the language turns more to living independently, away from the grid, but only softly so.  These are a people who never signed the Treaty and whose calls of mana motuhake are often heard as demands for self-government – but you’d never know that from these stories.

This limitation to the Tuhoe words should make us question what we are being told.  The audience are those that hunger for the latest architectural view on sustinability or those with an interest in what is happening with New Zealand architecture.  So while a couple of comments are made about the difficulties Tuhoe have had in using their resources, the narrative isn’t about to dip into the deeper issues.  While the setting is the exotic Taneatua (the wrong type of rural – a poor rural, not one with white gold flowing from udders) the story we are being told is one designed for urban middle-class ears.

Professor Rawinia Higgins gives us a different take on Te Wharehou o Tuhoe.  She was a speaker at the third of five constitutional review debates held by Radio New Zealand.  In her segment she uses a building analogy to talk about Tuhoe’s constitutional aspirations.  The context for Rawinia’s talk allows her to present a very different narrative around what Te Wharehou O Tuhoe means and is attempting to achieve.  It is no less about sustainability, just not the way that architects tend to think about it.  This is about the sustainability of a people.

Being able to live off the grid is an expression of mana motuhake, which Rawinia notes is as much about interdependence as it is independence.  Success here is not achieving an international architectural standard, but the survival of a people who have for years combated impositions of all types.  The creation of a HQ that is self-sufficient and not reliant on the national grid is a powerful statement of Ngai Tuhoe’s desire to be self-sufficient and not reliant on the State.  That this ambition just happens to involve a number of components that fit well with how the architectural mainstream view sustainability (use of local materials & labour etc) should not mean that this is Ngai Tuhoe’s starting (or end) point.  Success for them looks very different.  And that is probably the clearest differentation between a Maori approach to sustainability and that being sought by the architectural community.

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