Thinking semiotically about Maori architecture

Mike Austin delivered a quietly significant paper at the 2014 SAHANZ conference (see here). He staged a flashback to the days of semiotics as a way of examining the shifts and developments that have occurred and are occurring in Maori architecture. The short and snappy exposition gave us a look at how syntax and semantic can act as a framework for weaving through the various approaches to appropriation or mis-appropriation. Equally impressive is that Austin does this with the minimum of reference to or quotation from dead French theorists, instead maximising the use of architectural examples from Aotearoa.

When an indigenous speaker adopts and modifies words from another culture (the semantic adaptations) they do so with full understanding of the structure of their own language (the syntax). When another culture adopts and modifies words from an indigenous language they often do so without such knowledge or understanding, the result being a misappropriation or stealing. Or put more simply, if you know the rules you can break them. If you innovate without knowing the rules, then you are at risk of simply making a mess.

Syntax   Semantic
Persists over time, provides the cultural foundation, resists quick adaptation and any appropriation risks misinterpretation Changes much more rapidly, adaptable, where innovation occurs through adoption and appropriation

Austin uses several examples to illustrate his point. The second door in Te Kooti’s Tokanganui-a-noho at Te Kuiti maintains the syntax of the whare with a single cell building with porch, but complicates semantically by introducing a second door (a double issue being at the back of the whare). Auckland University’s Tane-nui-a Rangi at Waipapa marae plays unsuccessfully with the syntax – the Pakeha design adopting the form but ignoring the structure, leaving Paki Harrison’s carvings only as cladding. Lyonel Grant avoids this mistake at Te Noho Kotahitanga by maintaining the structural job of the carvings, and instead successfully innovating syntactically by extending rafters out beyond the walls. Similarly, John Scott succeeds at Futuna Chapel with syntactic innovation by starting with the whare form and keeping the poutokomanawa, but failed with the Maori Battalion Building by designing a brutalist building and decorating it with Maori carvings (a semantic overlay).

It is a tempting thesis. It isn’t a defence of traditionalism, instead allowing for innovation and adaptation. You can look for the elements of authenticity and point to how these have been enhanced through adoption of new methods or approaches, and you can point to instances where tradition has been overrun by poor understanding and over enthusiastic appropriation. In this way it is like an evolution tree, not about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but instead providing a way for us to determine lineage and perhaps even whakapapa.

You could, however, say it provides a framework for authorising architectural innovation when it comes to things Maori. One risk is that the approach is simply a way to justify a ‘correct’ or ‘right’ approach to Maori architecture, primarily framed by those in the profession who decide legitimacy. In terms of innovation who cares whether it followed the right rules? Yes they may not be seen as ‘acceptable’ according to this framework but perhaps that is because the semantic has yet to become the new syntax, or the innovation was a step ahead of where the syntax was heading to.

It is an approach that is worthy of being explored further. When does the semantic change so much that it becomes the new syntax (Te Kooti’s second door, for example)? How does a syntactic shift become the new semantic? Are semantic shifts speeding up with changes in technology or the impacts of (post-) colonisation? Or perhaps there are some simpler tasks to begin with – is this most European of constructs a valid tool for assessing the value of a kaupapa Maori practice?

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