The Theatre of Cultural Battles in NZ Architecture

Rameka Alexander-Tu’inukuafe’s article in the November/December 2016 issue of ArchitectureNZ (see here) highlights a situation that is currently being played out across a number of professions.  Pakeha institutions (accounting firms, lawyers etc) are waking up to the growth of the Maori economy and are starting to grapple with how to maintain their position of power whilst also claiming part of the new market.

What I liked about Rameka’s article – and ArchitectureNZ’s response from their Communications Manager (John Walsh) – was the sense of theatre around there actually being a significant tension at play here.  Rameka’s allusions to Nga Tamatoa evoke a sense of vocal injustice that reverberates across the nation’s psyche, whilst John Walsh implies that the likes of Rau Hoskins, Rewi Thompson and Mike Barns were change agents from outside the system.

First of all, lets not fall into this theatrical trap.  The protests staged by the individuals Rameka mentions are at best a ‘fun-sized’ version of the impact that Nga Tamatoa managed to have.  Or perhaps it is more a comment on the relative insignificance of the architectural profession that noises by these professionals can be seen as important as the national impact Nga Tamatoa had.  The fact that all of the individuals mentioned were architecturally trained and have worked for many years in architectural practices and/or educational institutes teaching architecture hardly qualifies them as ‘outsiders’.  It is especially difficult to assign such a title to the likes of Mike Barns, who has spent the last decade or more chasing the corporate dollar in the Middle East’s architectural building bonanza.

Lets also not be as gentle as Rameka was – the architectural profession has long been part of the colonial machine and it is a racist profession.  In controlling the requirements to become an architect – the levels of training, the nature of the skills and experience, and specifying whose qualifications are accredited – it has actively been part of denying traditional knowledge.  Alongside building legislation which eliminated traditional construction due to being unsafe and unsanitary, the architectural profession has been part of a very effective set of mechanisms that wiped out any sense of Maori building practice and in their place established an approach that is now seen as ‘normal’.

Rameka is not questioning the pervasiveness of these institutional arrangements.  He accepts them, instead arguing that more Maori architects (i.e. those who have been acculturated by the architectural profession) are needed, “changing things from inside existing practices”.  But very little true change can occur this way.  Architects and their practices – regardless of who their clients are – are bound by the set of institutional arrangements that ensures from the outset that Maori values and approaches are contained within firmly established boundaries.  This shoves them into the marginal, allowed to be expressed through design or process, but unable to alter the fundamentals.

Lets put some real challenges on the table.  How about Maori and iwi organisations use their economic power to fund the work of Maori designers who are not architects or LBPs (i.e. are not bound by the NZRAB or other licensing systems) and are willing to invest in buildings that do not comply with consent requirements? This would threaten the fundamentals – the building code, the authority bound up in the consent process, insurance and liability issues, the right of professional bodies to determine who can do what – which truly define the culture of our architecture.

Of course such an approach is very high risk and unlikely to be undertaken by anyone other than those truly on the margins.  We get glimpses of it when protestors hoist temporary accommodation structures (which are often the physical expression of illegal activity), or when researchers investigate the potential for traditional construction techniques (but then face the question of proving them against a set of standards if they are to be implemented). Such a shift is highly unlikely, which goes to show how much has been lost and what can never be recovered.  It is a form of extinction.  Rameka’s calls are to be supported, but should not be confused with any true revival of traditional building practices.

Rameka Alexander-Tu’inukuafe on…“A Ngā Tamatoa perspective on Māori architecture”, ArchitectureNZ November/December 2016, http://architecturenow.co.nz/articles/rameka-alexander-tuinukuafe-ona-nga-tamatoa-perspective-on-maori-architecture/

Advance: Research with Impact, Spring 2014, ‘A Māori Approach’ – http://www.unitec.ac.nz/advance/index.php/maori-architecture/

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