The most architectural element to Maori culture and life is arguably the relationship to land and how space is conceived –  not the built form that is commonly considered architecture in Western eyes.  Connection to whenua has been disrupted not only by the alienation of millions of acres of land over the last 200 years, but also by the imposition of a system of ordering and possessing space that runs counter to Maori norms.

Within 30 years of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi more than 40 million acres of land had transferred from Maori to Pakeha hands.  Between 1870 and 1910 a further 8 million acres had transferred (peaking at 600,000 acres a year in 1896/97 – about four times the size of Lake Taupo), and by 1920 Maori were left holding 4.7 million acres out of a total land area of more than 65 million acres.  By 1960 a further 1 million acres had gone.

The legal system, rather than confiscation or military conquest, facilitated the vast majority of this transfer of land.  Very early on it was recognised that Maori held title over the land, and that this title needed to be extinguished if the land was to be transferred and its economic potential released.  As Richard Boast notes “Collective forms of tenure were seen as an obstacle to economic modernisation.”  Up until 1865 the Crown used preemptive purchase by deed to secure millions of acres of land, and from 1865 began to use specific instruments of the law (the Native Land Court, and then later the Maori Land Court), to facilitate the movement of land from Maori.  These tools were so successful that Professor I H Kawharu referred to the system as “a veritable engine of destruction”.

But the loss of land is one thing, the loss of mana whenua that went with it is another.  Danny Keenan talks of mana whenua being “a kinship group’s claim to the power associated with possession of the land.”  It represents belonging, being, identity, and plenty.  Removal of land equals removal of rights to belong, to be.

Individualisation of title broke communal links and also broke the layers of usage rights that were standard in Maori custom.  This communal approach to land is often oversimplified, denying the complexities that existed, far different to how we view space and property rights today.  A single space could have had multiple groups holding different rights over it – a right of passage, a right to harvest a particular resource, a right to cultivate.  To say that one group ‘owned’ that space was therefore problematic, as was determining ownership through occupation.  That did not stop the Crown and its agents declaring a lot of the land they saw before them as ‘wastelands’ due to the lack of any obvious signs of ownership or occupation.

When architects think of the relationship between Maori and land it is often the romantic that comes through – a deep respect for the land, a strong bond and connection, a sustainable existence.  The political reality of the relationship is never recognised, even though it has dominated Maori thought and action since Pakeha set foot on these shores.  And nothing has been more political, or architectural, than the loss of land.

Richard Boast “The Evolution of Maori Land Law 1862-1993”, pp.65-120 in Boast, Erueti, McPhail and Smith, Maori Land Law, LexisNexis, Wellington, 2004.


  1. […] We all know that apparently no member of Tuhoe signed the treaty of Waitangi, and so that some of them therefore consider that they are not part of the rest of New Zealand. That has been largely ignored by the Government […]

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