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Context, or modernising Maori architecture in Waikaremoana


Text: Jack Davies
Above image: View of the entrance walkway through the ‘eye of the ancestors’ circular window. Photographed by A. Dangerfield. Image courtesy of NZ Historic Places Trust

New Zealand’s Maori architectural legacy is rarely discussed in Australia, especially in the central Melbourne part of the world that I occupy. In order to more clearly understand the issues surrounding Australia’s Indigenous architectural heritage, it’s useful to draw comparisons to New Zealand’s own treatment of its heritage. Its search for a voice ebbs and flows depending on to whom you talk and heritage structures are sparse; our country’s age could have something to do with this.

Once a month for the rest of the year, I hope to introduce some critical thought on the architecture and interesting events taking place in my home country – New Zealand.

The discussion about lost heritage has recently surfaced in Te Urewera, a region of Lake Waikaremoana in the central North Island. Early March marked the opening of the new Tuhoe headquarters by Jasmax in the town of Taneatua, close to Whakatane. It is the first building in New Zealand to attempt to abide by the LBC (Living Building Code) – to be a structure that is net-energy gain. Colloquially, it is generally understood to be a living building. The event marks a shift in the perception of the area as more inclusive – it has long been associated with its fiercely private and strong-willed tribe, against a backdrop of heavily forested, often walked areas. The new building is a symbolic gesture towards the repairing of the historically fractured relationship between the Tuhoe tribe and the crown.

Concept sketch for the building by John Scott, 1974. Scott Archive. Image courtesy of Hana Scott

Concept sketch for the building by John Scott, 1974. Scott Archive. Image courtesy of Hana Scott

Tamati Kruger, chief negotiator and new chairperson of Te Urewera for Tuhoe, believes that Tuhoe needed both a symbol that states the tribe has moved on, while holding important things close. The project is the first in a proposed series of two, designed by the Auckland architectural firm Jasmax. The second is conceptualised as a replacement for the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre, which was designed by John Scott. This landmark building (and, more recently, a controversial one) has both delighted and infuriated its occupants over the course of its 40-year life – and its schedule for demolition in 2011 galvanised a group of architects to petition for its listing as a Heritage site. In an attempt to summarise both Tuhoe’s new headquarters and Scott’s visitor centre, a cross-section of the tensions around Aniwaniwa will be explored, with the intent of extracting elements of it that are still valid, even in its current ruinous state, and arguing that they should be incorporated into the new design – before it is reclaimed by the bush.

The new headquarters is an indication of how far architecture in this area has travelled in the past 40 years. It is boldly environmental. Initiatives include sourcing products and materials that contain zero toxic chemicals and weighing up the impact of using local materials that are not 100 percent ‘green’ compared with transporting something ‘greener’ from miles away. Other challenges included designing novel systems to deal with wastewater, heating and cooling the building efficiently, generating solar energy and finding a way to track native logs through certified mills. The project also includes a world-first for its seismic resistant timber structure.

Jasmax’s headquarters is a proud structure, built with NZ$15 million of tribe money. It accommodates new activities for all members of the tribe – archives of treaty documents, performances and other community-based activities. It employs 20 staff members and also incorporates a café. Visually, it combines elements from a traditional marae and a woolshed – a safe but distinct gesture among extensive landscaping.

I wonder whether its scale skews the public perception of its value. A tighter building would have had the focus directed at its clear environmental positives, rather than prompt gripes about how expensive it looks. In simple terms, it was expensive – and at this cost, and with the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre existing as almost a dedicated palimpsest, the qualities of the interior could have been more choreographed and less incidental.

Inside the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre

Inside the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre

A question has to been raised about Tuhoe marginalising its people with a building such as this – a statistically poverty-stricken tribe pouring NZ$15 million into a building that cannot possibly be utilised by all of its members. The prominence of the ‘localness’ of its construction – labour and material – is being viewed as a step forward for their relations with the rest of New Zealand, but it may be just further confirmation that Tuhoe would prefer to be an independent state. Kruger argues that the money is well spent and will inspire the community to help themselves. When they do so, Tuhoe will then subsidise their endeavours – helping its tribe develop deep self-reliance and move away from a beneficiary culture.

The second building is scheduled for completion in the next couple of years. Its design runs parallel with the dwindling life of John Scott’s Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre. Scott was New Zealand’s first practising Maori architect – a name not familiar in Australia, but one canonically engrained in New Zealand’s modern cultural heritage. His buildings have been internationally recognised as combining Maori and modern elements. Futuna Chapel (1964) is one of his most celebrated works.

Designed and supervised on-site by Scott in 1974, Aniwaniwa can be described as a site-specific tree house – a visitor centre located in the canopy of Te Urewera National Park. Jake Scott, his son, says, “[It is a building that] exists in a context that it connects with on many levels. It’s part of a story of the place, the land, the people, the past and the future and the story is articulated within the building’s design in its placement, form, function, detailing, in and outlooks, history and future.” Instead of clearing a site in a more accessible location, Scott deliberately designed a series of pavilions with concrete ramps and breezeways connecting each together. Its level-changing concrete basement structure was lightened with a timber superstructure, simply clad in fibre-cement sheeting.

The user is rarely exposed to the exterior of the building – its qualities coming from peering out of the varied windows, their size and shape seemingly chosen at random, but always framing a different view out. The five levels engage the user in a way not dissimilar to a tree house, and it simultaneously compresses and exposes the user to the forest through the transition spaces. Along the pathways, the building is often out of view, and the bush takes over – allowing the user to acknowledge Tane Mahuta, the god of birds, trees, light and knowledge.

View from inside the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre

View from inside the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre

Marae combines elements of the church, the human heart, a fireplace and a place of reflection. Scott’s Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre is a church to the forest it lightly inhabits, in the face of the forest methodically reclaiming it. A combination of unfortunately site-inappropriate materials and the relentless weather has claimed it, and today it is falling closer to demolition. Its soffit detailing – internal gutters to avoid foliage blocking the drains – solved issues in theory, but poor workmanship of the wall/roof join allowed water to penetrate. Hana Scott, John’s granddaughter, believes that its ruinous state is because the building was undervalued and disrespected, though she does say, “The beautiful thing about it now in its current state is that it has aged harmoniously with its surroundings, and this essentially makes the building more alive.”

A move by the Department of Conservation to demolish the building has merit – it is on public land and is dangerous, due to its susceptibility to earthquakes and its rotting interior, which is unsafe to occupy. However, a petition has secured the building as Grade A Heritage listed.

The tension between demolishing and, in a way, monumentalising the building is this: is it being misread as a building of high quality because of the pedigree of the architect, or is it a genuinely important building that has aggressively deteriorated due to its rainforest site? I suspect it is more the latter – a building possessing extraordinary light quality and circulation. With a less single-minded approach during construction, it could have been reinforced at an early stage with a more resilient material approach.

Therefore, its existence beyond today is to be carefully monitored and documented, as it is a sensitive, modern, distinctly Maori architecture. Its continued existence will see it studied by generations of New Zealand architecture students, who will learn from its successes and shortcomings. Eventually, if it is not sped up by demolition, it will return to Te Urewera forest, leaving only a concrete skeleton – which would be fitting for a building shouldering this meaning.

The spirit of Aniwaniwa is strongest in its dissolving nature – the approach taken by modernist architects to provide a singular vision was eschewed in favour of an approach that floats above the canopy and unravels the further you enter in. In light of its shortcomings as a permanent structure, it defines traditional Maori architecture in the way that is consolidated in the landscape, but temporary – unsuited to today’s strictly regulated occupation. Jake Scott says, “[It is] sitting there, as buildings do – waiting for a new use and relationship with Tuhoe. It is integrated into the bush, establishing itself like an ageing tree, beautiful and worthy of a respectful life.” If Jasmax can marry the qualities of Aniwaniwa’s spatial conditions and John Scott’s design philosophy, while learning from its difficulties, then the new visitor centre has an opportunity to mean as much to the wider New Zealand community as it does to its locals.


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