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New Zealand Institute of Architects









Winner - Isabella Muirhead

Isabella Muirhead from Waipapa Taumata Rau, The University of Auckland, Te Pare School of Architecture and Planning is the winner of the 2023 Student Design Awards for project 'Common Ground: Weaving a conduit for environmental knowledge at Hiwiroa Station'.

Project description

This project speculates on a future ‘knowledge architecture’ for a world increasingly wracked by environmental disaster. It specifically addresses the context of Aotearoa, especially the co-existence of multiple unique strands of knowledge within a colonised territory. Elevating marginalised knowledge of Aotearoa’s Indigenous forest ecology could play a critical role in mitigating future environmental damage, so this project re-imagines the divide between conventional farming and reforestation. Such a multifaceted issue sets a significant challenge for this project to navigate, the breadth of which is condensed through the positioning of architecture as a conduit for discussion within the battleground of the land, rather than an all-powerful solution.

The selected site – Hiwiroa Station, a farm north of Gisborne – tests the capability of architecture to support this complex discussion; its landscape is indicative of nationwide cultural and environmental fractures. The design outcome is a ‘forum for vernacular environmental knowledge’: a regional-scale touchpoint for the generation and proliferation of ideas. It aims to interweave myriad strands of knowledge, allowing them to occupy a simplified, immersive space, with the goal of strengthening the relationship between people and the land.

The spaces are sequenced according to the steps of creating and proliferating knowledge – the scheme employs the plan as a diagram, where knowledge is at the intersection of nature and people. A curated approach to materiality ensures that the whole building can be fabricated from the resources of the site: earth, flax, recycled timber and recycled corrugated iron are all used, emphasised within the scheme.

The architectural proposal is anchored in a masterplan, which proposes large scale-forest regeneration, the restoration of traditional mahinga kai, and selective farming corridors for a downsized sheep and beef operation, with land-use decisions made based on the suitability of the terrain rather than productive capacity.

Jury citation

Incredibly sophisticated in thinking, demonstration, execution and presentation. Flawless and impressive. This is a massive undertaking philosophically and it is beautifully held together by the premise of weaving, which also serves as a guide.

The concept sits within the understandings of both the Māori and Pākehā worlds. The knowledge of both worlds is celebrated, neither is compromised. They elevate each other. Radical tension is present. The fundamental question of what it means to be Māori and Pākehā and dealing with modernity, without losing culture, has been asked.

While the proposition for the site is significant, it’s one to be excited about. Despite the structure being bold, the way it has been portrayed through lines of sight, how the spaces work and link present ideas that are interesting and well resolved. The site and its value have been fully understood through significant thinking. The plan reveals how one might belong to the land.

The concept is underpinned by sustainable use and re-use and by enriching community. The building allows occupation on the site in a very interesting and sincere way. The solution to spaces and their use is democratic. There is incredibly deep thinking and impressive resolution.

The project acknowledges the mental health fallout for people living on land that has been devastated by severe weather events and brings inspiration and fresh hope.

Materiality is beautifully rendered, regional in nature and reflects cultural history.

Deliberate framing enables the hill to be seen and to breathe.