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New Zealand Institute of Architects









Hoa Mahi: Speaking New Worlds into Being

by Abigail Temby Spence

Architecture is physical proof of belonging. It embodies meaning: culture, values and beliefs become solidified. The question is always whose culture, whose values, whose beliefs? My first degree in linguistics makes me conscious of the slippery nature of words; how they elide old meanings or distort to take on new ones. I have seen ‘bicultural’ twisted to mean Māori-Pākehā instead of Tangata Whenua-Tangata Tiriti. The word ‘multicultural’ can recognise the diversity of peoples in Tangata Tiriti, or bury the centrality of Māori as Tangata Whenua and Pacific peoples as Tangata Moana. To stop my words from assuming unintended meaning, when I write ‘Tauiwi’ I mean all people who are not Māori, with Pākehā a subset of Tauiwi. I write this piece to Tauiwi, and in several places speak more directly to Pākehā. I am Pākehā, approaching my final M.Arch (Prof) year, looking into the basket of tools I have developed and realising none of them enables me to design as Tangata Tiriti.

Our built environments are never neutral: they are always speaking. Some civic projects feel distinctly of Aotearoa and the Pacific, while some of our streets are ‘more English than England’. Architecture, like words, can speak to old worlds or speak new worlds into being. These worlds define who we are, how we see our future, and most critically: who belongs in that future. One of the roles of architects is to choose which reality they wish to see more of. Architecture, then, can be an act of rebelling. An act of willing new realities into being, even if those realities are young and still emerging. Architecture can be a wilful act of hope.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum reflects a reality obsessed with power and dominance over land and people. The architecture reads not ‘I am of this place’, but ‘I have conquered this place’: you, your culture, your lands. Inside this, Te Ao Mārama in the South Atrium speaks of new realities: a stunning example of how Māori and Pacific worlds can come together in place-making. It is both re-Māorification and recognises the mana of Pacific peoples, weaving Aotearoa into Te-Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa. I am not Māori or from the Pacific, yet Te Ao Mārama speaks to me in a way the original museum never can.

Identity and architecture tangle together. As Tangata Tiriti, the shape of my architectural process must start with the Treaty: the provision anyone can make their home here, on the condition this is never at the expense of Māori. There is freedom in this. The Treaty gives me a way to live in Aotearoa, a welcome guest, invited into a relationship with the people who were already here. Without it, I am merely a descendant of colonial settlers who turned a blind eye to the murders, false imprisonment and theft that underpinned the transfer of land from Māori to Tauiwi; a descendant who has to keep turning a blind eye by insisting ‘We’re all Kiwis now’, as a means of erasing Māori and settler identity, thereby erasing my complicity.

Recognising the new reality emerging around us requires the same attentiveness to that of language. Māori and Tauiwi students are questioning the heavy emphasis on European architecture in the BAS and M.Arch (Prof) curricula – or, perhaps, the lack of tools to translate that to our context in Aotearoa and Te-Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa. Larger firms have invested in indigenous design units, and the NZIA signed a covenant with Ngā Aho to “formalise an ongoing relationship of co-operation”.1

Yet this willingness of Tauiwi to engage with Māori explores only part of what is required. Somehow, in our desire to work with Māori, we have abdicated responsibility for training ourselves to engage as Tangata Tiriti.

Two cries encapsulate the ways we meet Māori partway, and I have been guilty of both. The first is “Let me help you!” This is dishonest: it pushes the burden of work onto Māori, without recognising the intergenerational impact of white supremacy in this country. ‘White supremacy’ is the collective way white values and norms are cemented in powerful systems over generations. It is frequently misunderstood by Pākehā to be an individual act of hatred, shutting down serious engagement, allowing us to hide behind language of ‘white privilege’ and framing Māori as being in deficit. They must work to ‘close the gap’, while Pākehā and other Tauiwi feel benevolent for donating time or resources. Addressing white privilege results in more diverse conference speakers, but it does not require the transformation of Tauiwi architectural practice.

The second cry is “Teach me!” in which Alison Jones exposes the darker, implicit “Let me mine you for your discoveries”.2 We see Māori as a resource for our research, design projects or firms. Requesting to be taught is like choosing a floating ribraft foundation, a practical way to avoid the hard work of connecting with the whenua ourselves. Digging into our architectural practice and education curricula, breaking a sweat, breaking assumptions, breaking Western tools that are not fit for the task, and fashioning new ones that allow us to work as Tangata Tiriti.

Both of these approaches place the burden on Māori architects and academics. They are already working what has been documented as a ‘double-shift’; on call to multiple institutions and organisations for their advice, expertise, and blessing of projects and research. Māori students are expected to dispense opinions and perspectives in class on top of the already heavy tertiary workload: their double-shift has started early. Allowing this double-shift to continue in practices and education mocks the spirit in which Te Kawenata o Rata was signed.

So, how do we practise architecture differently? How can we prepare our graduates with the tools they need to work as Tangata Tiriti? How can we shift from the saviour/exploiter mind-set to that of hoa mahi, co-workers alongside Māori? Sarah Lynn Rees, an indigenous architect and academic based in Tasmania, challenges the notion of ‘closing the gap’ by inverting it to become ‘the non-indigenous gap’.3

In other words, it is not a Māori deficit that needs addressing; it is ours. We are looking at a profession-wide inability to engage with and work alongside Māori in a sophisticated and meaningful way. A small number of Tangata Tiriti can do this, but to work in the capacity required we need engagement with Māori to become a core competency. This in no way diminishes the need for indigenous design practice and leadership. The reverse is true: an entire profession of architects working as Tangata Tiriti alongside Māori would create greater possibilities for reindigenisation.

Critically, the shift in mind-set places the responsibility for closing this gap squarely on Tauiwi. We are responsible for educating each other in our architecture schools and practices. It is not up to Māori to teach us what practising architecture as Tangata Tiriti looks like. As Pākehā, I realise I need to hone an additional skill: how to navigate being a Treaty partner without framing other Tauiwi as somehow lesser members in the relationship. Whatever educating ourselves looks like, it must emphasise this.

Designing as Tangata Tiriti allows us to approach projects like we would any other project where cultural learning is required; a Jewish school or a Tongan arts centre. We assume we lack essential knowledge and prepare to question everything, from forms and use to spatial relationships. It requires working closely with the community/client and releases us from the pressure of always needing to appear the ‘expert’. Design is one of the few professions where approaching projects as a perpetual learner is considered a strength.

It also addresses apprehension around cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation occurs when we mine kaupapa Māori for our projects, when (consciously or not) we attempt to design as outsiders. Becoming Tangata Tiriti means leaving the ‘outsider’ position. It requires engaging with Aotearoa’s 19th-century history, tikanga and Māori values. We can mine our own cultures, looking for overlap in expressions of hosting, for example, and how this plays out spatially. I believe the process of becoming hoa mahi will change us into the kind of people rangatira imagined when they signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi.4 Our architecture will change too, in ways we cannot predict, as we develop an architectural language that affirms Māori as Tangata Whenua while speaking to others as Tangata Tiriti. Our architecture will be proof that all of us belong.


1. Ngā Aho. “New Zealand Institute of Architects and Ngā Aho sign Te Kawenata o Rata”, accessed 14 October 2022,
2. Jones, Alison. This Pākehā Life: an Unsettled Memoir. (Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books, 2020), 197.
3. Rees, Sarah Lynn. “Closing the [non-indigenous] gap”, in Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture, ed. Rebecca Kiddle, Luugigyoo Patrick Stewart, and Kevin O’Brien (San Francisco: ORO Editions, 2018), 176.
4. Nairn, Mitzi. “The Pākehā of the Future”, in State of the Pākehā Nation: Collected Waitangi Day Speeches and Essays 2006-2015, ed. Heather Came and Amy Zander (Whangārei, New Zealand: Network Waitangi Whangārei), 125.


This essay was highly commended in the Open category of the 2022 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

Photo: Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Te Ao Mārama and Cenotaph Galleries by Dennis Radermacher.