Merging indigenous traditions with architecture to preserve Maori heritage

Combining modern methods with indigenous traditions and iconography, a New Zealand architecture firm and a Maori tribe are cocreating new spaces that honor past and future.

indigenous architecture Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana visitor center

Rina Diane Caballar

July 3, 2018

min read
  • Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana, a visitor center and administrative space for the Ngāi Tūhoe tribe, blends Maori traditions and cultural beliefs into its architectural design.

  • The building features pouwhenua (land ownership markers) made of precast concrete and burnt timber, representing ancestral connections and the concept of ahikā.

  • The design incorporates a draped roof mirroring the life-giving force of Lake Waikaremoana's waters, and a timber screen sourced from tōtara to filter light and create a connection to the surrounding forest.

In a traditional Maori proverb, “While food provides the blood in our veins, our health is drawn from the land.” This innate connection was the guiding principle behind the architecture of Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana, a visitor center at Lake Waikaremoana in New Zealand’s North Island. The structure also serves a vital community function as an administrative space for the tribal authority of Ngāi Tūhoe, a Maori tribe indigenous to the area.

Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana, officially called Te Kura Whenua by Tūhoe, includes a welcoming area, dining area, kitchen and café, office space, and retail space. Located in a remote valley within Te Urewera overlooking Lake Waikaremoana (which means “sea of rippling waters”), the building represents the return for Tūhoe to Waikaremoana and Te Urewera, a return to the role of guardianship and occupation, after decades of exclusion by Crown agencies.

indigenous architecture pouwhenua
Pouwhenua, or posts marking land ownership, are made of precast concrete overclad in burnt timber. Image courtesy of Andy Spain/Tennent Brown Architects.

New Zealand architect Ivan Mercep conceptualized the design before his passing in 2014. Tūhoe then turned to Wellington-based architecture firm Tennent Brown Architects to continue the architectural role, incorporating cultural beliefs and traditions into the building’s design. “We looked for ways that the building could give expression to Tūhoe values and relationship to place,” says architect Hugh Tennent, the firm’s owner and codirector.

The project brief was already determined based on Mercep’s concept, but it developed and changed in line with how the Tūhoe people wanted their story to be told. “The building form was something we looked at and adjusted,” Tennent says. “The main changes were the draped roof and the addition of the concrete structural pouwhenua—three at each end.”

For these components, the design drew inspiration from the land and the surrounding lake. On the southern shore of Lake Waikaremoana are vertical sandstone slabs—remnants of the great landslip that formed the lake more than 2,000 years ago. The geomorphology of these slabs is tied to the structure of the pouwhenua, which are posts marking land ownership. Standing tall, the pouwhenua are made of precast concrete and overclad in burnt timber to represent the concept of ahikā—the ever-burning fires of dwelling and occupation, a link to their ancestry. “They provide a sense of threshold, of coming in through a gateway at each end, so you know you’re coming up to something significant,” Tennent says.

In contrast to the strength and power emanating from the stone pouwhenua is the draped roof, a softer element mirroring the life-giving force of the lake’s waters. To capture the roof’s curved form, the firm used Autodesk Revit.

Along the northern façade, twisting rainwater cables come down from the roof’s gutters. “The drape could be thought of as the basin of the lake, and we wanted the water to fall off its edges,” Tennent says. “The drape in the roof also shifts the building away from being a flat, commercial structure that you might find in the city to something more evocative of the water and the landforms.”

indigenous architecture Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana
Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana’s interior is an open, multiuse space featuring a welcome area and a dining space. Image courtesy of Andy Spain/Tennent Brown Architects.

Beneath the roof, along the two entry sides and the long, curved front is a timber screen sourced from tōtara, a local timber used for carving. The screen has bits of burnt timber on it and is suspended on a cable to move with the wind. It further softens the building, filtering light into the interior and creating a dappled shade behind it, like light passing between forest trees.

Due to the area’s remoteness, prefabrication was advantageous. The precast panels, the wooden frame of the building structure, and the floor panels were all prefabricated. “We were trying to do as much as we could away from the site and reduce the time on site,” Tennent says. “We also wanted to use local labor, so we tried to make the floor panels where the Tūhoe people could work on them.”

To reflect the Tūhoe people’s interconnection to the land, Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana was built sustainably. The building was designed according to the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) with a focus on LBC’s Materials Petal, an intent to help create a materials economy that is healthy, ecologically restorative, transparent, and socially equitable.

The net-zero energy and net-zero waste aims of the LBC were extended to include the sustainable infrastructure already in place at Waikaremoana. “The whole lake was already a battery for a power scheme,” Tennent says. “There was a good wastewater system and water supply, which we improved because of the extra demand of the building. Our main focus was on the materials palette and beauty—areas that really aligned with the project.”

The firm conducted exhaustive research to ensure a chemical-free and toxic-free building, avoiding construction materials or chemicals on the LBC’s red list. For instance, all of the timber was treated with micronized copper azole (MCA) instead of chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which contains arsenic—a known carcinogen.

indigenous architects timber screen
Beneath the roof, a timber screen softens the building profile and filters light into the building. Image courtesy of Andy Spain/Tennent Brown Architects.

Working with the Maori came with unique cultural challenges. “The leadership of Tūhoe are trying to do so much for their people, and they’re coming to decisions as their efforts progress,” Tennent says. “We had to be responsive and flexible.” The team also stumbled with the Maori language yet tried their best to learn. “Through that, we can better understand the spirit and ideas and what their values are,” he adds.

Tennent Brown Architects has taken on other Maori projects, including Mana Tamariki, an immersive educational environment. The building’s roof was conceived as a korowai, a sheltering cloak rising and folding through layered panels on the ceiling. Another project was Ngā Purapura, a sports and health building for Maori university Te Wānanga o Raukawa. The building’s focal point is the kākano, a domelike structure made to resemble a seed, which functions as a teaching and reflective space. The firm is currently working on Te Ara a Tawhaki, another building for the university that will serve as a lecture hall, library, and student hub.

Infusing indigenous culture and tradition into building design is key to preserving heritage. “It’s rewarding when you see the benefit, because for so many decades, there’s been a real lack of resources and capacity for Maori to build for themselves,” Tennent says. “It’s a privilege to work in that setting, and it feels very satisfying.”

Rina Diane Caballar

About Rina Diane Caballar

Rina Diane Caballar is a New Zealand-based writer covering the intersections of science, technology, society, and the environment.

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