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More than a koru, part three: What role does Māoridom play in New Zealand’s design identity?

Design reflects our heritage and identity. So what role does Māoridom play in New Zealand’s design identity? Who is able to do it? What principles need to be abided by? And how does a young country like New Zealand embrace the modern world while retaining its traditions? In part three of a series, we float down the country’s cultural currents with craftsman Carin Wilson and RCG Limited associated director Andy Florkowski and director John Lenihan. 

A matter of principle

Craftsman, sculptor and design educator Carin Wilson lives in a beautiful home that doubles as his studio in Pukeruru, just past Mangawhai.

Wilson is a former president and fellow of the Designer’s Institute of New Zealand, was the founding chair of Ngā Aho and is an honorary holder of Toi Iho, the quality mark for Māori Arts (he also carved the wood that is featured on this issue’s cover).

The offspring of a Māori father and Italian mother, Wilson was one of many involved in the establishment of a set of seven principles, or guidelines, called the Te Aranga Māori Design Principles.

The principles were developed by Māori design professionals in 2006 as a response to the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol published by the Ministry for the Environment in 2005.

“Until that time New Zealand relied on the Ministry to determine for us what the definition of place was. We looked at them and went ‘no way’ and if it isn’t, what do we have to establish in its place?” says Wilson.

The seven principles – Mana (rangatiratanga – authority), Whakapapa (names and naming), Taiao (the natural environment), Mauri Tu (environmental health), Mahi Toi (creative expression), Tohu (the wider cultural landscape) and Ahi Kā (living presence) – are founded on intrinsic Māori cultural values and, as per the Auckland Design Manual from the Auckland Council, “designed to provide practical guidance for enhancing outcomes for the design environment”.

They are now applied by Auckland Council, mana whenua authorities, private developers, and several architecture firms, including Jasmax, Warren & Mahoney, Woods Bagot and NH Architecture. 

Wilson says the principles are beginning to influence the way design and place is thought about and have been adhered to for award-winning spaces like Toi o Tāmaki (Auckland Art Gallery) and Te Oro (the Glen Innes Music and Arts Centre).

“How do we define place? In a Māori sense it’s the idea of engagement and belonging.”

One architecture firm that’s abiding by the Te Aranga Principles is RCG Limited. Associate director Andy Florkowski and director John Lenihan point to RCG’s project Wai Ariki – a luxury spa and wellness center that will be located on the Rotorua lakefront with a Te Ao Māori focus – as a good example of combining the old with the new.

Ngāti Whakaue narratives and elements of Te Arawa and Māori culture will be throughout the development, both in the design of the building, as well as in its spa and wellness offerings.

The spa is being developed by Pukeroa Oruawhata Trust, which RCG shares a 25-year relationship with, in conjunction with spa and wellness provider Belgravia Leisure.

With Wai Ariki to showcase iwi Ngāti Whakaue’s legacy and Rotorua’s famed spa heritage, Florkowski says one of the first things RCG did was put forward that it would follow the Te Aranga Principles.

“The principles recognise the input of all parties. It’s not just the output, it’s the process you go through, it’s a thread that starts at the very beginning of a process,” says Florkowski.  

He says the principles imbed the relationship with the land and people into the work.

“It’s about recognising and respecting everyone involved, environmentally, socially and economically.”

As Lenihan and Florkowski are non-Māori, they said the way they approach a project is crucial.

“[The] process and the way we follow certain methods is extremely important, and to recognise that. There are lots of voices involved in these types of projects, and it’s important to listen to all,” says Lenihan.

“Design is quite tricky because if you’re not Māori and you’re not living within that culture, you have to be respectful and not impose, or borrow something without understanding its full meaning.”

Lenihan says there is always a lot of discussion and research required to get that understanding.

“Some of it is quite abstract and embedded into the design and some of it is more decorative and literal, and when we get into the decorative and literal we get into using Māori artists, crafts people and designers.”

He says RCG’s role is working together with iwi on the journey.

“They are effectively making the decisions and you’re just guiding them. [Wai Ariki] becomes an embodiment of the people, the process and the stories, which has an output through architecture.”

Lenihan says the locally hired staff will help form the identity of Wai Ariki.

“The people who are going to run the facilities will help communicate the stories of Te Arawa. This is definitely a living institution, it’s contemporary, and will take on its own story as it goes.”

For Witehira, while he thinks the Te Aranga principles are “really useful and a really good start”, he says that he thinks there needs to be more local iwi-specific, and design-specific versions of that text.

And he has decided to do something about it, establishing with two friends in December last year an organisation called Indigenous Design and Innovation Aotearoa (IDIA) designed to create indigenous solutions to commercial, social and environmental issues.

On IDIA’S website it states: “Through our mahi we aim to support indigenous growth and excellence and push back against the homogenising and colonising effects of globalisation and technology.”

Witehira says one of the projects the team is working on is an Aotearoa indigenous design charter to provide basic guidelines for anyone wanting to engage with Māori design in a broad way.

“Then we are wanting to do more pragmatic guidelines, or more specific - i.e. I’m a product designer or a spatial designer, what are things I need to know? What are stories I should I look at to inform my practices? We’re looking to develop these kinds of guidelines and resources for designers in New Zealand, not just Māori.”

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