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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Architectural racism Print E-mail

ImageTena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa,
(My greetings to everyone)

Thirty years ago, when the Planning Department of the University of Auckland moved into a new building, a "marae" teaching space was established. This allowed students and staff to relate to each other in traditional Maori ways. It was not a marae in a formal sense, but made possible those functions of a marae which had existed for a thousand years before the first colonists arrived.





At the time it was not hard to justify because sustainability was just becoming popular and even "non-believers" could see the logic of "long-life, low-energy, loose fit" buildings which provided a choice of different teaching styles. The needs of future generations did not need to be pre-determined when lecturers could choose between the authoritarian power structure of the podium lecture room, the marae space with its completely different rituals, and a good many variations in between. Diverse architectural possibilities all had a place in the sun.

For thirty years Maori students found a place where they could not only feel at home but also stand tall. Maori lecturers could speak of traditional values in their customary way. Hospitality which had been experienced when students went off on field trips could be returned.

The marae was however not just a space for Maori. It was rather a way of seeing and a place for cultural understanding. It was in this space that all the great creative contributions made by the Planning Department over the last thirty years were born. The idea of "Peaceful Cities", announced by the New Zealand government at Habitat II in Istanbul, began here. The first draft of Chapter Seven of Agenda 21 was written in this space. From this space the students went out into the streets to protest about apartheid in South Africa.

A South African architect was recently appointed to be Head of the Planning Department. One of his first moves was to destroy the marae space.

Apartheid was much more than the conviction that niggers were inferior. It was also a power structure which made it possible for a tiny white minority to control a vastly greater number of blacks. When that structure began crumbling many South Africans fled to countries like New Zealand, sadly in too many cases taking both their power skills and their racist attitudes with them. In the spirit of manaakitanga (traditional hospitality) Maori made them welcome.

It seemed as though those fleeing the collapse of apartheid would make excellent administrators in large organisations such as universities. Before long the "New Zealand Architecture" course was discontinued. the "Conservation Architecture" course was discontinued. and even "Vernacular Architecture", one of the most popular courses, was discontinued. The new corporate university had arrived, serving a powerful elite rather than the community.

A storm of protest might have been expected from staff and students alike, but there was almost nothing. Those who did act as "the critic and conscience of society" (as required by the Act defining the role of universities) went the way of the marae space. Power rewards the compliant. Even the role of the Court Jester was forgotten.

Maori have traditionally been among New Zealand's best architects. Their warm humanity, tolerance and sense of humour make them as loved and respected as their architecture. Now the number of Maori architecture students has dwindled to close to zero. Now there are intellectual lectures on Maori values given to pakeha in authoritarian architectural spaces, but the Marae space has gone. There is no venue where architectural racism might be discussed and challenged.

Tokenism does nothing to correct this profound problem of racist attitudes becoming cast in concrete in our built environment.

A peaceful built environment is one where everyone feels they are not only respected and understood but also have a place in the sun.

Ka kite ano.
(Go well and be at peace.)

Tony Watkins
Aotearoa (New Zealand is a bi-lingual country)

The First International Symposium on Architecture and Human Rights will take place in Bangkok 31 May - 3 June 2006.
Graeme Bristol: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it
posted by arch-peace team @ 12:25 AM



This "Architectural racism" editorial was first published in

arch-peace editorials and news
Monday, April 10, 2006


For further reading try The Destruction of Memory, by Robert Bevan, Reaktion Books.

There is a review by Deyan Sudjic in the RIBA Journal 113/3-March 2006