Dr Charmaine ‘Ilaiū Talei, senior lecturer at the School of Architecture and Planning, University of Auckland. (Photo: Elise Manahan)

As one of eight kids growing up in a big extended family in Ōtara, Charmaine ‘Ilaiū Talei didn’t just imagine what her dream home might look like — she’d draw floorplans of houses where there’d be enough space to accommodate everyone in the family.

Eventually, that taste for drawing led her into a career in architecture. And this year, after more than a decade of working overseas, she’s returned to Aotearoa, joining a growing number of Pasifika and Māori lecturers at the University of Auckland’s architecture school.

Here she is talking to Teuila Fuatai. 


Leaving Auckland in 2010. Charmaine being farewelled by her mum at Auckland Airport. (Photo supplied)

Mālō e lelei, Charmaine. I see you’ve just returned to Aotearoa after 11 years in Brisbane where you’ve been working as an architect. And you’ve been lured back home by the School of Architecture and Planning at Auckland University, where you trained and did your master’s. How does it feel to be back home?

It’s pretty surreal. I left New Zealand as a very green young graduate, and I’m back as a specialist researcher in Pacific architecture with a whole lot of life experience.

It’s been exciting to see a lot more Pacific and Māori students on campus — especially within the architecture school.

And I’m especially pleased to be working alongside my old friends Dr Karamia Müller and Lama Tome, and helping to grow the Pacific influence in our field.

Your family must be happy to have you home. I understand your parents are from Tonga?

Yes. My parents (Falakika Lose and ‘Ahoia ‘Ilaiū) came to New Zealand in the early 1970s from Tonga.

Mum comes from Houma, Tongatapu, but she also has links through her mother back to Uvea, or Wallis and Futuna. Recently, we also discovered that her father Moho Leau has ancestral links to Sāmoa, so that’s another island connection.

On Dad’s side, his father is from Tatakamōtonga, one of the villages in the Mu’a area in Tongatapu. His mother comes from Ha’apai, and also has ancestral links to Fulaga, Lau Islands, Fiji.

I’ve found tracing my bloodlines super interesting. I think my parents’ links to different parts of the Pacific reinforces the narrative that Polynesian people are seafaring explorers who went backwards and forwards across the region — they often had connections across the Pacific.

Charmaine’s parents, Falakika and ‘Ahoia ‘Ilaiū, early 1990s.

And then your parents have carried on that tradition by moving here to Aotearoa, back when Aotearoa’s labour shortage meant plenty of opportunities for Pacific migrants.

That’s right. Like other Pacific families, they came to Aotearoa because they wanted more options than they had at home.

In Tonga, Dad was a high school teacher and a clerk at Air Pacific. He met Mum when he was in his early 20s, and they married in Tongatapu before heading to Vava‘u to teach at the Tongan Methodist college, Mailefihi and Si’ulikutapu.

While there, Dad won a scholarship to study history at the University of Melbourne. But he couldn’t accept it because it only covered tuition fees, and his family didn’t have the money to pay his travel and living costs.

It was while Dad was working for Air Pacific that he and Mum decided that New Zealand would be where they’d make a life. Dad came over in early 1973 and lived in Ponsonby with relatives, and Mum joined him later that year.

Dad found factory work in Greenlane and Ellerslie. And Mum worked in a cheese and jam factory in Ellerslie, and then later as a seamstress in a clothing warehouse in Ōtara. They lived in a flat in Ellerslie, and within a year they were able to buy a one-bedroom house in Mt Wellington.

During those early years, my parents also saved money to help other relatives come to New Zealand. My uncle Saia and my nana ‘Ana, Mum’s mother, were the first, and then aunties and uncles followed on. Eventually, they built a little community in Ellerslie and Penrose, and lots of my relatives still live there today.

And what about your brothers and sisters?

There’s eight of us: ‘Ilaisaane (Saane), Lute (Ruth), James (Sēmisi) Valentine, Anna Hingano (Anne), me, Samuela (Sam), Joel and Isaac.

We grew up in Bairds Road, Ōtara. Our family shifted there in 1982 because we needed a bigger place. A lot of Pacific Island families were leaving Auckland’s inner-city suburbs at the time, and moving out to South Auckland and to the western suburbs.

My parents bought their 4-bedroom property from a Pākehā farmer for $50,000. Then my uncle bought the place next door, so Ōtara became another little family hub for us.

We had a great upbringing. It was split between the two homes, which backed on to a creek. Lots of BMX biking, fishing for eels, and relatives around us. And, of course, we’ve seen the area develop over time.

Charmaine (second from right) with siblings and cousins in the backyard of their Ōtara house, late 1980s. (Photo supplied)

Our family is part of the New Zealand Assemblies of God, so church was a big part of our life. Before I started school, my father became a pastor in 1988, and, for a while, he juggled both factory work and pastoral duties. As kids, we were right there alongside him — we were the worship band, the Sunday school teachers, the church cleaners, youth leaders, and organisers.

After Dad left his factory job, we had to rely on the stipend he received as a pastor, which wasn’t a lot. So things were pretty tight at home. In the 1980s, Mum and my nana would sew goods that they’d sell at the Ōtara markets. And later, in the early ‘90s, Mum owned and ran Ōtara’s first Island food shop called Nana’s Kitchen, and a fruit and vege shop.

One of the things we did to make ends meet was picking onions and squash in the summer holidays. We’d do it as a family at farms around the Bombay Hills, Pukekohe, Pōkeno, Mercer and Māngere — even up to Kawakawa.

That helped to pay for the tertiary education for both my older sisters, Saane and Ruth. And for a lot of my high school costs as well. My dad would always give me my little envelope of earnings, and I’d be responsibile for buying my school shoes and bags. I learned how to budget during those summers.

In many ways, our childhood circumstances were probably quite challenging. But things like onion-picking were a family activity and even fun. And we didn’t know any different.

One thing that stands out in my upbringing was the importance of study in our family. Dad was never able to fulfil his dream of further study — and that has played a big part in our lives. We knew that lack of opportunity was behind our parents’ shift to New Zealand.

And we’ve all taken on further study in various fields. Ruth and I both have PhDs. Saane has completed several graduate and post-graduate degrees over the years, and is now completing a master’s degree in digital learning. James studied to be a diesel mechanic. Anne studied travel and tourism and communications. Joel is at university now as a mature student, studying to be a physio in Sydney. Sam studied sports science. And Isaac has studied carpentry at Manukau Institute of Technology.

At Auckland Girls’ Grammar School in Ms Kaitu‘u’s science class with Caitlin McGee, in 1998. They became the head girls in their final year. (Photo supplied)

And how did architecture come into the picture for you?

In my final year at Auckland Girls’ Grammar, two things cemented my path into architecture.

The first was a Latin and classical studies trip around Europe. I really enjoyed seeing the range of buildings, like the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens, and learning their history.

Next was hearing Pete Bossley, a New Zealand architect, give a talk at our careers day. Pete talked about the British-Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid. I was so impressed by her work, and by the fact that she was a woman. That’s when I became interested in architecture as a possibility. And when I was accepted into the architecture course at the University of Auckland, that was it.

But I can remember, when I was as young as six, drawing floor plans for houses for my family. We had eight kids and our parents in a four-bedroom house with one bathroom. There were always relatives or someone my parents were supporting from our church who lived with us too. So my floor plans were a way of imagining how we could all live together comfortably.

Visiting the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, during a school trip in 2000. (Photo supplied)

We haven’t had many Pacific people studying architecture. How did you find it at Auckland University?

I started in 2002, and there were a handful of Pasifika students going through the architecture and planning school. Across the university, there were very few Pacific lecturers, and not a lot of Māori academics either.

In my specific class, there were Karamia and Lama — all three of us are now teaching at the University of Auckland. Sēmisi Fetokai Potauaine was another one, and he has become a renowned artist after graduating. While it doesn’t seem like a lot, I think it was rare to have that many Pasifika students in the same year.

We didn’t have much exposure to Indigenous lecturers, so Professor Deidre Brown was a big influence. She, along with the late architect Rewi Thompson, were teaching us Māori architecture, and their work fascinated me.

Another influential lecturer, Mike Linzey, encouraged me to do something personal for my final-year design thesis project.

A few things were happening at the time which were important. The year before, I’d been back to Tonga with my mother. It was the first trip I’d taken as an adult, and we visited our family’s villages. I was also reading a lot about Queen Salote and Tongan history — and I was eager to know more about where I was from.

My final project involved an exploration of my Tongan roots, which set the foundations for the rest of my research career. I looked at a co-housing project in Popua, a village in Tongatapu which sourced building materials from the rubbish dump next to them. Repurposing materials is central to architectural sustainability, which is what my design thesis focused on. It also looked at how the residents of Popua built a new community as migrants from the outer islands.

When I visited Popua and other villages, I noticed there were fewer traditional fale Tonga. I initially saw this as a loss of culture, a shift to housing based on western ideals — and that motivated my master’s research thesis “Persistence of the Fale Tonga”, where I looked at the types of contemporary Tongan fale. I assumed the construction of houses in Tonga had been westernised, and we’d lost our own ways of doing things.

But it didn’t take long to poke holes in that. Through my research, I found a lot of the process to source building materials, and to an extent design ideas, were based on cultural values and traditions.

Also, the Tongan values of reciprocity and looking after family often dictated how materials, and the builders themselves, were procured — overseas and locally. Even the colours that houses were painted had cultural significance.

For me, one of the biggest learning points was around my own beliefs as someone who’d never lived in the Islands. I’d romanticised what Tonga should look like in terms of architecture, and saw any departure from that as negative.

When I looked deeper, the architecture of contemporary fale Tonga actually reflected how our culture has continued over time, despite modernity. It’s a story around how we’ve adapted foreign building materials and technologies to suit our values, rather than losing our way.

Charmaine and Samuela on their wedding day, at Caqalai Island, Fiji, 2010. (Photo supplied)

How did you end up Brisbane? Was it hard to find a job in New Zealand after you graduated with your master’s degree?

When I graduated, it was in the middle of the global financial crisis. There weren’t a lot of architecture jobs in Auckland but, thankfully, Rau Hoskins at DesignTribe gave me work as a contractor. I also started my own architectural consultancy company.

After a few years working in Auckland, I left Aotearoa for Fiji. I’d always wanted to work in the Pacific Islands to get firsthand experience of designing and producing Pacific architecture. I chose Fiji and managed to secure an internship through Peter Rankin, the president of the Fiji Association of Architects. I also met my husband Samuela there.

We ended up in Brisbane because I wanted to do my PhD at the University of Queensland with Professor Paul Memmott, who I’d met at a conference where I was presenting my master’s research.

I was really interested in his work looking at the Australian Aboriginal use of spinifex plants and how they could be used to make building materials. I wanted to look at a similar topic for my PhD, exploring how coconut palm fibres could be used to make new building materials. I thought a product like that could have significant value for Pacific countries.

PhD graduation, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 2016. (Photo supplied)

And you worked as an architect as well?

Yes, Australia is actually where I first registered as an architect, and most of my architectural experience has been there.

A lot of the projects I worked on in Brisbane have been for public buildings and facilities — including the Commonwealth Law Courts, Sunshine Coast University Hospital and the Roma Street Heritage Building for Queensland Rail.

I’ve also worked as a project architect in the wider Pacific region — including the Solomon Islands National University, the University of South Pacific Solomon Islands Campus and the refurbishment of Tonga’s Fua‘amotu International Airport.

One that stands out from the last decade is the design of a multipurpose facility for the Toomelah Aboriginal community in rural New South Wales. At the time, I was working at Kramer Ausenco, an engineering and architecture company. That was part of a special infrastructure programe between the Australian Army and the Toomelah community — and we worked closely with the Toomelah community to understand what they needed.

Since returning to Auckland, I’ve continued to work as a senior architect for an Australian firm, Guymer Bailey Architects. One of the projects I’d helped lead there was the design of the expansion of the South Queensland Correctional Precinct in Gatton.

I’m also working on the new Tauranga Moana Courthouse. At the moment, we’re in the midst of an extensive consulation and codesign process with mana whenua, as well as stakeholders like court staff, the Ministry of Justice and other services that use the courthouse. We want the design of the project to reflect what justice is in Aotearoa New Zealand today.

With Chris Barnes and Indy Sivakumar, Kramer Ausenco engineers, during the construction of the Toomelah Aboriginal Community’s Multipurpose Facility, NSW, Australia 2016. (Photo supplied)

Charmaine during co-design workshop with mana whenua for Tauranga Moana courthouse at Huria Marae, Tauranga Moana, 2022. (Photo supplied)

Thanks, Charmaine. You mentioned earlier wanting to develop the Pacific influence in architecture. Was that one of the main attractions of Aotearoa for you?

Yes. Taking on the senior lecturer role here at the University of Auckland provides an opportunity to do more research about Pacific architecture — with and for Pacific communities. With my Māori and Pacific colleagues at the School of Architecture and Planning, we’re specifically looking at housing and at ways to improve local housing outcomes.

I also wanted to contribute to the depth of content on Pacific architecture for students at the University of Auckland.

And for my husband, Samuela, and our two boys Inoke and Luke, Aotearoa is a new experience. Samuela grew up in Fiji and both our boys were born in Brisbane.

We enjoy living in Kohimarama, near the water. We also love that we’re close to my parents and that the boys have their cousins. Samuela is also a big fan of the Island food shops in South Auckland.

With Samuela, Luke and Inoke in Brisbane, 2021. (Photo: Jerry Li)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It has been made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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