Professor Deirdre Brown is, among other things, a Westie from Auckland — and, like Dale, spent some time at Blockhouse Bay Intermediate. But, once she got architecture in her sights nearly 40 years ago, there wasn’t much question about where she was heading. Nor are there any doubts now about her knowledge and influence in that world — and in Māori and Pacific art history, too. Along the way, she has gathered up university degrees, lectured and written books, become a professor, and is now the head of the School of Architecture and Planning at Auckland University.
She and Dale could have spent their time reminiscing about their school days at Blockhouse Bay Intermediate. But they opted for a focus on Deirdre’s fascination for, and her role in, architecture in Aotearoa.
Kia ora, Deidre. I understand that you whakapapa to Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kahu through your mum, and that you’re English on your dad’s side. So there may be an interesting story in how they met. Did their eyes meet across a crowded room?
Well, it is a very romantic story, as a matter of fact. In the mid-1960s, my mother, Rosine, was walking down Queen St in Auckland when, across the road, she saw a man coming out of the shadows into the sunlight.
And, when the sun struck his hair, she could see that it was this lovely, deep-red colour — and she thought he was just the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.
Then by chance, later that day, they met at a public bar. She was with her friends and he, Jim, was with his. And he decided she was the most beautiful woman in the room.
It was love at first sight. (I still have the silver dress she was wearing that night.) And they were married within 12 weeks.
Mum was in her late 30s then and Dad was well into his 40s. So when I came along four years later, I was a surprise.
Thank you for that story. But let’s hear a bit about your ancestors now.
My great-grandfather was the Reverend Hapeta Renata, and he was the Methodist home minister in Whangaroa. He’d worked with Arthur Seamer, the Methodist missionary.
For a while, the Methodist church and the Rātana movement were closely connected. In its early stages, Rātana wasn’t a church — but when it became a church, those Māori home ministers were given a choice of where their allegiances lay. Hapeta decided to go with Rātana, and he was instrumental in establishing the church in the Far North.
He was also involved with land investigations and he left a wealth of material related to Māori Land Court meetings and hui like that.
So that’s the Ngāpuhi side of my family.
The Ngāti Kahu side is from Hapeta’s wife, Harata, who was a Riwhi, and the great-granddaughter of the chief Te Pahi. That’s a Ngāti Rua line.
Te Pahi’s people had moved from the northern Bay of Islands after the 1810 attacks, to Whangaroa, to Taupō Bay. I have a marae at Taupō Bay, and I have a marae at Kaeo.
My grandmother Puti Renata moved to Gisborne with her husband Ivan where they started a record and stamp collecting shop in Gisborne in the 1930s. They claimed that they could find any record anywhere in the world for their customers. My grandfather had excellent mail-networking skills.
My grandmother established a kapa haka group in Gisborne with Arapeta Awatere and his wife Elsie. My mother and uncles also performed in that group.
My grandparents’ shop closed during the Great Depression and they moved to my nana’s land in Kaeo, which they farmed and where my grandfather amassed the world’s largest private collection of Alexander Dumas first editions. The collection was sold to the University of Texas after his death.
On my dad’s side, I’m English. He sailed to Aotearoa after World War Two on a couple of yachts, including the former America’s Cup ketch Imatra, after convincing the skippers that he was an experienced yachtsman.
He’d never been on a yacht before, but he’d read all the books, and no one ever realised that he was a novice. There’s a lot to be said for book learning. He was an industrial chemist. And my mum, who always worked, was an outworker industrial machinist.
I understand that you grew up out in Auckland’s western suburbs. You were a New Lynn kid.
Yes, I’m a Westie. I went to New Lynn Primary School, just around the corner from where we lived. Then I went to Blockhouse Bay Intermediate, and my kapa haka teacher in form one was Graham Smith, who was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in the same round as me.
But I encountered him when he was a kapa haka teacher, not a highly respected scholar. He went on to get his PhD and have an incredible career in education.
After intermediate, I went to Lynfield College in Mt Roskill.
I’m a Blockhouse Bay Intermediate kid, too, but, whereas I got into broadcasting, you were attracted by architecture. How did that come about?
As a kid, I was always making buildings out of paper or blocks, or whatever else I could find. I was just fascinated by this.
Actually, that’s a common story among our architecture students. They’re fascinated with space and how people use it, and in the relationship between the built world and the human world. And, like a lot of our architecture students here, I also loved art, maths, and science.
I’d never heard of the word architect until I was 12, but I got talking to a cousin who was doing tech drawing at school, and he said he wanted to be an architect.
So I asked Dad what that was, and when he told me, I decided then and there that that’s what I wanted to become — and I never deviated from that course.
But, as the time drew nearer to go to architecture school, I also became interested in finding out more about my Māori heritage. My mum had always tried to make sure that was part of my early life as well.
So, when I came into the architecture school in the late 1980s, I wanted to see if I could bring that heritage into what I was doing. But in my first years, that wasn’t well received.
The debate about the misappropriation of Māori culture was at its height then, and that debate was important. But some of the teachers thought it was all too hard.
As a student, you had assignments in which you had to design buildings — and I remember being slapped down in my first year for designing a building with Māori elements in it.
I was told: ‘’No. We don’t do that here. You’ll never be able to understand the complexities of Māori architecture. So, it’s better not to do that at all. You have to focus on this other tradition of building.’’
I remember being upset about that. I burst into tears, and had the other students calming me down a bit. But then I decided that I didn’t care about being slapped down.
I was determined to find out more about Māori architecture and building methods — because I thought that was really important. I found staff within the school who had research interests in these areas, and I gravitated towards them.
Under their mentorship, I started turning small assignments into theses, and I moved on to this career path where I can now teach Māori architecture, and have the privilege of publishing books in this area, too.
I notice you also studied Fine Arts at Canterbury. Can you tell us about that?
I graduated as an architect in the early 1990s, but there were no jobs then. We’d already been warned about this by our teachers. So, because I’d already been writing about Māori architecture in my assignments, I decided that I’d go deeper with that. I did my master’s first, and then my PhD.
And because I was so fascinated by the topic, I wasn’t thinking much about what came at the end of that.
I was looking at Māori prophets, starting back with Pai Mārire in the 1860s, and ending up with the Rātana church. And I was seeing how there was a whakapapa of passing down ways of building between the various prophetic movements.
Then, just as I finished that work, a job came up at the University of Canterbury teaching Māori art history — and that job came with the fabulous mentorship of Jonathan Mane-Wheoki.
I got that job and I was in Christchurch for six years. Which was great, because I broadened what I knew into other realms beyond architecture. I started writing books on Māori art history at that time, too.
Then, in 2003, a job came up in the school of architecture at the University of Auckland. And, because my partner and my dad had always been in Auckland, I applied and came back to Tāmaki Makaurau.
I guess that, when most people think of Māori architecture, they picture wharenui, which some would describe as just big sheds.
But wharenui took shape here long before any European sheds appeared, didn’t they? And our tūpuna were so confident in their construction. Are we short-changing ourselves by thinking of them as simple structures?
Wharenui — whether they’re full whare whakairo, or plain, like the ones up north — are highly sophisticated buildings.
I think a lot of people have the idea that architecture refers only to some kind of high-art European form of building. But most people trained in architecture see that word rightfully applied to any form of building.
And you’ve got hundreds of years of research and development behind the wharenui that we see today. That doesn’t even take into account the building knowledge that our ancestors brought with them from Polynesia.
My colleague, Jeremy Treadwell, at the School of Architecture and Planning, looked at pre-European Māori construction techniques for his PhD. He went into museums — because you can peer into the back of various building elements there in a way that you can’t in wharenui that are still standing.
Jeremy drew on that research to write a thesis about the sophisticated jointing systems he saw, and the post-tensioning techniques using harakeke ropes which made Māori buildings resilient against natural disasters.
Rau Hoskins and Carin Wilson have also done important work in recovering knowledge about how whare raupō and whare nikau were assembled.
Rau and Carin gathered all the information they could from kaumātua — and then they began building a structure themselves, using these techniques that they’d learned about.
It took them days and days to build their whare. Yet they were reading that their tūpuna could do that job in less than a day. So, the people who constructed these buildings were really skilled.
These are very sophisticated buildings, and we should be proud that they are part of our architectural inheritance — and that they still influence our architecture today.
Of course, in recent times we’ve also seen a celebration of the waka and, in particular, of double-hulled oceangoing waka. Is there something we can learn by celebrating the sophistication of both our waka and our whare construction?
Yes. Many of the techniques that you see in waka construction you can also see in whare construction.
If you look at the use of spirals in the pare for example — the double koru motif — that’s the same thing that you see on the taurapa (stern posts) and tau ihu (prow) of the waka.
They’ve got the same meanings about letting light and enlightenment into the world. And then there’s the use of ropes and kowhaiwhai in hoe, or paddles, and on the heke, or rafters, in the wharenui. So, yes, the waka and the whare are very closely linked.
Your pukapuka From Fale to Wharenui reconnects us with our wider Pasifika traditions. Were you wanting to remind us of the long history that we have in construction before the colonisers came?
That’s a good point. Some of the books I read during my own research just assumed that our Māori ancestors started with nothing. But we know from our narratives about Hawaiki that we came here with a kete full of knowledge of what to do.
One of the great pleasures of my work is that I’ve been able to do a little research and teaching on Pacific architecture, too — and you can immediately see what was going on outside of Aotearoa New Zealand and how that probably influenced what was happening here.
Our ancestral narratives and our relationship to the wider Pacific mean we’re part of a culture which is tens of thousands of years old — and we’re the inheritors of that tradition.
How can non-Māori architects benefit from a better understanding of indigenous design?
Since the 1950s, there’s been this idea in architecture of ‘‘looking for the local’’.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, architects tried to do this by appropriating Māori symbolism and motifs into their work. We pushed back on that because that type of appropriation is very difficult for us.
So, in the 1990s, the move has been towards understanding Māori concepts as a way of generating design that is local to this place. And there’s now great interest in Māori architecture in terms of it being the architecture of the land.
But more specifically — and this comes back to kaupapa Māori methodology and to the work of Linda and Graham Smith — there’s now a priority given to engaging with Māori communities so that their worldview and their stories come through in design.
That’s one area where art differs from architecture. Art is usually one person’s point of view. One person’s response to a situation. But architecture is highly collaborative — with clients, user groups, the mana whenua perspective, and things like this.
So, in our training of architects now, we’re trying to ensure that when non-Māori students go out into the community, they’re culturally competent. We’re past the days where architects turned up and sat there blankly, not knowing what’s going on, and needing someone to explain.
And particularly for our Māori and Pacific students, this is part of their heritage. So I don’t want them to come in thinking that they have to abandon who they are, and have those awkward moments where they try to put their work out there and be told, like I was, that it’s not right.
Or be expected to explain the whole history of Māori culture before they’ve even had a chance to describe the museum that they might have designed using Māori concepts.
We’ve also recently had our first masters’ student complete a thesis in te reo — and we’re seeing more students coming into the university who are te reo speakers and who want to see a continuity from the education that they’ve already received.
So the university has to pull up its socks here. We need to respond to these needs.
Your whānau must be proud to have you as the first wahine to head a school of architecture in this country.
There were five female heads of school before me. But I believe I’m the first indigenous woman in the world to head a school of architecture. I’m into my third year doing this. It’s a five-year gig and then I go on to something else in the university.
It’s been a great opportunity, though, to bring our Māori values through. The way that we manaaki each other, the way that we regard our beautiful School of Architecture and Planning building as our whare, the way we take responsibility as teachers and students as kaitiaki of the built environment, to ensure that what we do is sustainable.
Recently, the school elected to have an ingoa Māori name. Our wonderful staff, many of whom were not born in New Zealand, all wanted to have this particular ingoa Māori, and they wanted it to be in front of the ingoa Pākehā name of the school.
So, we’re excited about revealing that it will be Te Pare, a name that our late colleague Rewi Thompson left to us.
You’ve just been made a fellow of the Royal Society Te Apurangi, which is a public acknowledgment of your contribution to your field of expertise. What does that mean for you?
It’s wonderful to be part of that group. But I think that the real value of the Royal Society Fellowship is that it enables you to be part of a group which is shaping society.
So, for example, Michael Baker and Shaun Hendy exemplify what fellows can do as critics and conscience of society. They’re guiding our community’s understanding of Covid, and they’re also advising the government on how best to stop it.
But they’ll also call out the government if they think the policy’s not right.
Potentially, we can take on those sorts of roles, too, and help the government with its connections to our communities and in formulating policies.
We’re in a rather unusual architectural time here in Tāmaki Makaurau, aren’t we? We’re seeing vastly different homes from what you and I grew up in. Can we incorporate any cultural elements into the double- and triple-storey units that are crowding suburbs now in Tāmaki?
That’s a challenge. I know Rau Hoskins and Nick Dalton have looked at this, and Rewi Thompson was looking at it before he died — all fine Māori architects.
There are two challenges here. One is that, when you have only a small land holding left, how do you house so many iwi members?
Ngāti Whātua have been pioneers here. They’ve found a way of creating forms of terraced housing which fit well with Māori values and ways of living.
Not just because of the buildings themselves, but because of the way they relate to the whenua, and the way that the community works together in the wider precinct where these buildings sit.
But we also have Māori whānau from many different iwi, living here in areas that are becoming increasingly densified.
So, the second challenge is: how do you maintain connection to the whenua when you’re three storeys up? And how do you accommodate intergenerational families as well?
Most of New Zealand’s housing stock is built for two generations living together — parents and kids. But we often have three generations living together. And maybe lots more people in the weekends.
This is where we also need to link up with Pacific architects. People like Lama Tone, who’s been looking at how to adapt existing housing stock in South Auckland, to meet these cultural needs.
This is a pressing design problem, because you’ve got organisations, like Kāinga Ora, subdividing sections and cramming more buildings on to those sites. Solutions have been proposed, but it’s an ongoing issue.
Can we just acknowledge, too, that you’ve got Toi Te Mana being published soon, which is a history of indigenous art from Aotearoa New Zealand with Jonathan Mane-Wheoki and Ngarino Ellis?
Thank you. I think Jonathan saw this as the project that he wanted to retire on, but he became ill, and he died in 2014.
Jonathan wanted to see this project through to the end, and I was incredibly sad losing him. He was mostly able to complete one chapter, and he left us some instructions for his section of the book, too.
So, Ngarino and I hope that the work honours his vision and that he would be proud of what we’ve managed to achieve.
It’s a large book, so design will take several months, but we’re looking at publication either at the end of this year, or maybe early next year.
I just wonder how your mahi, for two or three decades now, has been received by other indigenous peoples?
There is a network of indigenous architectural scholars and designers, which is strong in Australia and Canada as well as here. We network on social media but we also know each other personally.
Interestingly, with Canada closing all their universities during Covid, I sometimes get invited by the University of British Columbia to critique students’ final presentations over Zoom.
So, I’ll see these amazing indigenous First Nations architects there in the Zoom space with me. We’re in the Covid age, but we seem to be having more and more to do with one another.
We share information, for example, about how we can design in ways that honour our culture and our landscapes. And we’ve been looking at how we can overcome research barriers.
For example, we want to make sure that we lead on important projects that can make a difference to our communities. Rather than being contracted on to somebody else’s project which might be more focused on that somebody else’s career — and not on having an impact and influence on people’s lives.
It’s been lovely talking with you. Where is it all heading for you? You say you’ve got another couple of years heading the architecture school, but then what?
The head of school role keeps me busy. It’s like an 80-hour a week job.
Particularly, too, in this age of Covid, with its different alert levels. Ensuring that our students are receiving the best education requires some heavy admin lifting.
That’s my focus now. I’ll be very happy to go back to teaching. I’m still teaching now, actually, so I’ll wait and see. And I’m still working with other indigenous researchers on a variety of projects.
And, collectively, because we have more Māori and Pacific staff here, we recently appointed Anthony Hoete to a professorship. Lama Tone will be joining us mid-year, too. We also have Karamia Muller and Lena Henry here, and we’ve decided that we want to direct our research towards housing, to benefit Māori and Pacific communities.
So that’s probably where I’m going next — but you never know!
Just finally, what else do you do? We’ve spoken a lot about work, but what about outside of work? Do you play tennis? Ride motorbikes?
No, this work realm is all embracing. But when I’m not here, I’m a mum. I love being a wife and a mum to my two lovely boys (10 and 14).
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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