Earlier this year, Karamia Müller became the first Sāmoan woman in the world to graduate with a PhD in architecture. Here she is talking to Dale about her pan-Pacific upbringing and the path she’s been on.
Talofa, Karamia. I understand that I’m talking with a young Sāmoan woman who not only now has a PhD in architecture but, according to my research, is also an expert when it comes to handstands. I wonder if you can confirm those two achievements.
Well, yes, I now have a PhD, but, although I can do handstands, I’m not an expert.
Okay. And your whakapapa? You’re Sāmoan, but your surname suggests another heritage as well.
That goes back to a great-grandfather, Philipp Gotthard Müller, a Swiss man from the Canton of Züg. To my knowledge, he came out to the Pacific and was involved in various colonial enterprises in Sāmoa and then in Vava’u, Tonga, where he married Lautiti o Manono Philomena, a Sāmoan woman. They kept a family practice of sending as many of their children as they could back to Switzerland for their education.
Some of those children, when they returned to the Pacific, remained in Tonga, but my grandfather, Friedrich Müller, found work as an engineer in Levuka, Fiji, where he also met, and then married, Adele Vaitulu Purcell, who was Sāmoan like his mother. So, I come from that line.
In the late ‘70s to the mid ‘90s, my father, Philipp Müller, worked as an administrator for the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Fisheries Agency, which had its office in Honiara, in the Solomon Islands. That’s where I was born, the youngest of five kids. I’m the only one of my siblings who wasn’t born in Sāmoa.
So now we have Karamia Müller, which, so I understand, is a name that rhymes with jeweller.
That’s right. My name is Marie Karamia Müller. Marie is my mother’s name, but I’ve been called Kara all my life, and more recently, perhaps as I get older, I mostly get called Karamia.
Tell us a bit about your mum and dad. How did they meet?
My parents met in Auckland in the 1950s, when my father was here from Fiji, studying at Auckland University for a Bachelor of Science degree. My mother was working as a cashier at Farmers in the city. She’s Sāmoan, too, and she was born in Wellington. Her parents, Estelle and John Churchward, had lived in Wellington while my grandfather was doing a degree in accounting.
My parents didn’t really get together until they met again 12 years later in Apia, Sāmoa, when my dad was working for the meteorological service in Mulinu’u. And they married there and had my four older siblings — Nina, Estelle, Heidi, and my brother, Frank.
When did your family come to New Zealand? And what kind of adjustment was that for you and your family?
We migrated here in 1997. We came because my father had retired. My sisters and brother had all gone to boarding school here, so they had all settled here by that stage. My mother’s family were all here, too. And one of Dad’s siblings, who lived in Māngere. So, there was always a kind of understanding that our family would end up in New Zealand after my father’s career had wound up.
I was about 15 when we came, and I went to Epsom Girls’ Grammar where my sisters had gone. It was a bit of a culture shock, being part of a student cohort where Pacific people were the minority.
But, at the same time, it was also exhilarating to be able to reconnect with other Sāmoans in a way that hadn’t been possible in the Solomon Islands or Fiji. Seeing young women who looked like me was quite a joy. A lot of the things they found funny were funny to me as well. A lot of their experiences with their parents and with their extended families were very similar to mine. And that felt very affirming.
It felt to me like I was being woven back in to a big community of young women who shared similar feelings, familial obligations, dreams and passions — and sense of humour.
I imagine you and your sisters and brother were all encouraged to go on to tertiary education. Was that because of your parents?
Yes, my parents were like most, if not all, Sāmoan parents, and they encouraged us to go to university. They wanted the best for us, and they saw it as a way, particularly for us girls, to have more options in life.
We’ve all chosen quite different career paths. My eldest sister Nina is a family lawyer in West Auckland. Estelle, who’s the second eldest, has had a recent career change from economics to teaching. Heidi’s a GP in Auckland. And my brother Frank is in IT in Kuala Lumpur.
Interestingly enough, my parents didn’t know so much about doctoral study. In my dad’s case, he’d been keen himself to join the workforce and see his work in application, which he went on to do.
But I proceeded with my doctoral degree because I thought that, with an academic career, I could teach and research, which are a bit harder to maintain in an architectural practice.
Congratulations on that achievement. Were you tempted by studies other than architecture?
No. Actually, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Even during the degree, I wasn’t sure. Doing postgrad study, I was a very normal, average student, and I didn’t see much work or research around Pacific space, indigenous space, or Māori architecture. And it was specific people who helped me find the things that appealed to me within the field.
Academia isn’t necessarily the most welcoming space, so I wouldn’t be in this position if I didn’t have people championing me.
Had you been leaning towards architecture when you were at high school?
Well, I’d had a good skillset in anything that was artistic. I could paint and I could draw. Not that I wanted to be an artist. Or even work in the field of fine arts, or as an art historian. When I was younger, I was told that a fine arts career would likely lead to long-term economic precarity, which worried me a little. Now I see the kinds of careers one can have and wonder whether I would have decided differently if I’d known then the sort of careers possible, particularly for Pasifika.
My own family were interested in doctors, lawyers, engineers. Vocational careers and vocational degrees. I tried doing a biomedical degree first, but I found that it wasn’t really working to my strengths.
Ever since I was in my early teens, my father had been suggesting that I should think about architecture. He kept saying that he thought it would be a good fit for me. I kept it in mind, but I didn’t really know other architects, or what they did, so couldn’t quite visualise myself in the profession. Then a friend of mine who was doing architecture told me the same thing. She said I should try it. So, I did. And I loved the first year. It really did seem to suit me.
I was just lucky to find it, and that my father knew me so well, because I know that, in part, having his blessing made the difference.
Māori and Pacific architecture haven’t played a regular part in architectural studies in New Zealand. That’s been true whether it’s been to do with houses or public buildings, although there’s been, perhaps, a growing acceptance, here in Tāmaki anyway, of the need to incorporate Polynesian colour, design, shapes, concepts, and even back stories, to reflect the city we’ve become. Has that development affected your thinking?
Very much so. My supervisor was Professor Deidre Brown (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) who, in her lectures, made it clear that indigenous architecture by indigenous practitioners was, and still is, a legitimate part of New Zealand architecture, and the canon across the world. There was no question about it.
In a lot of ways, Deidre’s career, perspective, way of thinking, and research, gave me permission to explore my own interests in architecture and space, and what warranted research. I don’t think I’d have had that freedom without her. And then there were more creative practices and speculative thinking from Rewi Thompson, who was an architect with Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Raukawa whakapapa. He was a huge influence on me and my thinking. I’m eternally in debt to them both.
Much of what you’ve worked on hasn’t been high falutin’ concepts or big flash new buildings. You’ve been challenged, even as an early career academic, to come up with ways of making Glen Innes a better suburb. As many Aucklanders know, Glen Innes has been a proud state-house area. But it’s undergoing significant change, as we speak. How did you become involved?
I teach “studio” papers as part of my teaching workload here at the university. That’s basically where students are set an architectural brief. A brief includes what the building has to do. Is it a café or house or what?
In this particular brief, I was given Glen Innes as a site. I participate in various activism projects and identify with various activist equity objectives. For example, I believe in the protection of trans rights, indigenous land sovereignty, and reproductive rights.
I was aware of the protests around Glen Innes. I was aware of what motivated the protesters, and, with my research and background, I saw parallels with an earlier process of gentrification which displaced communities — largely Pasifika — from Ponsonby, St Mary’s Bay and Freemans Bay, in the late 1970s to 1980s.
That displacement has had ongoing ramifications for Pasifika people. To move people further away from city centres where tertiary institutes and the central business district are, changes people’s lives. How close you are to financial opportunities, or, on the flip side, how far you might have to be from your home for work, affects how much time you get to spend with your family, your children. Because you must commute for two to three hours, five days a week, versus 30 minutes a day.
Toesulusulu Damon Salesa, the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Pacific) at the University of Auckland has talked about that:
We’re producing a hinterland to Auckland where most Polynesian Aucklanders live, and where there is not only inequality today, but inequalities of opportunity, which will ensure an unequal future.
It matters that we recognise these events and histories, and that we build towards futures that resist growing inequality.
I was struck by the idea that, in removing the state houses in Glen Innes, there was a huge cultural and communal loss — and that this conversation was not known by, or visible to, students of architecture.
I have my own politics, but I encourage my students to think critically about the policies that shape the “built realm”, which is everything that’s built by people in the world around us — and about the narratives that shape what the built realm means to people and their communities.
So, I created a studio where the students, in addition to thinking of things like the site and stormwater drainage and so on, also think about community values. Like the importance of a communally maintained taro patch on a public piece of land. In one instance, at least, just an informal arrangement, but with everyone lending a hand and feeling good about it.
These kinds of stories don’t necessarily make their way into the Housing New Zealand briefing. Nonetheless, it’s valuable for the students to realise that we become better designers if we think about how, through housing and community design, we can help these community values to live on.
Among the architectural concepts with Pasifika or Māori flavours, are there some that especially excite you?
Well, this isn’t a concept, but seeing more young people feel that they can practise architecture with communities is exciting to me. And I have potential students asking me questions, Māori and Pasifika students, with questions about architecture degrees — and showing a clear interest in shaping the built realm. Seeing other Māori and Pasifika students graduate not only in architecture but in planning and engineering. That’s exciting too.
Before we finish, let’s touch on your writing and storytelling for our tamaiti and tamariki. Tala o tamaiti, or children’s books, for instance.
Well, I’d always intended to write a book. I’ve always liked to write. And I have nieces and nephews. I’ve had a very pan-Pacific childhood, but the cost of that was not being in a position to pick up the local language. So, I became curious about language — and writing about language. And that’s what I’ve started to do with my simple little stories, like How Do You say “Thank You?” It’s a picture book for children, to help them learn the language.
Growing up, the emphasis for me was to be a master of English, which I guess has come at a cost. I do think the Sāmoan language is integral to being Sāmoan, but it may be the case that you don’t grow up with the language, which was my experience. In my family, I and another sibling don’t speak Sāmoan, but the others do. So that book was about that.
I’d tried to speak Sāmoan over the years, but it can be discouraging being laughed at when everyone thinks it’s funny that I can’t understand what they’re saying. And I don’t take so well to being laughed at by my family.
The barrier is psychological — the terror of being found out, that I’m not really Sāmoan enough. The psychological barrier creates a lot of anxiety.
There’s a lot of debate about how Sāmoan you can be without gagana Sāmoa. Even though I’m not fluent, I’m proud of our language and how it carries on Sāmoan customs, traditions, and values.
But I also think that Pacific languages are endangered, and that they’re more likely to be learned, particularly by those of us growing up in countries like New Zealand, when people feel empowered rather than shamed.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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