Lama Tone in front of one of his projects in Auckland. (Photo: Cornell Tukiri ©)

Lama Tone has much more than the imposing physical presence and power to have been at home in the heart of Manu Sāmoa’s rugby scrum. After changing his priorities 20 years ago, he’s become an influential advocate on the need for his architect colleagues and students to design buildings fit for our Pacific region and people. And there’s much more to come from him as he moves into teaching architecture full-time at Auckland University, and lines up a PhD. Here he is talking to Dale.


Talofa, Lama. Would you be kind enough tell us how you fit into the world? 

Kia ora, Dale. My name is Lama Tone. I am a son of migrant parents. Dad is Pesetā Konelake Tone and Mum is Silifu Tone. They came here in the late 1960s looking for opportunities and they found each other in Ōtara. They got married and, in 1971, I was born in Ōtahuhu in South Auckland.

I have also been bestowed with family matai or chiefly titles from Sāmoa. 

I‘m known as Fa’amatuāinu, which is an orator title from Mum’s village of Lufilufi on the island of Upolu, Sāmoa. From Dad’s side, I have a couple of other titles. One is Pesetā, from Pu’apu’a on the island of Sāvai’i. That’s a high chief title. And I also have To’oto’ole’aava, which is an orator title from Fasito’o Uta, also from the island of Upolu, Sāmoa. 

I’ve come to see that I can best fulfil the responsibilities and roles that these ancestral titles bring by being a guardian of family whakapapa and genealogies. Lots to learn and recite here. Also, these titles connect me with people in the wider family and community.

There’s a parallel with what happens in marae in Aotearoa, where the protocols and rituals of visiting and hosting include stating where you’re from and where you whakapapa to — which then allows the other side of a gathering to respond with beautiful words that nourish the relationships. That’s very similar to what happens in Sāmoa. 

Like many other Sāmoans, you have a strong connection with South Auckland.

Yes, especially Ōtahuhu and Māngere. As Aupito, our local MP and Minister of Pacific Peoples often says when describing South Auckland, it’s “the land of the young, beautiful and gifted — and home of world champions.”

I have a younger brother, Fa’amatuāinu Setefano, and two younger sisters, Laumua Toleafoa and Veronica Graham, and an older half-sister, Sera Schwalger. We all whakapapa here to Māngere and Ōtāhuhu, where we grew up and went to school. 

I still live here, and so do Mum and Dad and my siblings. 

I’m a very proud South Aucklander. 

Lama, aged three, with his mother Silifu in Auckland. (Photo: supplied)

Do you come from a long line of orators? Were you expected to follow in their footsteps?

Throughout the Pacific, our indigenous cultures have all come from oral traditions. We’re storytellers. We hold on to our family genealogies and whakapapa, and we connect through oratory and storytelling. Every family, village, district, and all our islands, have orators and chiefs who look after these treasures and special relationships.

I was given the honour of a matai title over 20 years ago, from Dad’s side of the family. At the time, I believed I wasn’t up to it, but the family elders thought differently. 

I was playing rugby for Manu Sāmoa then, and the family thought they would gift me a title since I was proudly carrying the family name in international sport. But my fa’a-Samoa, my kōrero in the Sāmoan language, wasn’t where I thought it should be as a young matai. And I thought there were others more deserving of the title. 

Over time, though, I became passionate about learning my language and culture, and connecting more closely with our people and our communities. And the idea of taking on those roles where I could serve my family and community started to kick in.

Lama and his sister (far right) with their cousins and aunty on a visit to Sāmoa in 1978. (Photo supplied)

Lama (second from right) and his sister Laumua (the toddler) with their cousins and aunty on a visit to Sāmoa in 1978. (Photo supplied)

How do you feel about the practice of giving titles to Sāmoans living here?

I think it’s great to see New Zealand-born Sāmoans being given matai titles by their families. It’s a way to keep them connected with Sāmoa and their wider family.

And often — as happened with me — you’ll see them taking it upon themselves to not only learn about the culture but to also wear it through tatau. And they’ll learn to speak the language, too, so they’re equipped to meet their obligations as matai during family and community gatherings and celebrations. 

There’s a popular proverb during these occasions when a matai is speaking: “O le aso lenei o aso o upu.” Today is a day for words. That’s how we build and heighten relationships — through words.

When I was younger, I never thought that I’d be interested in learning the language to the extent of speaking at family or community events. But now that I’m older, it’s become a privilege to be part of that storytelling. 

I’m aware, too, that our elders won’t be around forever, so it’s time for our generation to learn from them before they go.

There’s a real richness in the stories of the sacrifices that Pasifika parents made to come here. I’ve no doubt that your mum and dad went through a lot so that you kids could thrive.

Well, around the time that I was born, 50 years ago, there was a huge migration of Pacific peoples here to New Zealand — whether to pick fruit or work in factories. And, yes, Mum and Dad were part of that story. 

I take my hat off to all those Pacific people who made the call to leave their families back in the islands and to migrate in search for a new life. And often it meant that they had to push aside their culture and language, so they could adapt to their new world. 

Many of them worked at two or three jobs to support their children and get them through school, while also sponsoring other family members from the islands to move here. On top of that, they were sending money to their families back home. 

And many, like my parents, had to sacrifice their cultural richness while they were trying to get a toehold here in New Zealand. 

So, I really am standing on the shoulders of giants who paved the way for us to come through.

Lama (third from right) with family matai from Lufilufi, Sāmoa. (Photo supplied)

It wasn’t plain sailing for Pacific migrants, was it? There was the underpaid factory work, the struggle to find rental accommodation because of the racism of many landlords — and some people looking down their noses at the newcomers, and their command of English. At some stages, too, our Māori people resented the influx. Then, of course, there were the Dawn Raids. So, how did your parents handle all that?

Yes, it was a time also when there was still unrest between Māori and Pākehā. My parents never talked about these things in the way that our generation does today.

Mum and Dad also faced these issues, but they just put their heads down and kept going. 

When we have conversations about these issues now, Mum and Dad often say: “Oh, maybe you read that wrongly.” Or, “Racism only exists in your mind.” 

So there’s some denial. I think some of that has to do with the fact that they didn’t want us to be affected by it to the point where it would stop us from pursuing our own dreams.

And they never really talked to me about the Dawn Raids, which were a serious blot on the history of modern New Zealand. They weren’t affected as much as other families who went through some really harsh times during that period. 

New Zealanders are proud of their sports champions and especially of their rugby heroes. You proudly wore the Manu Sāmoa strip, but did you ever have cause to think of how the All Blacks, for instance, have profited over generations from including Pasifika players? 

I’m part of the Manu Sāmoa Old Boys’ Association, which I currently chair. And we’ve had conversations about the case for releasing former All Black players so they’re allowed to “give back” to the Pacific Island teams. 

For a long time, I wasn’t impressed at the way the All Blacks would “lock” in potential Pacific Island players by selecting them for a single test — and, when they weren’t wanted any more, leaving them scrambling for overseas contracts. 

For many years, the world rugby rules had prevented these players — these ex-ABs — from representing their ancestral homelands, like Sāmoa, Tonga and Fiji. 

That’s left the Island rugby teams struggling to make the top 10 in world rankings. So they lose sponsorship deals, and they can be at breaking point financially. 

I think it would be good for the game of rugby to level the playing field for second-tier rugby teams — so they can be given a chance to field their best players for test rugby. But as it is, it’s not fair. 

I don’t blame Pacific players, if they want to play for the All Blacks or the Wallabies or any of the other nations that they also have access to — especially if it means they can look after their families.  

But if, towards the end of their playing careers — or whatever stage is right for them — they want to play for their island nations, then it would do a world of good for these teams if they were allowed to do that. 

And it would be great for world rugby as a global sport too.

I’m excited, though, about the Moana Pasifika concept which is coming through. If we do it well, we’ll have more of our young Pacific men and women opting to play for their island nations.

Lama (1.98m) played at lock for Manu Sāmoa from 1996 to 2001. (Photo supplied)

Your own international rugby career was 20 or so years ago. And, no doubt, you had a few proud moments wearing the Manu Sāmoa strip.

A lot of proud moments. Making the Rugby World Cup was a buzz. One particularly proud moment was beating Wales at the ’99 World Cup. It was the very first game that Wales played at the new Cardiff Arms stadium. I will always remember the moment, after the final whistle blew, when the whole stadium fell silent for a few minutes. And then the Welsh hospitality kicked back in and they cheered for both teams.

The week before this, we’d had a pretty average game against Argentina. We’d been up 16–nil at halftime. But then the Pumas came back in the second half and beat us. I think it was 32-16. 

So, we really needed a good game to stay in contention for the playoffs. Unfortunately for Wales, we had them next. I played at lock, number 5. (I’m 1.98m and at that time I weighed 108kg). It was a fantastic game. We won 38-31. An awesome feeling!

In those days, I understand, you were a carpenter as well as an international rugby player. Building and rugby. They often go together, don’t they? But you’ve gone a step further by going into architecture.

Well, I played with the Sāmoan team from 1996 to 2001, and I got to see some beautiful parts of the world. I was studying carpentry and working as a builder in Auckland. But seeing the world inspired me to pursue a career in architecture. 

I also played professionally in the south of France, for Tarbes/Lannemezan.

I had planned to make the 2003 Rugby World Cup team and then retire from international duty. But my rugby career prematurely ended in 2001, in a game for Manu Sāmoa against Fiji in Japan. 

I got stiff armed in a head-high tackle, and I went down. When I regained consciousness, I was paralysed from the neck down. I couldn’t feel anything at first. But a few minutes later, I started to feel pins and needles through all my limbs.

Thankfully, I recovered. But I knew instantly that my playing days had come to an end. 

Ironically, when I was playing in France, I had a premonition that this was gonna happen to me. It kept playing on my mind that I’d sustain a neck injury. 

And even though I tried to push the thought aside, it was always there. I was always like: “Oh man, it’s gonna happen.” It was almost like a demon speaking to me.

And then, against Fiji, in 2001, in the first three minutes in the game, it happened. 

When I came back to New Zealand, I saw a surgeon who warned me against ever playing again, because this was the second time it had happened to me. 

He said: “Look. If this happens a third time, maybe you won’t be so lucky. You’ll be a paraplegic. You’re actually very, very fortunate to be walking again.”

So, I had to make a hard call, and get out. I was really enjoying my rugby at that time too, and was supposed to be heading back to France to play for another year. Everything had been going so well.

It’s fair to say I was depressed. My life had just done a massive 180 turn. So I had to dig deep and find what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. 

I was a builder then. But I thought: “Yeah. It’s time for me to find a new career.” That’s when the architecture lightbulb flicked on. Architecture and building are both in the construction industry. So, midway through 2001, I applied at the architecture school as a mature student. And I got in the following year. I was 31.

Architecture was a saving grace for me. It pulled my mind away from rugby, and away from that downer period I’d been in. It was a degree course where you really had to think outside the square. And that’s where I found some healing.

Not that it was easy for me to get traction going back to study. It was hard to accept that a year earlier I’d been globetrotting, playing footy and staying in flash 5-star hotels. And there I was, sitting at the back of the 327 bus to Māngere after a lecture at uni. 

Manu Sāmoa Old Boys Choir in 2019. Lama is on the far left. (Photo: supplied)

I imagine that, in heading off in a new direction, you had to do a whole lot of rethinking. Especially because, at that time, the world wasn’t teeming with Sāmoan architects and role models for you.

Yes. I was asking myself a number of questions. “Who am I?” “What is my culture?” “Where are the Sāmoans in this industry?”

But then I began to realise that being a Pacific person from the Pacific region was an advantage, because it gave me a different perspective on architecture. And rather than looking towards North America or Europe for inspiration, I took inspiration from Māori and Pacific ideas because that’s what I could relate to.

The sad thing about it, though, was that few of the design tutors I had at university at that time had an ear for it. Generally speaking, they weren’t open to Pacific and Māori ideas and perspectives.

And you’re right. There weren’t many Pacific architects out there. But there was one at the time I knew, Leali’ifano Dr Albert Refiti. He’s a Sāmoan who graduated from architecture school around 1993. 

He was the only Pacific Islander I knew who was a graduate, who’d been a practising architect and was now an academic. I followed his writings on Pacific architecture. He described space and structure with an element of romanticism. And this appealed to me. 

And there were academics who weren’t Pacific but who wrote extensively on Pacific/Polynesian architecture. Such as Bill McKay, Jeremy Treadwell, Mike Austin and Deidre Brown.

It was encouraging to see, during my undergrad years, that some of New Zealand’s premier architectural firms had already looked towards Māori and Pacific ideas for modern contemporary design. The ‘80s were years when architects were pulling in ideas from anywhere really.

Showing the way were the likes of Jasmax, Creative Spaces, Patterson Architects, and a great mentor of mine, the late Māori and modernist architect Rewi Thompson, who I had the pleasure of teaching alongside just before he passed away. 

And now, the head of the school of architecture is another mentor of mine and she’s Māori. That’s Professor Dr Deidre Brown, who supervised my master’s thesis, “Designing of Pacific Concepts.” I think the school is in good hands and we’re starting to see and appreciate Pacific stories being taught in our young schools as well as in tertiary institutions.

So I’m blessed to be still surrounded by some great architectural theorists, historians and architects. 

Deidre is amazing, isn’t she? I interviewed her not so long ago. And, when I asked her whether there’s enough appreciation of Pasifika building techniques and design, she mentioned the sophisticated use of ropes and tensioning techniques in pre-European whare or fale. What’s your reading of our pre-European architecture?

Yes, Deidre is amazing. Expect to see more great things under her guidance and leadership at the School of Architecture, University of Auckland.

In my thesis, I looked at the drivers of traditional Pacific architecture. And one theory is that the fale of ancient Polynesians came from vaka being upturned, and then supported by lashed-on posts. 

My postgrad work looked at how we can modernise those concepts, themes and ideas. One of the case studies in my thesis was the Fale Pasifika at the University of Auckland, which was built in 2004 by Jasmax. It had gone through the regulation mill to make sure that it was feasible to build here. Bowmac brackets hidden behind the lashings and bifolding doors between each post, for instance.

This is one example of a contemporary building where we’ve tried to translate ideas from the islands to Aotearoa, and to come up with ways to prolong the life of these structures so they’re safe and educational for generations to come. 

Fale Pasifika at the University of Auckland. (Photo: University of Auckland)

I imagine there were questions over its authenticity and whether it could really be called a fale?

I explored this in my thesis. What were the views of people coming from the islands and visiting the Fale at the university? What were they going to say about it? Would they say it’s authentic? Or would they say it’s not “traditional” because it has an automated vent on the ridge of the roof and bifolding doors? And the roof is cladded with rubber shingles? 

I believe the authenticity of the Fale is validated by the user group. The Pacific people who’ll be using this space in multifunctional ways are the ones who can say whether or not this is a fale.

In my view, there’s no such thing as a “traditional” fale because when you go around the islands, especially in Tonga and Sāmoa, you see them made from corrugated iron and other materials which aren’t “traditional”. In some cases, the locals have slightly changed their forms and materials. But they’re still fale. 

I would describe the fale as customary, because customary has the sense that it’s always evolving and moving. Whereas traditional may be seen as static and non-evolving. 

And culture is always moving with the times, isn’t it? So must our architecture.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the ancient builders of these pre-European structures weren’t just builders — they were also philosophers of space, time, people, and architecture. So they thought about how architecture could respond to, and activate and enhance the vā, which is this relational space/vā between people/tagata, ocean/moana, sky/lagi, and land/fanua.

So, for example, in Sāmoa, where you sit in the fale during an ‘ava ceremony or other gathering reflects your social rank in the community and your relationship to others. So, the design of the fale undergirds those relationships.

There’s also a link with the Sāmoan male tatau (the pe’a or mālōfie), which some tufuga tātatau (tattooing artists) believe is the blueprint of the fale. Some of the names of motifs and their arrangements on the male tatau correlate to the names of different sections of the fale roof structure. 

Lama at final year presentations with the dean of the architecture school, Diane Brand, and his colleague Dr Karamia Muller at the University of Auckland, Fale Pasifika, 2020. (Photo: supplied)

And no doubt this is a small taste of what you’ll be covering when you join the faculty of Auckland University’s architecture school as a full-time senior lecturer in July.

Yes, that’s right. I’ll be specialising in architecture co-design with Pacific and South Auckland communities. But I’ve been teaching part-time at the university for the last 10 years, and this new role will continue and expand on that mahi.

In recent years, my colleague Bill McKay and I have taken third year students across to the Pacific Islands and, over the course of a week, we form a brief there to design something institutional or commercial — such as museums, memorials, cultural centres, or schools, to name a few.

When we return to Aotearoa, the students develop their concepts into a piece of architecture they have to present at the end of each semester for a grade. 

I feel fortunate to be teaching this because I know the students appreciate learning another dialogue, and not just being taught architecture from more western ideologies. 

I’m a state-house kid, and those houses were designed for a nuclear family. But I’m wondering how the needs of our Pacific peoples — for example, our preference for having three or even four generations living together — can be factored into the way we’re building now? 

I think there are some changes happening to our social housing sector that hopefully will be addressing these issues more. Kāinga Ora are making an effort to be more informed and understand how certain community groups live, so they can design and build homes that meet the diverse needs of all New Zealanders. 

I’ll be consulting to Kāinga Ora on these very issues in the coming weeks. 

It’s fair to say that Kāinga Ora are trying to do better for communities such as Māngere in South Auckland and Porirua in Wellington. They’re working with various people from these communities and across a vast spectrum of industries. That includes Māori and Pacific designers who can provide up-to-date Māori and Pacific perspectives on housing.

Kāinga Ora has a 10- to 15-year plan to build 10,000 houses in Māngere. To their credit, they’re keen to get some different ideas on how these houses should be designed as previous designs didn’t really work, especially for Māori and Pacific tenants. 

I strongly advocate for intergenerational living. I think living with grandparents is one part of the answer to address some of the mental health problems our young people are facing. We’re at crisis point, and we really, really need to get these spaces right. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Lama (back, right) and ‘āiga gathering at Christmas. Konelake and Silifu are in the centre. (Photo supplied)

© E-Tangata, 2021

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