Waikare Komene: Climbing up from the bottom of the heap

by Dale Husband
Sun 15 Oct 2017
11 min read

Six years ago, Waikare Komene graduated from Unitec with a Master’s degree in architecture. Not a common move for an Ōtara boy.

But he’s been inclined to take unusual steps.

Including, as he’s been telling Dale, spotting the value and the artistic potential of waste.

 

Kia ora, Waikare. One of the realities about the education of many people is their preference to learn by doing. And I understand that’s your preference, too. I remember seeing a quote from you saying that, if a teacher told you something, it was likely to go in one ear and out the other. But, if you could try your hand at it, you’d be sweet.

What I’ve noticed is that we learn best through doing. We learn through our hands. Being shown what to do. Being shown how to fish. Or how to hunt.

And I think that style of learning is effective for our kids. Our education system needs to go down that path. It shouldn’t be all about books and writing. For example, if someone asks me a question, I can articulate an answer. But, if you asked me to write it down, it’d be a different story. I’d be struggling. Struggling with the spelling anyway.

I’m a bit dyslexic, which I definitely noticed when I went into university. There was a lot of focus there on writing essays and reading books — stuff that I found very difficult.

All the drawing and the practical building side was fine. I could ace those aspects. But if you told me to read a dozen books and remember a list of architects’ names, their birth dates and the buildings they produced ... well, that’d be a hard ask for me in terms of the way I learn.

For someone with dyslexia, you didn’t do too bad at school, because I’m told that, 15 years ago, you were the head boy at Ōtāhuhu College. And, what’s more, you were part of a generation who’ve been influenced by Bart Simpson, the champion of underachievement. This was a time, e hoa, when you’d stick out from the bunch if you were good at school work. I think some of our own people are still dissuaded from trying hard because it makes them stand out and feel uncomfortable.

Being head boy was a shock to me. I think that’s when people started to notice there was something in me that I didn’t even see myself at the time. They recognised that I was a trier. I tried everything even if I didn’t like it. I’d always give it my best shot.

I was told at a young age: “Take every opportunity that comes your way.” For our young people, that comes naturally. Just getting out there and giving things a go. But you can’t give things a go if the opportunities are not presented to you.

I know what you mean about standing out. That can make you uncomfortable. But it also makes you grow a bit faster. For me, the head boy opportunity gave me confidence in a leadership role and doing the best I could do with that.

At that time, at Ōtāhuhu College, a majority of the boys were our Polynesian brothers, our Indian brothers, our Asian brothers. So, it was a diverse mix of cultures that I had to lead and be able to resonate with. My best friend at school was Asian, Martin Leung-Wai, and we ended up doing architecture together.

I imagine there were some real hardships you had to go through at university. A Southside kid. No money to spare. Not even for buses. That would’ve made university study a challenge.

Definitely. Hard days. You ask yourself: “Why am I here? Why am I doing this to myself?” You have to hold on to the dream. Head down. Working hard to get there.

Let’s just back up here for a moment. You were growing up in Ōtara. Māori whakapapa on both sides of the family?

Yeah. Both Mum and Dad are Māori. My first name Waikare comes from my great-grandfather and my father. That’s my Kahungunu side. But Komene comes from my mother’s side. From her father in Kaikohe. So I whakapapa to Ngāpuhi as well.

The Komene whānau have a military background and we were at the Papakura military camp before we moved on to Ōtara.

I don’t have full brothers and sisters. Just halves everywhere. My father, who’s a Ratima, lives in Australia with my four sisters, but I stayed behind with my mother. I have a younger brother, so that’s my immediate family.

I was the first one in my family on both sides to finish high school, and the first to go to university. When I’d come home from university, talking about issues that I had with lecturers or the papers that I was doing, no one could relate to it and give me advice. 

Nobody in the family had walked this path before. They were just like: “Get a job! Go pump some gas.”

I was trying to focus on the end vision of getting our family out of this hole so we don’t have to keep fighting about money and all of that day-to-day stuff.

I wanted a future without that constant struggle over money. I wanted to change that and have a career that you love and pays you what you’re worth.

And I guess that’s what I’ve learned over the years: understanding your own worth. And holding strong to what you believe you’re worth.

You had a tutor called David Chaplin who, so I’m told, knows a bit about architecture here and overseas, and who reminded you that the goal was worth chasing. Can you explain how David came to awhi you when you were in difficult circumstances?

That was in my second year at architecture school. I was struggling. I really wanted to give up. There were 150 students in the first year and only two brownies in the class. And in the next semester, that other Māori student dropped out and it was just me. I felt totally alone.

I was the one catching two buses or a bus and a train, carrying my architecture models and my big drawings, while other students would pull up in their Mercedes or BMWs. Mum and Dad’s hand-me-down cars. So, it really put things into perspective. Bottom of the heap.

But Mr Chaplin, a tutor, sat me down and told me Māori architects and designers were the future for our people and for New Zealand architecture: “You’ve got something that Pākeha architects will never have. So hold on to your uniqueness.”

He talked about noodles. “Everyone else in this room is like noodles,” he said,” but you’re the flavour.” That connected with me. Even though I still felt out of place, there was a place for me in the future.

I guess that future is now, and I’m glad that I nutted that out and pursued it — even though, sometimes, I question myself whether this was the right choice. It’s a bit disheartening when you graduate with a Master’s degree, having put seven years into this, straight out of high school, and then you have to tackle the big, bad world.

You get a job drawing toilets and bathrooms and stuff. So we created our own opportunity, which was Roots, and it’s all about inspiring the next generation through creativity and sustainability.

That’s Roots Creative Entrepreneurs. And also your design firm Creative Native. Can you tell us about them?

Creative Native is about all indigenous architecture and design. It’s trying to reflect architecture around the Pacific. Trying to see that we have buildings that reflect who we are and how we see ourselves in this world. Connected to the earth, to the land.

The industry talks about sustainability and environmental design, but for me that’s just common sense. For us, it’s about making sure that our places reflect who we are. Making sure that Ōtara and Manukau reflect being the Pacific capital of the world.

What we need to keep pushing for is to have authentic local cultural designers — and to make sure that we have these talents in the big architectural firms who make significant decisions for our cities.

We need to position ourselves and prep ourselves so that we can be in a position to take up these opportunities, because they’re coming. We see that in things like Transform Manukau, which is a council organisation investing heavily in Manukau over the next 20 years.

For me, the question is how can we be a part of making decisions for our community, for our people, for our backyard.

The other question I have is how to link with local builders and contractors so you’re not bringing outsiders into our city to do work that we could do. I’ve always said that if you get the community to design and shape your own backyard, that delivers community ownership — and then people will look after and respect their place.

For me, I’ve always wanted to get the community involved. Too often, decisions are made by people who sit in offices and draw things, and then come and present to the community and say: “This is what we’re going to do for you.”

But I think we should walk alongside each other and help shape our city together, using both skill sets — the professional skills that the council brings, but also the connections, history and the whakapapa that our community has.

If we joined up with the council, then we’d be able to produce something that’s beautiful and that reflects who we are.

The aspiration I have is to be a part of that cohort and bring other Māori and PI architects back home so they can give their talents and their passion back to their own communities. That’s our dream at the moment. But a lot of effort is going into trying to prove to the council that we have the ability to do the mahi that they want done.

When we look at our public buildings, we can see that Māori and PI ideas are still being used as add-ons architecturally. The designs are predominantly Pākehā but: “Oh, let’s put in a Māori or Pasifika entranceway.”

And can we talk for a moment about residential houses for Māori and Pasifika families, because, we’re all used to the standard Kiwi three-bedroom houses that have been whacked up all around us. I remember talking with some architectural students out of Unitec some years ago, and they were challenged to design easily built, affordable houses that have a Pasifika dimension to them to accommodate big families.

Some had moveable walls so you could add bedrooms, or make an extra lounge. And make provision, too, for cooking for larger numbers. Is this style of Polynesian architecture in our residential homes still coming?

Yes, the current model doesn’t work for us, because, like you say, we can have multiple generations in one whare. I guess a lot of that comes down to cost. We’re having to live with each other to reduce the cost. So there definitely needs to be different housing options.

For my thesis, I studied earth ships, which is about houses that sustain people. These houses were built from rubbish — 800 to 1000 tyres, plus rammed earth. Earthquake-proofed. Passive solar heating through thermal mass through the tyres. Produce their own electricity. Collect and use their water four times before it goes out into the gardens.

This sort of house sustains people, so you don’t have to work at three to four jobs like our people do to keep the rent or roof over your head. This house lives for you. Produces energy. Produces water. Produces kai. And it’s very cheap to make because it’s made out of recycled materials that would otherwise be polluting Papatūanuku.

So for me, that’s an alternative housing solution that could work, if we were to adopt the principle that it’s the house that should sustain people and not people having to sustain the house. We have to reverse the order and flip that on its head.

Recycling is front and centre in your mind. As well as the design concept. Always thinking about using or reusing materials. It seems to be a big driver for you.

One of my mentors at university was Carin Wilson who I worked with for over 10 years. And I watched him re-use rubbish and turn it into beautiful artworks.

People throw things away, and we’ve been there collecting it. And then he’s in his workshop producing artworks and making money from it.

For example, someone had thrown out a whole bunch of sheet metal. He grabbed it and got me to cut out Rangitoto’s contours. Then I welded the sheets together and we put a leadlight behind it.

He stuck it on the wall and put a $5000 price tag underneath it. Twenty-five people wanted to buy it, so I ended up making up 25 and selling them for $5000 apiece.

That woke me up. It was just like: “Wow! Waste is not rubbish. It’s just a resource in the wrong place.” If we look at “waste” differently, then we won’t have the throwaway society that we have at the moment.

Another big part of your world is Roots Creative Entrepreneurs. Maybe you could explain what that is. Does it tie in with Creative Native? Or are they completely separate?

They do similar work, but with different approaches. For Creative Native, it’s more around people that are already designers and creators, who understand the culture aspects.

For Roots, it’s trying to inspire our young people to become Creative Natives, to encourage our young people to come up with creative solutions for our communities, our people, and our planet.

Roots is a platform where young people can come in and get a taste of the creative industries, whether that’s architecture, interior design, engineering, music.

If they like what they’re doing, then we try and connect with a tertiary institution and say to the head of school: You need to meet this young person because they’ve got the talent and skill and passion to do this sort of mahi.

Roots is the enabler to connect young people with opportunities. We’ve been doing that for the last five years, creating community projects that give back to communities. For example, by making greenhouses out of plastic bottles and donating them to primary schools that run gardening initiatives.

But what we’ve noticed is that our young people are having to do their mahi and their schoolwork and then come over and do what we’re doing. Now we’re trying to set up accreditation around our programmes so our young people can showcase their talent and skills and give back to the community — but also get credits in terms of school and education.

Then, once they’ve gone through tertiary and they’ve come out the other side, that’s when you move into Creative Native and start shaping our communities around our skills and our talent.

Initially, I thought I was speaking to a culturally inspired architect but I now feel I’m talking with a kaitiaki o te whenua, an environmentalist. A change agent, turning waste into usable materials. All of those descriptions could be applicable. What about the future for you and for this kaupapa? What plans do you have now?

The opportunity that’s on the horizon is Transform Manukau. That’s in my sights right now, being able to help shape our backyard in South Auckland and Manukau Central.

It’d be awesome to develop a local design team to be a mediator between the community and the council and be able to help shape our city. Beyond that, I’d love to go back to tertiary at some stage and run these programmes as tertiary projects. The university has already asked us to come back and share our journey to inspire the next generation of architects and creatives.

Especially now, when, instead of there being only two Māori out of 150 students in my year, there’s a large intake of Māori and PI coming through architecture school — something like 40 Māori and PI students now.

And the challenge is to have opportunities for them once they get out.

So, for us, it’s being able to get ready for the next lot of creatives to take over what we started. Or push it to the next level. 

 

© e-tangata, 2017

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