DESIGN PROCESS: Mount Ngongotagh New Zealand – Craftsmanship, Making and Dimensional Rules
Leading a new cultural tourism masterplan for the Ngati Whakaue Tribal Lands in New Zealand, Board Director Neil MacOmish describes how the stories and craftsmanship of the local Maori people have shaped a new destination that is truly reflective of the place, people and culture.
Renzo Piano famously said, In architecture, the philosophy should inform the detail, BUT the detail should inform the philosophy.
Our client, the Ngati Whakaue are the Iwi (Maori People) that have occupied the land around Lake Rotorua for the last 750 years. During that time, their craftsmanship and making has been honed and developed and informs an essential part of their culture.
Typically, these processes oscillate from the practical to the decorative, from art to science.
The clients brief was clear but simple to us having won the commission to undertake this cultural and tourism led masterplan. There were to be three pillars that all aspects and each component would be judged against – Our People, Our Stories, Our Place.
So in this regard, an essential consideration in how the masterplan was conceived needed to be underpinned by how it and all the constituent parts, would be made and consequently what the making would represent in the narrative.
Our research consisted of a substantial amount of historic material describing the heritage of the Iwi, our own background research, work undertaken by Professor Terry Stevens as well as a lengthy site visit and engagement sessions with all parties who had a vested interest including neighbours. Two key aspects of this research were discussions with staff and students at Te Puia, the Maori cultural and geothermal centre in Rotorua and the discovery that one of our clients’ principle businesses was the production of engineered timber.
All of this mapped a rich narrative for our use in the concept design and organisation of the proposed masterplan. For instance, in the use of engineered timber sheets, a 1200mm panel size was an optimum dimension that could be fabricated and would result in little waste material on or off site. All buildings and dimensional criteria would use this ‘rule’ to establish an aspect of the masterplan’s spatial characteristics in a wholly sustainable way. Even buildings that require long spans or on difficult parts of topography are conceived in timber – glulam or composite frames as well as the skin and external walls. The Karearea (The Hawk’s Nest) hotel is a typical example of how this is manifest. A slender timber frame that moderates the severe slope is occupied by modular bedroom units that are simply slotted into place.
“Young Maori’s are given a three year course in how to carve using both traditonal and contemporary techniques... This process of carving onto everyday objects and enviornment makes everything ‘thier own’: part of them, thier families (Whanue) and community.”
Much has been made of modernism’s concerns with decoration – Adolf Loos et al and the much miss-quoted “ornament is crime”2 – but this clearly has not and is not always the case.
At Te Puia, young Maori’s are given a three year course in how to carve using both traditional and contemporary techniques. The first year is generalist in the craft – second and third years offer you a choice of whether to specialise in wood, stone or bone, all very different skill sets. This process of carving onto their everyday objects and environment makes everything ‘their own’; part of them, their families (whanue) and community. It also makes a clear connection between their culture and stories – the carving often makes specific reference to events, personalities and icons within Maori history. We used these particular devices in specific locations to make equally specific reference to this heritage – the eight Maori children totems that mark the boundary of the site (each representing an elemental part of the natural world), abstract references to patterns which represent key elements of their cultural narrative (the closed asymmetric spiral – the opening tree fern, which represents life/rebirth, Maui’s fish hook – transformation etc) – these not only form part of a ‘decoration strategy’ but also inform building plan and form and mark ‘nodal points’ along a carefully choreographed ‘cultural pathway’ that threads the masterplan together.
This pictorial form of recording their histories and heritage is supported by an oral record (songs as well as stories) – little is written. These two aspects of remembering and recalling their rich history actually make it easier the represent the pervading narrative within strategic design considerations and the composition of the overall masterplan – as well as in the detail.
An extension of this process of making is the Maori tradition binding material together – in particular, things that need to flex or move in response to external forces. Examples of this can be found in both boat making and vernacular architecture. The first is an obvious response to the constant motion of water – particularly at sea. The constituent parts of canoes and larger vessels have bound joints to accommodate the different stresses and forces. However, this knowledge became an essential part of the Maori construction process in buildings. It was not just a tradition of transferring one technique to another purpose – for simple ease, but an understanding of the geological conditions that they were building in. New Zealand sits on the south-western edge of the Pacific Rim of Fire. Earthquakes and seismic events are a frequent occurrence. Joining key structural elements together by binding them using rope or flax, enables buildings to move rather than collapse. The craft and skill involved in this merges with an idea about decoration.
Indeed, Alvar Aalto used a similar device in his Villa Mairea – both to represent wrapping and the peeling of the bark on silver birch trees – but also as an actual jointing technique.
We took this particular element of making and used it in the proposed reception centre of Lake Rotorua – a detail on the external columns that hold up the ‘Hoe’ roof (a Maori war paddle).
All of this informed not only our architectural concepts, language and contextual response, but also an idea about function and programme.
To take these craft and making techniques forward from their 750 years of tradition, we proposed the idea of a Maori innovation centre. This would use honey making as an extension into health and well-being products as well as a re-wilding programme using Flax for similar purposes. It would also promote the synthesis of craft and technology into new digital techniques.
Adjacent to our site is a mountain bike facility called Crankworks. It holds an annual event where 27,000 competitors come and race in a huge number of different categories. With new ways of making and forming timber, our client is now making crafted, authentic Maori mountain bikes. These are as strong and lightweight as carbon composites, but look and feel like a handcrafted version, with organic forms that allude to traditional art forms.
All these things combined make for a masterplan response that is grounded in those key elements of the client’s brief = Our People, Our Stories, Our Land.
1 Archiscapes. The art of sketches | Renzo Piano (6 April 2015). Retrieved
2 Loos A. 30 May 2019. Ornament and Crime: Adolf Loos. Penguin Classics
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