Indigenising the Landscape

Te Ari Prendergast started his career as a Toi Waihanga working on the biggest urban design project in the history of Aotearoa: reimagining and rebuilding the
city of Ōtautahi after the 2011 earthquake. Te Ari talks to kaituhi Ila Couch about his mahi, his mentors, and why he wants us to imagine a marae on Mars.

Kōtukutuku Papakāinga. Photograph supplied.

Te Ari Prendergast (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Porou, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) lives in Tāmaki Makaurau where he is a senior associate at architectural firm Warren & Mahoney. Founded in Ōtautahi in the 1950s, Warren & Mahoney hired the first registered Māori architect in New Zealand and Te Ari’s earliest mentor, Wiremu (Bill) Tuarau Royal (Ngāti Raukawa). “I did my formal architectural education, but working with Bill and his son Perry was a master-class in Māori architecture education,” says Te Ari.
The middle child of educators, Tarlin and Piripi Prendergast (Pākehā, Yorkshire), Te Ari was born in Kawerau and grew up in Ōtautahi. Both parents were heavily involved in the local Kura Kaupapa and dedicated to language reclamation for themselves, and their tamariki. “My parents worked hard to learn in later life and now both Dad and Mum speak Māori. My brother and sister speak Māori to their kids and my daughter’s first language is Māori. We’ve all been committed to it.”
Te Ari considered a career as a kaiako reo Māori but was encouraged by Dr Hana O’Regan and Dr Te Maire Tau to pursue science and ecology at Lincoln University, following in the footsteps of his poua, Dr Ropata Wahawaha Stirling. His poua received an honorary doctorate in Resource Management in acknowledgement of his contribution to the understanding of natural resources management within Aotearoa,
and the protection of taonga and mahinga kai species through traditional knowledge. “Some of the key values I bring to my mahi around mauri and respect for nature come from time spent with my poua,” says Te Ari.

A career in architecture came when Te Ari realised the biggest personal impact he could have on climate change was through the building industry. The built environment generates 50 percent of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. In Aotearoa, 20 percent of the carbon footprint is building-related. He was in the final year of his Master of Architecture at Victoria University when Ōtautahi was devastated by
the 2011 earthquake.
After completing his studies, Te Ari joined Bill and Perry at Royal and Associates Architects to work alongside iwi and mana whenua in a partnership with central government to rebuild the city. It was an opportunity he says was personally and historically significant.
“Ngāi Tahu were the first indigenous people in the world to be incorporated into the restoration plan for a city,” says Te Ari. “For some of the younger generation, this was our ‘Te Kereme’. Our elders had been the battlers to the claims process and we were the benefactors of the settlement. This was our chance to prove ourselves to our elders, to see our city reborn with their stories.”

Working alongside pioneers, Bill, Perry and internationally-renowned indigenous architect Rewi Thompson (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Raukawa), Te Ari says he experienced the unique way Māori architects bring storytelling and ritual to the design process. “They found stories and wove them into the building, and they weren’t always stories from the past,” says Te Ari. “There were things occurring on the project while they were designing. They would notice the way kaumātua interacted and incorporate that into their design ina way I thought was very clever, authentic, and honest.” Te Ari felt attuned to the whenua when working on certain projects involving land that had been covered over for so long. “The initial experience for me was that the landscape was trying to tell us something. How do we start to retell the stories of the land – beginning with the geological and biological, and including early occupation and migrations that were happening throughout our history, including those early interactions with European settlers.”

During the redesign, the recommendation was made that every building should serve to welcome and tell the stories of the local area in ways that accommodated Māori rituals and values. The processes that evolved with mana whenua and the steering group, Matapopore, have become the blueprint for the industry. “We couldn’t just rebuild Gothic buildings and feel okay. That would have been the equivalent of creating Disneyland. To create authentic design, you need an authentic and genuine process. Often we get caught up with how you make something look Māori. “It’s got to look like a waka, or it’s got to have a pitched roof like a whare. This constant second-guessing ourselves and trying to validate what we do to others is colonising. What is Māori design? In the words of Perry Royal, ‘Māori architecture is whatever it needs to be, to achieve for Māori’.”

Every new project begins with research, and over the past two years Te Ari has been looking into hauora hinengaro (mental health) spaces where there is a huge vacuum in indigenous designers. “Hospitals are especially complex buildings so you have to understand how they work. I’ve had to do my own education into Māori health, as well as learn how to design a hospital.” In reference to the research of leaders in Māori health like Sir Mason Durie and Professor Suzanne Pitama, and reviewing the findings of Pūao-te-Ata-tū, the 1986 commentary and inquiry into racism within New Zealand society (in particular the Department of Social Welfare),
Te Ari says the great thinking has already been done. “Holding on to some of our tikanga, our values around health, our atua and bringing those stories and narratives into these spaces, helps the spiritual side of our health. Statistics show that when we bring Māori health concepts into general health it benefits everyone.”

While at TOA Architects, Te Ari was part of the team working with the Mahitahi Trust to design Kōtukutuku Papakāinga, a social housing project in Ōtara, South Auckland. Mahitahi Trust, a Kaupapa Māori hauora hinengaro and addictions provider, supports people and community in wellbeing journeys and rangatiratanga. Looking to provide a safety net for people facing homelessness
while accessing care, the trust purchased property with a vision of creating a contemporary marae. The end result has seen the building of 40 single-bedroom apartments, a whānau apartment, a whare manaaki (community and group therapy space), and central courtyard.

“Working with Te Mahitahi Trust was a real learning curve,” says Te Ari. “Mahitahi know their constituents well and knew exactly how the spaces would work for their values, as well as the wellbeing of their tāngata whaiora.” He has since applied these learnings to numerous housing and health projects with whare manaaki (community and group therapy space) being a key component. “The model provided by Mahitahi is applicable to hospitals, schools, Papakāinga and anywhere you want
to improve the connection of people to the whenua and to community.”

As far as designing for the future, Te Ari prompts students of architecture to consider designing a marae for Mars. “Free yourself from convention and create scenarios to explore what Māori design could be,” says Te Ari. “What is a marae? How do you create that connection? How do you bring mauri to a place? Settling Mars is all about engineers, but what does it look like when people are trying to live there and connect to a new land? Exploration and the settling of new lands and planets while maintaining connection is in our nature as Māori.”

Whether exploring the idea of architecture in space or on Earth, Te Ari is energised by what he calls a new era of indigenising the landscape. “We are such a strict culture around process but then our greatest hero, Maui, walks all over that. I ask myself ‘What is the tikanga and then what would Maui do?’ As long as there is the community and purpose involved, he’s our get-out-of-jail-free card to do what we want.

“Now is the time for us. We’re seeing ourselves. We need to keep pushing.”