The best-known structure built in accordance with Māori culture is the whare whakairo (carved meeting house). This is typically a single large room with a pitched roof extended past the front wall to form an open porch. Most importantly, the whare whakairo is usually elaborately decorated, both inside and out, with images of ancestors, gods and other figures, and with more abstract designs. The whare whakairo is a larger and more elaborate version of earlier house designs such as the wharepuni (sleeping house) and pātaka (storehouse). It is not an ancient form of architecture, but appears to have first appeared after contact with Europeans, in the mid-19th century.
The simplest Māori houses seen by the first European visitors resembled much earlier dwellings. The artist George French Angas noted that ‘sleeping or dwelling houses are partly sunk in the ground, and are always built with a gable roof and a verandah, where the occupants generally sit. The inner chamber serves as a sleeping-apartment, and towards evening is heated by means of a fire in the centre; after the family enters for the night, the door and window are tightly closed, and in this almost suffocating atmosphere the inhabitants pass the night; when day comes, they creep out of the low door into the sharp morning air, dripping with perspiration.’1
The earliest known dwellings constructed by the ancestors of Māori were adaptations of the houses they had known in their former homelands in Polynesia. The houses in their new country were only semi-permanent because the occupants moved frequently in search of food and other supplies. They were often built in groups of 10 or more, although each house was occupied by a single family group. Houses could be round, rectangular or oval. They had a wooden frame covered with reeds such as raupō (bulrush), toetoe or nīkau palm leaves, and sometimes other materials such as bark. The earth floors were covered in tough flax mats, and the only furnishings were beds made of finer matting laid over fern leaves.
Houses had several features designed to keep the occupants warm, as New Zealand’s climate was significantly colder than that of the South Pacific. Houses were small. They had a low door and few, if any, window openings, to make them easier to heat. They were often built partly below ground level, or had earth heaped up against the outside walls to provide insulation. An inside fireplace was used for heating, while cooking took place in a separate building. A simple opening near the roof allowed some smoke to escape.
Around the 15th century, as communities grew larger and more settled, more sophisticated buildings appeared. These included the wharepuni (sleeping house), in which several families could be accommodated each night. The wharepuni was generally unadorned unless it belonged to a community leader, whose mana (prestige) might be demonstrated by a carved pare (door lintel), tekoteko (figure) or poutokomanawa (supporting post). The wharepuni acquired a front porch as a moderating zone between the smoky, dark interior and the outside world. This porch was not found in other South Pacific houses and was a uniquely Māori adaptation to the climate.
Other buildings found in a kāinga (settlement) in the period after the 15th century included the pātaka (storehouse). This might be used to store food supplies, in which case it was protected from predators by being raised above ground level, often on one or more poles, and reached by a removable ladder or ramp. Other types of pātaka were used to store equipment such as fishing nets, weapons or prized ornaments and garments. Pātaka often represented the wealth and prestige of the tribe and were richly carved, especially around the entrance.
Preparing and cooking food took place outside the house, either in the open air or in a building designed for this purpose, called a kāuta. This was generally a simple shelter, sometimes just a thatched roof supported on poles, with walls made from stacks of the wood used on the cooking fires. The kāuta’s lack of adornment or sophisticated construction reflected the special status of food preparation in traditional Māori society. Food could not be combined with tapu activities, and cooking was carried out by slaves or other people of low status within the tribe.