Ancestral stories describe how Māori made their buildings, and these structures’ communal functions, relationship to the natural world and symbolic meanings as ancestors, whakapapa (genealogies) and cosmologies. Buildings were part of a Māori cultural landscape where the human and natural worlds were interdependent. The complexity of that world was reflected in the buildings’ construction and use.
Ngāti Porou traditions remember Ruatepupuke as the ancestor who established a long tradition of whare whakairo construction on the East Coast of the North Island. He first encountered this type of architecture when rescuing his son from Huiteananui, the underwater house of the sea god Tangaroa. The son had been made into a tekoteko (gable figure) as a punishment for offending the god. The story shows that architecture is a practice associated with the gods.
Te Rāwheoro wānanga
Ruatepupuke returned to the earthly world with his son and other carvings from Huiteananui, which he installed into a new house, Te Rāwheoro. These became the models for the first generation of Ngāti Porou whare whakairo. The Te Rāwheoro wānanga (school of carving) in Ūawa (Tolaga Bay) continued until the 19th century and was later revived.
The house as an ancestor
Many whare whakairo are named after ancestors. The building is regarded as an outstretched body. The koruru (gable head) is the face of the ancestor, the maihi (bargeboards) the arms, the kūwaha (door) the mouth, the tāhuhu (ridgepole) the spine, and the heke (rafters) the ribs.
Some whare whakairo have embellishments that can be interpreted as, and used to teach, whakapapa by orators. In this case, the tekoteko (gable figure) is the founding ancestor, and their descendants are depicted in kōwhaiwhai painted sequences and poupou (painted or carved wall panels).
Meeting the meeting house
A non-Māori critic has observed that the meeting house ‘is often directly acknowledged by Māori in the same way one would address a person: it is not simply a building, a container for human activity. This emphasis on the front face, facade and interior, has often been interpreted by Western culture as a crudity of form, but it should be understood in the same way we greet a fellow human being: we address the face rather than the body or rear.’1
Addressing the house
The figuratively carved elements of buildings are personifications, and not just representations, of people, and must be addressed as such in whaikōrero (oratory). When making a speech on a marae, an orator is likely to begin with the expression ‘E te whare e tū mai nei, tēnā koe’ (I greet the meeting house standing before us). The speaker can directly address the building as though it were a living being, because it embodies a specific ancestor or tribal entity.
Facing the east
Whare whakairo also embody Māori cosmology. The back of the building is generally regarded as representing the ancestral past and the front the present and future. This arrangement is reinforced through situating the front of the house to face the east, the location of Hawaiki (the Polynesian homeland) and the sunrise, an event associated with renewal. Between them is the porch, bounded by the paepae (threshold carving) and pare (door lintel).
Each house has its own architectural, social and spiritual meanings accumulated over time through its use. Spaces inside and outside the building should not be considered empty voids but highly charged areas, activated by the interaction between people and their built environment.