Story: Māori architecture – whare Māori

Page 3. Rise of whare whakairo

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First whare whakairo

The first whare whakairo (large, ornamented meeting houses) were built in the mid-19th century, a time of social, political and spiritual change. Land sales to Pākehā, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and Christianity all created a need for discussions within and between communities. Māori building designers responded by combining the type of carved and painted decorations normally used on the front of pātaka (raised storehouses) to represent the mana of the community with the gabled form and porch of the wharepuni (sleeping house), enlarged to a size that enabled discussion inside.

Links with Christian churches

The precedent for the scale and function of the first whare whakairo may have been the experience of building and assembling in Christian churches. Whare whakairo began to appear in the early 1840s on the East Coast of the North Island. This area had a rich carving tradition, and Christianity and the Treaty of Waitangi both arrived there in 1840. One of the most highly regarded whare whakairo from this time is Te Hau-ki-Tūranga, built at Tūranga (Gisborne) under the supervision of the Rongowhakaata tribal tohunga whakairo (master carver) Raharuhi Rukupō.

European architectural styles

Not all meeting houses have been embellished with carvings and decorations, and not all communal houses have followed the gable and porch model. In the west and south of the North Island, and in the South Island, carving traditions went into a decline due to intertribal warfare (particularly the musket wars of the 1820s and 1830s), the New Zealand wars and participation in the paid (rather than the exchange) economy. The influence of European architectural forms, such as the settler hall and church, and the use of imported materials and technologies, such as weatherboard, corrugated iron, glazing and nails, led to the development of communal buildings that were western in appearance but functionally Māori.

Te Kooti’s houses

Large complexes and networks of western-influenced buildings are associated with Māori religious and political movements that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ringatū movement, under the leadership of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, developed radical figurative painting styles for many of its meeting houses from the 1880s. Tiki and manaia (beaked figure) carvings were painted over with paint purchased from Pākehā merchants, represented entirely in paint, or replaced by western-style portraits of ancestors and contemporary community members.

Ahead of its time

The large Taranaki settlement of Parihaka was one of the most ambitious exercises in incorporating European forms and technology within a Māori architectural project. The earliest houses were made traditionally of local materials, but these were progressively replaced by weatherboard and iron-roofed houses. By 1885 Parihaka’s hundreds of buildings faced streets rather than a central marae. The settlement was supplied with running water and had gas and electric street lighting at a time when Wellington still lacked such amenities.

Prophets’ buildings

Between 1881 and 1907 the founders of the Parihaka movement in Taranaki, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, encouraged the construction of colonial-style residences for community leaders. Parihaka also had a dining facility modelled on a Victorian teahouse, and thatched whare were replaced by weatherboard houses.

In 1907 at Maungapōhatu, in the depths of the Urewera, Iharaira leader Rua Kēnana Hepetipa based his Hīona (Zion) courthouse on biblical descriptions of Solomon’s temple and an illustration of the Dome of the Rock.

Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana built the main Temepara (temple) of his Rātana church in the Romanesque style. The Temepara opened in 1927, and inspired the congregation to build branch churches in its image at Mangamuka (1947), Te Kao (1952), Te Hāpua (1954), Raetihi (1957) and Ahipara (1965).

These adaptations of European building designs and techniques showed a desire to use the most contemporary materials, technologies and ideas to hand to embody Māori ideas about spirituality and politics.

How to cite this page:

Deidre Brown, 'Māori architecture – whare Māori - Rise of whare whakairo', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Deidre Brown, published 22 Oct 2014