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Māori architecture – whare Māori

by Deidre Brown

The whare whakairo (carved meeting house) is seen as synonymous with Māori architecture. These beautiful houses are often named after – and seen as the personification of – ancestors. In the 2000s contemporary Māori architects continued to draw on Māori concepts and values in their work.

First Māori buildings

Whare whakairo

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.

Smoky sleep

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

Earliest houses

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.

Home fires

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.

    • George French Angas, Polynesia: a popular description of the physical features, inhabitants, natural history, and productions of the islands of the Pacific. With an account of their discovery, and the progress of civilisation and Christianity amongst them. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1866, p. 153. Back

Ancestral and mythological origins

Ancestral stories

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.

Teaching whakapapa

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.

    • B. McKay, ‘Maori architecture – transforming Western notions of architecture.’ Fabrications 1 and 2 (December 2004), p. 8. Back

Rise of whare whakairo

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.

Te whakaaranga o ngā whare whakairo

Māori carving school

By the 1920s the traditional arts associated with building whare whakairo were in serious decline. The situation attracted the attention of Apirana Ngata, member of Parliament for Eastern Māori and anthropologist. Ngata lobbied for a state-funded school of Māori arts and crafts. The school opened in Rotorua in 1927, and within two years had a small group of carving trainees – Pineamine and Hōne (John) Taiapa, Wiremu (Piri) Poutapu and Waka Kereama – under the instruction of Te Arawa tohunga whakairo (carving experts).

Going too far

Building whare whakairo in the 20th century meant combining traditional architectural practices with modern regulatory requirements for fire exits, adequate ventilation, electric lighting, plumbing and drainage. Sir Apirana Ngata, a key figure in the revival of whare whakairo, welcomed many of these innovations but believed that some building regulations ‘have done enough mischief by compelling rows of windows where there were none and letting light into places where it had no business to pry into.1

Women’s participation

The school quickly began to take commissions from Māori communities wishing to build whare whakairo and wharekai (permanent dining halls) – a new architectural development. A role was created for women as makers of tukutuku (lattice wall panels). Ngata wanted all members of the community to be involved in the construction process, but this need had to be balanced with the prohibition of women from tapu (restricted) spaces, such as building sites. Ngata found a solution by inventing the free-standing tukutuku frame, which allowed women to stitch panels off-site before installation.

Embellishing the wharekai

Young people were encouraged to embellish wharekai with kōwhaiwhai (painted patterns), tukutuku and a restricted range of carving, as Ngata believed this would allow them to see the benefits of marae-based communities and the communal work ethic. Since the buildings were associated with food they were noa (free from tapu), and offered more freedom for artistic expression. A small number of more lightly carved elements were included in the wharekai alongside kōwhaiwhai and tukutuku, which were regarded as less tapu arts than wood carving. With fewer constraints, young people were able to participate in the building process without fear of the spiritual consequences that might follow from accidentally violating tapu.

New generation of building experts

By the time the carving school closed in 1938, it had produced dozens of tohunga whakairo, hundreds of female tukutuku workers and at least 21 whare whakairo and 10 wharekai, as well as six chapels and churches. A more far-reaching consequence was that a new generation of carvers, tukutuku workers and kōwhaiwhai painters had been trained and told to pass their knowledge on to others. Their leadership within the Māori arts community led to the continued construction of whare whakairo and wharekai as part of the government-supported war memorial construction scheme. The New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute opened at Rotorua in 1966, and other community-inspired initiatives followed.

    • Quoted in Deidre Brown, Māori architecture: from fale to wharenui and beyond. Auckland: Raupo, 2009, p. 89. Back

Contemporary Māori architecture

Marae complexes

The whare whakairo is a central feature of politically inspired 20th-century initiatives to revive Māori communities and cultural traditions. This explains why since the 1970s Māori self-determination has been associated with this style of architecture, rather than the dynamic western-influenced buildings constructed by Māori religious leaders such as Rua Kēnana and T. W. Rātana. The whare whakairo’s cultural importance can be seen in the marae complexes, centred on new whare whakairo and wharekai, built to support urban Māori communities. These include:

  • Rehua marae (opened in 1960) in central Christchurch
  • Te Puea marae (1965) in South Auckland
  • Hoani Waititi marae (1980) in West Auckland
  • Ngā Hau e Whā marae (1990) in eastern Christchurch.

These marae complexes include buildings that were not part of marae before European settlement, such as the wharepaku (toilets) and, more recently, whare ora (wellbeing and health centre).

The form of the house remains a rigorously unicellular space with a porch and a single door and window in the front wall. However, in the 2000s building codes often demanded additional openings for convenience, egress or ventilation. Over the last 100 years, European technology and materials have been consistently incorporated into the meeting house, which has raised questions about ‘authenticity’.

Architectural revival

designTRIBE was formed as a collaborative architectural design practice in 1994 to provide Māori and wider community groups with access to high quality architectural services. Architectural designer Rau Hoskins (Ngāti Hau, Ngāpuhi), a director of designTRIBE, led several experimental projects to revive the construction of traditional thatched whare. In 2002 he and colleagues collected oral stories from elders who had helped construct these buildings as children. A whare raupō was built at Te Patunga Bay in Northland, and a whare nīkau at Puataho on the Kaipara Harbour.

From the 1980s institutional marae complexes began appearing in state schools and kura kaupapa (Māori-language schools), as well as tertiary institutions such as universities, polytechnics and wānanga, and from the 1990s in mental health and correctional facilities.

John Scott and Wiremu Royal

Contemporary Māori architects and architectural designers working outside of the whare whakairo idiom were a small but growing minority within the construction industry. John Scott and Wiremu (Bill) Royal were founding practitioners. Royal (Ngāti Raukawa) is thought to be the first Māori architect to graduate from a New Zealand university, completing his diploma in 1960. He founded his own practice in 1968 and worked on a variety of domestic, commercial and international projects, as well as more than 60 marae.

John Scott (Taranaki, Te Arawa) studied architecture in Auckland in the 1940s. In the late 1950s he was commissioned by the Marist Brothers (a Catholic order) to design a chapel in Karori, Wellington, to commemorate the martyrdom of St Peter Chanel on the French Polynesian island of Futuna in 1841. The Brothers built the chapel themselves, with minimal equipment and little previous experience. Futuna Chapel is arguably the most significant New Zealand building of the 20th century.

Last, Loneliest, Loveliest

The 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, the world’s leading architectural event, featured a New Zealand exhibition, Last, Loneliest, Loveliest. A 100-year history of New Zealand’s architecture was on display, including Māori meeting houses and Pasifika buildings. Its creative leader, architect David Mitchell, says, ‘In contrast to European architecture, which is architecture of mass and solidity, Pacific architecture is a lightweight architecture of posts and beams and panels and big roofs. This architecture has been persistently present in our history, it survived a century of colonisation, and it is increasingly distinctive.’1

Other architects and initiatives

Scott and Royal have been followed by other Māori architects and architectural designers including Rewi Thompson, Tere Insley, Perry Royal (the son of Wiremu Royal) and Rau Hoskins. Their buildings do not draw on aesthetics as much as on the concepts, values and technologies associated with the history of Māori architecture and customary ways of respecting the land. Western building systems and materials articulate these ideas and methods in built form. Apart from their residential work and institutional consultancy on health, media, educational and correctional institutional projects, these designers are also making important contributions to Māori housing and urban planning initiatives. There is also a collective of young female Māori architectural designers, including Elisapeta Heta, Raukura Turei and Rebecca Green, who create small-scale unheroic architecture.

Te Hononga: the Centre for Māori Architecture and Appropriate Technologies was set up at Unitec in Auckland in 1999. Students work on architectural projects with Māori communities. A design guide to Māori housing was prepared for Housing New Zealand in 2002.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Deidre Brown, 'Māori architecture – whare Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 December 2023)

Story by Deidre Brown, published 22 Oct 2014