This essay by Jade Kake was the open category winner of the 2018 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.
Whangārei-based architecture graduate Jade Kake (Ngāpuhi, Te Arawa, Whakatōhea) writes evocatively about the architectural and emotional experiences of visiting the new marae buildings at Rāpaki, near Lyttelton.
We shelter under the trees, shuffling our feet, waiting to be called on to the marae. We gossip amongst ourselves, pointing in awe at the skylights atop the whare tīpuna. The near-impossible sense of lightness, of newness. The weather is clear. The sun blazes down overhead. The sea sparkles. Tino pai tou rā – it is a good day.
The whare tīpuna faces east, towards the rising sun. A kuia appears within the doorway. She stands, her back ramrod straight, eyes forward. She appraises the crowd serenely. When her mouth opens, the world falls out. We move forward, a rising tide, in response to the call of the kaikaranga. I feel the same way I always do – this simultaneous sense of an almost unbearable lightness and weight. I straighten my back and walk slowly and steadily forward. We pause on the ātea. I listen to the response of our kaikaranga, the exchange back and forth, their words twisting and binding together. Mostly, I listen to the sound of my own breathing, and my beating heart.
We start moving again, and before I realise it the thread is broken. We take our shoes off at the door, and shuffle inside. Some kawa remains the same. I shuffle in behind a row of other women and stand in front of my chair. I wait for the hau kāinga to sit before I do the same. As I sit on my comfortable chair in the second row of the manuhiri side, I listen as the whai kōrero speak in te mita o Ngāi Tahu. In my own limited way, I try to puzzle out the things that are different from home, and those that are the same. I hear about the rangatira Te Rakiwhakaputa, and how he laid down his rāpaki to claim the whenua for his people. I learn that the hapū and whare tīpuna are named for his son, Wheke. I think about my tupuna Hautakowera, renowned for wearing a dogskin cloak, and from whom our hapū gets its name.
As I think about this, I look around the interior of the whare. I try to do this discreetly. The carvings are the colour of sand. I don’t know what the timber is, but it reminds me of beechwood. Or maybe it’s the same as always, and I’m just not used to seeing it so naked. The kaikōrero describes some of the stories and tupuna and stories depicted in the whare, and I wonder silently who the tohunga whakairo responsible for bringing these stories to life are. Later I learn that the carvers involved were Riki Manuel, an uri of Ngāti Porou, and Fayne Robinson from Ngāi Tahu, and with whakapapa links to Rāpaki. I think about our bare wharehui at home, Te Reo o Te Iwi – the voices of the people who courageously rallied together to protect our marae from sale in the 1980s – and the wānanga we have been holding more recently to decide which stories to tell through the carvings that will soon adorn our whare.
In between the poupou, the tukutuku panels are in vibrant pastel colours; greens, purples, yellows and blues. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so beautiful I feel overwhelmed. Tears spring up. I quickly brush them aside. I look up at the ceiling. The kōwhaiwhai paintings on the heke depict local kaitiaki, local manu. I try to identify the birds and plants. Some I recognise, some I don’t. Again, I wonder who the artists are. Later I find out Whaea Reihana Parata – from Rāpaki, from here – is the weaver responsible for overseeing the tukutuku panels. The painter remains unknown to me.
Shafts of light fall down from the skylight. It is the most beautiful marae I have ever been to.
When the kōreo has concluded, we harirū with the hau kāinga. We exchange hongi, kihi, warm hands, gentle chit-chat. I look each person in the eyes directly, pause for a moment, and move on. I try not to hold up the line. At the conclusion of the harirū I give myself permission to loiter, chatting and laughing with other women. Before long, we receive the call for hākari. Haere mai ki te kai e te manuhiri e.
As we transition between the whare tīpuna and the wharekai, we enter an interstitial space. There are comfortable chairs, and it’s a place where I imagine during hui kaumātua can retreat and be comfortable. I think of our cold, south-facing whare at home, our open walkway to the whareiti and the wharekai. I think of our kaumātua, who must feel the cold deep in their bones at wintertime, even in the ‘winterless north’.
As we move into the wharekai, the space is almost unbearably beautiful, and again, I want to cry. I think about our wharekai at home, Te Reo o te Ora, and the pool of water gathering underneath it, hindered by poorly laid drainage systems and decades of heavy use since then. Here at Rāpaki, high windows open up to the north, filling the space with light. The kitchen is modern, well-equipped. The island-style bench reminds me of something seen only in glossy magazines, showcasing the palatial homes of the wealthy. I have never been to a marae like this one. The adjacent dining room opens onto a bright, spacious timber deck. I eat my lunch and look out over the harbour. I can smell the salt in the air, and the breeze is gentle and caressing.
After my lunch I walk back through the kitchen, through the lobby, turning left and out the door to the northern side of the complex. I walk along a covered walkway that leads to the ablutions, and once again am impressed by the planning. The separation of functions feels natural, comfortable. Tika. Āe, yes, that is correct. The wharepaku is a semi-open pavilion, connected but with a material separation, clad in a rich and handsome timber, the darker tone perhaps differentiating between that which is tapū and that which is noa. Or perhaps the reasons are more pragmatic in nature. As I wash my hands in the basin, I can’t help noticing the quality of the fixtures. I think about our ablutions block at home, in desperate need of renovation.
I walk outside, and in the quiet of my own company, for the first time I really notice the main outdoor area. It doesn’t form part of the ātea – that’s separate; rather, it is a communal space between the carpark and the buildings. The landscaping is careful, considered. It engages design elements and strategies more often seen in public squares and plazas. The area is paved, terraced, with areas articulated for garden beds. Trees sit neatly in laser-cut metal tree boxes, the patterning and rich redness highlighting and complementing exterior elements of the complex. Timber inland concrete benches provide spaces to pause. From this vantage point, the buildings in the complex open towards the sun, like sunflowers. Even the wharenui, closed by design, opens up through the use of a spectacular skylight along the ridge. I think about our marae at home, our less formal landscaping, and our more recent, humble improvements to make our spaces more accessible with new concrete pathways, decks and railings.
As I stand at Rāpaki, marvelling at this beautiful and loved new complex, I feel a sense of joy and pride, envy and sadness. It isn’t just the quality of the materials and finishes; it’s the less tangible elements, the spaces that are purpose built for us, for our tikanga and our kawa. The carvings and artworks depicting our narratives, our heritage, our literal and direct ancestors. The sense of pride and rangatiratanga embodied by these buildings that provide a living link to the past and allow us to imagine our future. Buildings designed to uplift the mana of our own people, and to enable us to manaaki our manuhiri.
When I set foot on my marae once again, I think about all the things that I’ve seen and learnt. The sun is shining. A breeze runs over the harakeke and through the boughs of the oak trees. I hear the laughter of my whānau carry on the wind, coming from the wharekai, I think. I am so grateful for this place. My tūrangawaewae, a place of peace. I think about my great-great-grandfather in the urupā. The whare karakia that was 100 years old the year I was born, and the oak trees that were planted around the same time. I am grateful for all that we have, and sad for all that we don’t. I dare myself to imagine that we too could have what they have at Rāpaki. That what has been achieved there, is also possible here. Perhaps, I tell myself, I will be the one to take our marae into its next phase, like a midwife ushering in new life.
Read this essay and nine others in 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture / 4 available for $15 + postage in the NZIA shop.