An other architecture, Mike Austin

Whare Karakia: Maori Church Building, Decoration and Ritual in Aotearoa New Zealand 1834–1863 
Richard A Sundt
Auckland University Press, $69.99,
ISBN 9781869404567


One of the perennial architectural questions concerns the international versus the regional, the foreign versus the indigenous, which in Aotearoa New Zealand becomes the question of Maori architecture. The question, that is, whether Maori architecture is fundamentally different to that of Pakeha. This in turn raises issues of ornament and decoration, extending to the structural conceptions involved in the organisation and occupation of architectural space. Richard Sundt’s Whare Karakia focuses on these issues with detailed research of Maori church-building from the 1830s to the 1860s.

The whare karakia which Sundt calls “Maori-style churches” enjoyed a relatively short period of building, culminating in the magnificent Rangiatea at Otaki which is illustrated on the cover and discussed at various points in the book. This was built in 1848-51 with Te Rauparaha vowing “to erect a larger and finer edifice than the one he helped build at Waikanae”. The Waikanae church follows earlier whare built on the East coast, and Sundt says that there were many others.

Why were these large whare karakia built? In the north of the country the missionaries (with Maori assistance), constructed the first churches based on the European model, and Sundt suggests that a lack of skill on the part of the missionaries is therefore hard to maintain as a reason for whare karakia. Instead he proposes an economic rationale whereby Maori were “in essence … donating both materials and their labour” to the budget-conscious missionaries. This could also have been an assertion of Maori architectural authority.

Both church and whare are single spaces of deceptively simple gable construction. However, as whare get larger, the rafters become so heavy that they sag under their own weight. Maori had a brilliant method for dealing with this by splitting the timber (a labour-efficient method of dressing a log and reducing weight) and pre-stressing the rafter with a flax cable (known as the tauwhenua) on its upper face. Effectively this makes what appears to be a trabeated system into an arched form. As an explanation for the ability of the thin rafters (60-75mm) to span over nearly seven metres on the Manutuke IIB whare, this suggestion is more plausible than Sundt’s propositions of “the hardness of the pukatea wood” or the “lower height of the building”.

Sundt gives considerable attention to rafters and he seems to be under the misapprehension that increasing the roof pitch increases the ability of a rafter to span a horizontal distance. He does however acknowledge that “wind-loading probably diminished any such gains”. Indeed wind and earthquake led to the loss of early European buildings in New Zealand, and Sundt twice mentions churches that were blown over. Churches generally had much higher walls than traditional whare, and one of the advantages of the tauwhenua system was that it locked the junction between wall and roof, thereby resisting these horizontal loads. Sundt claims that the tauwhenua system was not present in Rangiatea, where nails were used to fix the traditional mortice and tenon joint. However, he illustrates a sketch of the tenon end of a rafter recovered after the 1995 fire that destroyed the building, in which there is an unexplained slot that could have accommodated a tauwhenua cable. What is certain is that in 1884 external buttresses were applied to Rangiatea to resist lateral loads.

It also mystifies Sundt that rafters were laid on the flat when it would have been more structurally efficient to lay them on edge “in western fashion” as was done in the early 20th-century meeting house Tama te Kapua at Ohinemutu. One reason could be that a flat under-surface surface was desired for embellishment. There is evidence that there was much controversy between Maori and missionaries over the ornamentation of the interior of the churches, and Sundt devotes a chapter to decoration and imagery. He suggests that there were strong strictures against adornment by the Anglican missionaries, where even a simple cross was “an enticement towards idolatory”. Rangiatea was painted but had no carving. However, strangely, it is often described as highly decorated.

At Rangiatea there was also controversy over the tahuhu (ridge pole) where Henry Williams sawed six feet off its length of 96 feet – reputedly in the middle of the night. Treadwell has suggested that this might have been to prevent the construction of a Maori porch, which Sundt disputes for lack of evidence, arguing instead for “structural reasons”, by which he presumably means the weight of the tauwhenua. He claims that it was western technology (block and tackle) that made raising the tahuhu on larger houses possible, but massive ridge poles are erected on haus tambaran in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. This process is well-documented, as is the importance of the ridge pole and its supporting posts, throughout the Pacific. Indeed the ridge pole and ridge post are the signature of the Pacific house from Japan through to Polynesia.

Apart from the attested-to significances and meanings given to the ridge pole and post in various parts of the Pacific (such as the tahuhu as backbone and poutokomanawa as heart in the Maori whare), this can also be seen as an advantage in structural terms where the ridge pole removes the outward thrust of the rafters on the side walls. However, when the building is used as a church, the post, or posts, in the centre of the whare can be seen as a problem, and Sundt gives attention to the practical and liturgical implications of this. These posts impede the “pathway to the altar”, a phrase which he says he is appropriating from Treadwell. He goes to some lengths to argue that the liturgical difficulties were not insurmountable and draws attention to 13th– century examples of double-nave gothic churches with columns down the centre as precedents. Sundt also challenges Treadwell’s view that the central posts “disturb the view of Rangiatea as a purely Christian building”, but on the other hand he does give evidence that these churches were regarded as flawed by the missionaries, and concludes that “whare-style churches like Otaki radically challenged and disrupted the missionaries’ customary design and use of interior space.”

Sundt discusses the location of seating in the churches in relation to gender. He illustrates differences in meeting houses with a diagram showing the allocation of space and associated meanings. A question that this diagram raises is the attribution of right and left. It may seem obvious which is which if the house is treated as an object as might be viewed in elevation. However, the whare is not an object. It is a person, and there is no question when it comes to the body, which side is right and which is left. This happens to be the reverse of the diagram. Sundt also points out that the sanctuary end of the church (away from the entrance) is the high-status location, whereas in the meeting house prestige and sacredness is “reversed 180 degrees”.

It is only possible for these issues to become apparent because Sundt brings his speciality of gothic liturgical space to his careful and thorough research, carried out over several years. This book encourages us to take our architectural history seriously and to pay attention to the concrete and detailed evidence that makes architectural speculation possible – such speculation as the question whether the church and the meeting house, in spite of their similarities, are fundamentally opposed in their points of view. Whare Karakia is an important contribution to architectural history and establishes definitively that construction of whare as churches ceased with the wars of the 1860s and paved the way for the extraordinary development of the meeting house in the latter half of the 19th century.


Mike Austin is a semi-retired teacher of architecture.

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Posted in Architecture, Māori, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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