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Whare Timu (Ngāti Kahungunu, Te Arawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) is the first person in his family to go to university, and now, at 34, he has landed one of the most sought-after jobs in architecture – associate principal in charge of Warren and Mahoney Architects' advanced cultural design unit Te Matakīrea.
Timu’s parents may not be too surprised, however. To hear him talk about his childhood in Heretaunga, it’s clear they encouraged his artistic talent from a very young age. Timu was allowed to paint superheroes all over the walls of the family home – comic strip characters, landscapes and horses were other favourites.
“My parents kind of let me go rampant,” he says. “They appreciated my hobby and wanted me to be free to express myself. There was a high stud, so the walls [and consequently the paintings] were massive. It was a shame when Dad eventually painted over them, but they were there for a good few years.”
Timu also liked nothing better than sitting outside the family’s 130-year-old villa and sketching the front elevation, filling in all the detail of the window joinery and decorative elements.
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“My mum would give me top-grade paper and pencils. Hastings is flat, so I could bike anywhere and stop to draw anything.”
Timu says it was expected he would stay in Hastings once he left school – he already had a young baby: “It’s what the family always did; we stayed local. I was planning on going to work in the meatworks with my dad to support my child.”
But his school teachers and a counsellor at St John’s College had other ideas, arranging a visit to Victoria University’s School of Architecture in Wellington, where he was entranced by the workshops, artwork, model-making and lectures.
And so, when school ended, Timu headed south with a scholarship, taking his partner and baby daughter with him.
He also took plenty of ranga wairua from a local legend, the late John Scott. Timu says the architect has been a “big influence” in his career choice.
He has found a “Scott synergy” in many areas of his life. Scott designed the chapel at St John’s College, plus other buildings he knows well. Timu has also worked with Scott’s son Jacob at The Grange family property at Haumoana, and Timu’s grandparents are buried next to Scott at the Matahiwi Marae near Clive.
“I had access to his original drawings archived in Wellington, and they really got me going,” he says. “He is our most famous architect. He has paved the way for Māori and all architects.”
Based in the Warren and Mahoney office in Wellington, Timu travels to Auckland to talk to Stuff, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the quiet tikanga Māori he brings to our discussion. Fluent in te reo Māori – to the extent he often finds it easier to express himself in his own language – he is an ambassador for his people as well as his employer.
It is hard to believe he is just 34: “They call me the kid,” he jokes.
Spirituality features prominently in his work. Timu is currently wrapping up a post-graduate thesis on the rebuild of the Tapu Te Ranga Marae, which burned down two years ago.
The marae was started in 1973 to uplift disenfranchised urban Māori, and was built over decades by whānau, Māori youth and volunteers out of recycled wood including that from crates within which cars were shipped from Japan.
Timu says the marae was a big part of the community, and he has been involved in the plan for the rebuild, working alongside the Home of Compassion neighbours and the Wellington City Council. “We are working on the development of spatial plans of how to incorporate Māori values and spirituality.”
The marae design will provide traditional transitional spaces that allow a journey through to a higher place, or “state of fruition”. “It’s a way of storytelling.”
Timu also quotes the example of a major Warren and Mahoney project – the design of Dunedin Hospital in conjunction with Ngāi Tahu. Cultural values are defined, which will help determine the architectural design.
“For example, one value is whanaungatanga or family connection and kinship. The architecture will represent this with a mahau– a porch or veranda where family gather. And there will be a focus on the interstitial spaces [between the buildings]. These are the places where you hang out, enjoy some good food, relax.”
Timu’s recent projects include the Sir Howard Morrison Performing Arts Centre in Rotorua, and the award-winning He Tohu Exhibition room that displays our national taonga, including the 1840 Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Prior to joining Warren and Mahoney, Timu worked with Studio Pacific Architecture, then First Light Studio. He is a senior committee member and architectural and urban planning specialist as part of the Ngā Aho National Indigenous Design Network, and a board director of Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects.
‘Establishing our corporate DNA’
Timu says one of the first things to be addressed in his new job at Warren and Mahoney is “the need to establish our company DNA – to become a culturally responsible practice”.
“This will involve growing internally, building our capability and our capacity, providing competence in leadership, facilitating te reo Māori, cultural competency workshops, and understanding the Treaty and other historic milestones.”
Drawing on Māori cultural values to find a close connection to the land will be a significant aspect of project design.
Timu recognises there is a lot of work to do – he says tokenism has been an issue in the industry for as long as he can remember: “Last-minute slap-on carvings and engagement [with Māori] left till last have been commonplace.
Sixteen new projects received awards in the 2021 Waikato/Bay of Plenty NZIA Architecture Awards.
“It is still a big issue for some architects, while others are more liberal and want to collaborate. I think, as practitioners, we struggle with the idea of co-designing and losing that bit of control.”
“But Māori are all about the collective, so co-designing is a strong thing. Architects can struggle with that when the engagement process is left too late.”
“I’m aware there’s always going to be resistance. Interestingly, Warren and Mahoney – a practice that started in Christchurch, which has a very colonial past – wants to try and change that mentality, and I feel the support and the leadership. The firm is one of the signatories of the Diversity Agenda Accord, and we are willing to commit to that. But that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement.”
Timu talks about the integration of three key tenets of design – culture, sustainability and technology. “There are a lot of overlaps; culture is all about the people; sustainability is all about how we connect with the land. Weaving the three strands together, so they form a braid becomes our approach to all our projects.”
“There is a strong commitment from the company. We want to be really good storytellers.”
There’s little doubt; already the firm has one champion Māori storyteller onboard. And Timu’s parents, who still live in the family home in Hastings, can be proud they gave him such free rein to paint the town.
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