Embracing Modernity whilst Preserving Tradition: Māori Design in Schools

By Diana Wilkes

This short article explores some aspects that factor into Māori design. It is written by Te Mako Orzecki – of Ngāti Wehi Wehi, Raukawa ki te Tonga, Ngāti Toa, and Polish descent, who is Ringa Roi for Tārai Kura and Kaihuawaere Ngaio Māori with Tātai Aho Rau, Core Education.

Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua 

While people come and go, the land remains 

Image courtesy of the Kete Horowhenua website — Image by: Manakau School 1892 – Henry Phillips

Above is the Manakau school house in 1892. The original building was made from timber and comprised a rectangular classroom with a single gabled roof and chimney on the eastern elevation. The windows were double-hung sash with rounded tops.

Māori design holds a rich cultural significance deeply rooted in tradition, and its integration into school environments has evolved over time. Traditionally, Māori design elements such as intricate whakairo (carvings), tukutuku (weaving patterns), and kōwhaiwhai (symbolic motifs) adorned meeting houses and important structures around the country, serving as visual representations of tribal identity, whakapapa, and values.

At the foundation of these designs and motifs lay cultural narratives which dates back many centuries to a time of Hawaiki nui, Hawaiki roa, Hawaiki pāmamao (Great Hawaiki, Long Hawaiki, Far-distant Hawaiki).

Our traditional schools seem as faraway as Hawaiki pāmamao (Distant Hawaiki) in contrast to the modern day school design. The aesthetics, the set up of classrooms, whilst still evident in some areas can no longer be classed the ‘norm’ (see picture of Manakau classroom). In our modern-day schools, the incorporation of Māori design reflects a commitment to cultural preservation and inclusivity. Many educational institutions integrate traditional Māori artwork into their architecture, decor and curriculum, to honour the indigenous culture of Aotearoa NZ and foster a sense of belonging among Māori students.

Developing cultural narratives for the schools in partnership with mana whenua brings forth a rich depth of local mātauranga (knowledge), reo ā-iwi (localised language), and pūrākau (stories) that are reflective of the communities in which the schools are located.

Additionally, Māori design principles are increasingly recognised for their aesthetic appeal and holistic approach to education. Concepts like whakapapa (genealogy), manaakitanga (hospitality), and kaitiakitanga (guardianship) are woven into learning spaces and the curriculum, promoting cultural awareness and environmental stewardship.

Image courtesy of Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI) — Image by: From: https://maorihistory.tki.org.nz/en/programme-design/place-based-education/

This image above shows a gateway at Te Piipiinga Kākano Mai i Rangiatea Kura Kaupapa Māori in New Plymouth. Over recent years the idea of using a carved gateway at the entrance of a school as a front facing image to visitors to the school have direct connections back to traditional marae open space) and whakairo tomokanga (carved gateway) In Māori tradition it is where the manuhiri (visitors) wait, to be called on to the marae. Like most carvings there is a pūrākau (story) usually associated with an event, a tūpuna (ancestor), or a tohu whenua (landmark).

Courtesy of OuterSpace Landscapers Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Waitaha — Image by: From: https://outerspacelandscapes.co.nz/te-kura-kaupapa-maori-o-waitaha

To quote the author’s interpretation of the design …

This outdoor play space was designed to represent the new stage of growth at Te Kura. Significant cultural symbols are embedded within the landscape to capture the essence of Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Waitaha.

In essence, the integration of Māori design in schools will bridge the gap of past, present and future, honouring tradition while embracing the diversity and innovation of modern education. It will foster a sense of pride, identity, and belonging among Māori students, while also enriching the educational experience for all.

For further viewing please check out this video on Te Ao Mārama.

~Te Mako Orzecki

Note: Since the nineteenth century, much has changed in architectural design around the world. For us in Aotearoa, it is important to embrace modernity whilst preserving Māori tradition and Māori design features wherever possible. In schools, this can be done through the hard systems of architecture and property design as well as through the softer features of a cultural narrative such as the names of buildings, bilingual or trilingual signage, artistic designs and motifs, as well as landscaping. Check out some of the images in the gallery below. ~Tārai Kura