House of Knots

Looking out from the House of Knots

House of Knots: Maori Environmental Design and the Architecture of Biculturalism is a book about the tensions between indigenous practices of building and caring for landscapes and the modern conceptions of the environment that inform both environmental design and liberal multiculturalism. I hope to finish it by the end of 2021. It traces a series of controversies around the place of Maori architectural images and concepts in urban public space in New Zealand. The main plotline follows the planning and construction of three infrastructure projects—the so-called “Maori elements”— in the “pop-up” entertainment district along Auckland’s waterfront for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. I show that these building projects are pervaded by contentious disagreements among a wide variety of actors—architects, bureaucrats, and their publics, both Maori and not—around what counts as a Maori design or way of designing and who gets to decide.

The larger premise of the book is that these contests and their logics articulate the wider, entangled politics of expertise, indigeneity, and public participation that facilitates and limits the work of professional Maori environmental designers in building the city from their unique indigenous perspectives. The book is thus also an ethnography of New Zealand’s burgeoning “post-settlement era,” by which the government is racing to settle all outstanding treaty claims and work with Maori on an equitable, collaborative basis, as opposed to the paradigm of grievances that has defined this relationship since the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s. These dynamics certainly are not unique to the politics of urban and environmental planning, but the ways in which Maori building practices are intimately tied to ancestral landscapes makes those fields especially rich for understanding how emerging Maori professions, sciences, and other institutions extend the politics of recognition that has historically been the provenance of courts. In other words, the field of practice called Maori Environmental Design is at the forefront of “indigenizing” liberalism in New Zealand (and beyond, in collaboration with indigenous designers elsewhere).

From a Maori perspective, important places and landforms are revered as the dwellings of ancestors and also as ancestors in their own right, featuring prominently in complex genealogies that Maori orators can trace thousands of years and thousands of miles back to trans-Pacific migrations. Such genealogies are reckoned relationally in complex rituals in front of ancestral meeting houses: hosts compare their ancestry with their guests’, invoking past encounters and travels across the landscape to recall how opposing kin-groups are already related and indebted to one another. Meeting houses are important actors in these dramas, carved in ways that demonstrate the specific links that a kin-group has to their territory and to other territories. I came to know these practices first hand as an apprentice with a group of traditional woodcarvers, off and on for over five years. Carvers are the keepers of traditional building practices, which include prayers, songs, and genealogical mnemonics in addition to carving, lashing, and joinery techniques—indeed, all building patterns and practices are also ways of knowing and enacting ancestral connections.

This carving shop appears only briefly as an object of ethnographic storytelling, in the final chapter of the book. However, the insights of carvers into the nature of landscapes and buildings runs throughout the entire project. In particular, I use the imagery of meeting houses as a point of comparison with architecture, but perhaps not in the usual way. My purpose is not to demonstrate how “traditional” and “contemporary” Maori building practices are similar or different; I am careful to avoid any suggestion that a rural carved meeting house is somehow more authentic than tourist infrastructure, for example. Such distinctions always depend on their criteria. To that end, though, I use the meeting house instead as an indigenous model of comparison, such that rituals for comparing shared ancestors, travels across land and sea, and outstanding debts among different peoples is “good to think with” in telling the story of New Zealand’s unique “architecture of biculturalism.”