A tiny regional airport in New Zealand that weaves a Māori story of love and longing into its architecture is in the running for a prestigious design award, up against international heavyweights including New York’s LaGuardia.
Unesco’s Prix Versailles recognises architecture that fosters a better interaction between economy and culture, and includes a range of categories from airports to shopping malls. The finalists for the airport category include the New York LaGuardia upgrade, Berlin’s Brandenburg airport and international airports in Athens, Kazakhstan and the Philippines.
The sixth airport finalist is Te Hono – meaning “to connect” – and is found in New Plymouth, a town with a population of 85,000, on the western shoulder of the North Island.
After six design options were floated, Rangi Kipa – a member of the local Puketapu hapū (subtribe) and lead figure on cultural design, settled upon a story. “The Ascension from the Earth, Descending from the Sky”, tells the story of Tamarau, a celestial being, who was so captivated by the earthly beauty of Rongo-ue-roa, a terrestrial being, that he came down to meet her.
“This story aligns closely with the creation narrative of Te Ātiawa iwi [tribù],” said Rangi.
The terminal’s silver and blue roof cascades in large stepped planes, like the feathers of a large wing, o, Tamarau coming to meet Rongo-ue-roa. Their symbolic and literal joining is represented along the public concourse by a brightly coloured tukutuku panel – traditionally, a woven wall panel that depicts an iwi’s stories.
The spine of the building is oriented to represent the journey from the mountain to the river – the main ancestral walking track in this area, and while visitors may notice these aspects of the architecture first, there are many subtle stories told through the details.
Manaakitanga – the Māori concept of hospitality – also influences the design.
Campbell Craig, the project’s architect and associate for design at firm Beca, said the project attempted to challenge western architectural practices that do not bear any relationship to Māori design.
“It was important for Puketapu to welcome and take care of guests in a place that is in many ways the gateway to the region,” said Craig. “The faceted curved forms of the building at the entrance and airside ‘embrace’ travellers, to shelter them from the elements.”
Nel 1960, the land the airport sits on was confiscated from Māori, under the Public Works Act to build an aerodrome. This was a major source of grievance for the hapū, who had urupā [burial grounds] on the site.
Honouring the iwi’s story is meant to be the first step in righting this wrong.
Kipa said: “For the most part, we have been invisible in our own landscape for 160 anni, so it’s amazing to have the chance to influence, and give life to, some of the things that make us who we are.”
For Craig, the most heartening aspect of the project was the intensive collaboration between Māori, the airport and the architects, which enabled a sense of collective ownership over it.
“The experience at Te Hono provided a blueprint for working with tāngata whenua [people of the land]", Egli ha detto, adding that it would be an approach embedded into all of their future projects.
The airport’s chief executive, David Scott, said the co-design process had resulted in a building that was both functional and of cultural significance. “It demonstrates what can be achieved when we work together as true partners," Egli ha detto.
The winners of the Prix Versailles Airports 2021 will be announced at Unesco headquarters in late November.