28 Oct 2022

Public outcry over Taranaki Cathedral whare shocks Dean

5:25 pm on 28 October 2022
Te Whare Hononga at the Taranaki Cathedral

The contemporary Māori design of Te Whare Hononga has come under fire. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

An outcry over the contemporary Māori design of the new Te Whare Hononga at the Taranaki Cathedral site in New Plymouth has shocked its Dean.

The building has come under fire for being out of sync with St Mary's - New Zealand's oldest stone church built in 1846 - and the recently-restored colonial-era vicarage.

Construction of Te Whare Hononga was a condition of the Government's $5 million contribution towards the $20m earthquake strengthening project at the cathedral.

When opened it will be a visitor centre and a space for education and exhibitions.

Dean Jay Ruka of Taranaki Cathedral

Dean Jay Ruka of Taranaki Cathedral. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Dean Jay Ruka said when the builder's wrap came off the whare, there was an outcry online.

"I was like 'oh I didn't know that hundreds and hundreds of people cared so much for our building that I've never seen before'.

"You know not once have I seen them in our space, so I got on one of the threads and invited everyone to one of our community breakfasts and not one person showed up."

The whare will tell the story of Ngāti te Whiti hapū and its interaction with St Mary's - where British forces were garrisoned during the Taranaki wars.

Dean Ruka - Ngāti te Whiti, Puketapu, Te Aitiawa, Ngāti Mutunga, said its design reflected its name.

"It means the house that binds or the house that brings together or weaves together, and so that narrative has been played out in the design as it looks like a woven kete, a woven kono or food basket.

"It's designed in a sense to feed the people of New Plymouth with not just the story of history but what that means for our future. The future of Māori and Pākehā together."

New Plymouth councillor Murray Chong.

Councillor Murray Chong said the whare was in the wrong place. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Fourth-term councillor Murray Chong was one of those critical of the whare.

He loved the design and motivation behind the whare, but said it was in the wrong place.

"The issue I have is that it is an historic site and they've put something modern on an historic site and it's one of the most important historic sites in Taranaki if not New Zealand."

Chong reckoned the project also opened a can of worms for council planners.

"You try and do that with your own property. If you've got a historic building and you maybe want to try and put a brand new garage in and you want it looking really modern to contrast the historic look, the council will just say 'no, you have to build it to historic standards'.

"So, they've now set a precedent for people to challenge that."

Taranaki Heritage Month organiser Rob Green

Heritage Taranaki secretary Rob Green. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

But Heritage Taranaki secretary Rob Green, who was a church member and involved in consultation over the building's design, said it was brilliant.

"The architect came in and said we can't in any way tie this stone-church style with that vicarage, which is a completely different style, so how are we supposed to tie these things together?

"Well we can't, so we're going to do something completely different which is going to be a bold statement which has got to be different."

Green said it was meant to be uncomfortable and it would deal with an uncomfortable history.

"If people have looked at it closely it's not even rectangular, so it doesn't even acknowledge the street maps, it's not squaring up with our streets at all.

"It's honouring old lines of sight to Paritutu to Pūkākā / Marsland Hill and that's done quite deliberately and it's also done deliberately in a different style."

Green said ultimately what happened in the whare was what was going to be important and he implored people to visit and listen to the stories that would be told there when it opened.

Dean Ruka had a parting shot for the naysayers.

"This is the design that mana whenua have worked on with the church and this is the time for mana whenua, Ngāti Te Whiti, to put their design aspirations into our city and so this is just the start of increasing the visibility of things Māori in our city."

And the timing could not be better.

"We're a society that is waking up and learning its history. This building, Te Whare Hononga, arrives at the same time the history curriculum arrives 2023.

"So, right here in Taranaki we'll have a purpose-built space for schools in our area and around the maunga and around the motu to learn that history."

Te Whare Hononga - the House that Binds - will be officially opened in the New Year.

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