Like many Australians, my background is multicultural. Born in Britain of a New Zealand naval father from Hawkes Bay and a sixth-generation Aussie mother from the Riverina.

You might think my twin heritage is much the same but increasingly it’s not. One of the most striking differences across the Tasman is the recent change in the naming of things: places, streets, buildings, country.

In 1982, I spent a year attending Auckland University, travelling the two islands and working with some of the finest architects anywhere. It was a period in which Maori culture, and architects, were becoming more prominent.

Futuna Chapel of 1958-61, by the enigmatic John Scott, was a complete revelation, (see www.johnscott.net.nz and a recent book on his work).

I made friends with Rewi Thompson, a recent graduate making his way under the tutelage of David Mitchell, New Zealand's greatest architect-teacher. I learned a little of Maori culture, the various traditions of Maori building, the marae and the whare r┼źnanga (meeting house) with its whakairo (carving), and a very few words of ‘te reo Maori’. Starting with Kia Ora to Aotearoa, sometimes translated to hello to Kiwi. 

I was a frequent ‘Pakeha’ visitor over the next 30 years, not noticing how much the Maori language was being integrated into everyday life until three events pulled me up short.

The first was obvious: the NZ National Anthem is a dirge called God Defend New Zealand, but it sounds far better when it is sung in Maori. Going to Eden Park ten years ago to see the All Blacks thrash the Wallabies (predictably) I was struck by how moving it is in Maori, but moreover how everyone knows and belts out the words, at least of the first verse but not the second which is in English.

Not as moving as a Haka, but then what is? As the token Aussie I was supposedly comforted by being told that their Polynesians had outplayed our Polynesians.

The second occurred in 2013 when I was researching some retirement living projects in Auckland for Lendlease. Visiting them, and the local Council, I was surprised to find that every locality, street, park, government department, even the council chambers where we lodged our application, were now labelled in two languages, English and Maori.

This is now the case throughout the entire country, aided by having one Maori language, although there are local variations. Every single public label in English has been taken down and replaced in bilingual. One expects to see it in Switzerland, in Montreal, in Ireland, but I was astonished to see it in New Zealand, once called the land of ‘the wrong white crowd’. 

ON NAMING THINGS

The third event was at the Venice Architecture Biennale in June 2014, the first time the Kiwis mounted an exhibition. Unlike Australia, they have no permanent pavilion, so they hired a palazzo near San Marco and on the ground floor a team of 10 installed a simple but beautifully elegant exhibition called ‘Last, Loneliest, Loveliest’ (after a Rudyard Kipling poem).

I was invited to attend the opening reception held upstairs. The exhibition was the brainchild of the afore-mentioned David Mitchell, assisted by many of the friends that I'd made 30 years earlier. A Maori elder spoke first, similar to Australia’s ‘welcome to country’, followed by presentations in English by the curators and the commissioner Tony Van Raat. 

It then took an unexpected turn: without seemingly any sign, the entire group broke into song in Maori. Here I was, standing amongst people who many years ago spoke only English, singing fluently in Maori, and in beautiful voice at the top of their lungs.

It was then followed by a second song, so it's not a one trick pony. 

At this point I had tears in my eyes, it was delightful, but I realised that the New Zealand I thought I knew, the Pakeha nation, had made sublte but substantial strides towards reconciliation with the its first nation. Brought about by adopting Maori language, its words, its songs, and in part its culture, into everyday life.

This is one of the most radical transformations that have taken place in a Western democracy. And it all started with the naming of things. It's something that we could well follow in Australia: find indigenous words for every item, rename them, and learn some local language. It needs a kick along so the coming indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ can be spoken in our indigenous languages.

NZ Signs

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected]