Review: Rewi: Āta haere, kia tere

Reviewed by Lama Tone

‘Rewi navigates a variety of wonderful easy-to-read mediums which positions itself as a fun book with colours, pictures, drawings, texts and interviews that aim at collating the voices of some of the industry’s leading professionals and academics. The book draws the reader in, like the design of an interesting house or an abstract painting.’

Waiho rā kia tū takitahi ana ngā whetū o te rangi / Let it be one alone that stands among the other stars in the sky (Alsop & Kupenga)

In Polynesian cultures, when a chief is deceased, he or she is celebrated through oratories, chants and story-telling. Following on, when a knowledge holder passes, two things happen. Either he/she would take their specialised knowledge with them to the grave, back to the ancestors, or they have passed this on to the living generation before departing.  Architect Rewi Thomspon (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Raukawa) was generous with his insights and knowledge and shared this with all around him, young and old. One way to celebrate Rewi is through proverbs or whakatauki (Māori) or ‘alaga’upu (Sāmoan), which have been contextualised to describe his life, his legacy, his mana.

‘E pala ma’a, ae lē pala upu’ / Stones decay, but words last.

I was a student, mentee, colleague and friend of the late rangatiratanga Rewi Thompson. A self-confessed modernist architect and a humble but staunch advocate for all things Māori, he navigated both realms of modernisation and traditional worlds well. His was a bi-cultural and a double-hulled approach to what Aotearoa architecture could be or should be.

He taught - directly and indirectly - many in the profession. Whether they were a student, a lecturer, an architect, a planner, an engineer or a bystander, he was giving on his outlook on the environment and how architecture can have custodial roles (negotiation and reconciliation) in the landscapes, sea, mountains, rivers that look after people, people and people. And in saying this, that we too have a reciprocating responsibility.

Rewi conveys good insights into his family life from daughter Lucy and colleagues about his beloved works. Many still fondly recall Rewi’s charisma, his mana, his teachings and his sense of humour. This book reiterates the voices of those that Rewi had a profound effect on. The storytelling continues long after his passing and into design theatres and studio spaces of architectural institutions and professional workplaces throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. It also echoes into the hearts and minds of many.

A gau le poutū, e lē tali poulalo’ / When the middle pou of a fale is broken, the surrounding posts cannot withstand the weight of the roof.

Since his passing, Rewi’s beloved school of architecture at the University of Auckland has never been quite the same. He was approachable and relatable, yet strong in his convictions and cultural narratives. He typified a statesman, a chief, a leader. Today, his teachings and his works are still evident in the lecture and studios spaces, yet his presence and his mana are sorely missed. We remember a casual figure, always engaging and cheeky, attending design studios in jeans, a hoodie, his Marist rugby jacket and slip on sketchers. He would talk about anything and everything.

E tagi le fatu ma le ‘ele’ele / The heart and ground wept.

Rewi navigates a variety of wonderful easy-to-read mediums which positions itself as a fun book with colours, pictures, drawings, texts and interviews that aim at collating the voices of some of the industry’s leading professionals and academics. The book draws the reader in, like the design of an interesting house or an abstract painting. At times, we are happily lost in the complexities of Rewi’s letters and memoirs, and his meaningful design and life philosophies complimented with sketches, that all attempts to unpack and gauge what this man was about – his thoughts, his feelings, his worldviews. As daughter Lucy alludes to throughout the book, her father always carried a drawing notebook wherever he went.

But we also get to hear personal and outgoing testimonies from Rewi and others on the architecture of this country. His service into his profession and communities throughout speaks volumes in this book. Authors Jade Kake and Jeremy Hansen are an excellent combination for this organic and conversational style book – their backgrounds and work complement each other well.

A great read for not only the well-established middle-class professionals and academic colleagues of Rewi, but beneficially the small voices of our minority groups, especially our young Māori and Pacific people looking into architecture as a career pathway. As a Pacific designer in Aotearoa, I struggled at the best of times when navigating through the architecture profession in Aotearoa New Zealand, where it is heavily dominated by Western ideologies and viewpoints and middle-class white men.

But seeing the works from people like Rewi and others recalibrates mana and momentum to keep on. In addition, we have been seeing more of New Zealand architecture taking a big path towards storytelling and narratives of local indigenous Māori and Pacific architecture. In my experience of teaching cultural architecture for more than 10 years, it is satisfying to see many non-Māori and non-Pacific students grappling with indigenous concepts and succeeding. It’s also rewarding to think when they leave the institutions, they are equipped with skills and knowledge when dealing with cultural themes and ideas in the workplace.

‘Ua gase toa, ‘ae ola pule’ / The warriors die, but their leadership and authority will live forever.

Rewi’s authorship and leadership in architecture still lives on through his work, words and testimonies. There are parallel worldviews and narratives of both modernism and traditionalism in Rewi’s built works. They have become simmering lessons of an architecture that bridges the old world with the new as we see in the book. Rewi’s buildings have aged and have become more like taoga or measina of New Zealand architecture. Architecture that is timeless. These are also the learnings I take in my own professional approaches and philosophies in advancing Pacific communities in the diaspora. The book Rewi can be seen as an ally and a friend (as he was to many) in the architecture profession and those students trying to decipher what architecture on this side of the world should look like. The book celebrates the continuing dialogue of both modernity and traditionality and how they may co-exist in Aotearoa New Zealand.

‘Fa’a’emo pea le fetū a le tautai’ / May the navigator’s star still shine bright.

A friend, student, colleague Pesetā Fa’amatuāinu To’oto’ole’aava Lama Tone Lecturer – School of Architecture, University of Auckland Director – New Pacific Architecture Ltd

 Reviewed by Lama Tone