Changing the world by teaching

Published: Mon 4 Nov 2019 02:52 PM
First Māori Professor of Architecture, changing the world by teaching
If you want to change the world, then you might want to become an academic, suggests Professor Deidre Brown (Ngapuhi, Ngati Kahu), who will be giving her inaugural professorial lecture this month.
Professor Brown is the first Māori of architecture in the world, and possibly the only, professors of architecture of Indigenous descent.
She is coming to the end of her first year, in a five year term, as Head of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland.
In her lecture, Nga Toi Morehu: The Arrival, Survival and Revival of Maori Art and Architecture, Professor Brown will reflect on 25 years in which she has explored how whenua (land) and tikanga (values) are manifested in our buildings and objects, in periods of strength and in times when those principles are under threat.
She will be acknowledging the people, places and events that have shaped her academic career. She will also be encouraging young people and aspiring researchers to get their PhD, preferably earlier rather than later, and consider an academic future.
“You need to go through the PhD experience to get the license to be an academic. It’s a test of your mettle, and your understanding of high-level research, but it’s also a chance to spend at least three years considering one important question. You’ll never have another opportunity like that in your life.”
All evidence suggests Professor Brown is the first Indigenous woman to lead a School of Architecture and Planning in the world, and she’s enjoying it. “It’s a privilege to be able to pass on your knowledge, and what you’ve learned from other people.”
It’s also, she says, a way to shape the built environment of the future. “The School is the major training ground for architects and planners in the country, so what we teach will affect the shape of Auckland for the next century.
“You can go out as an architect and change the world one building at a time but as an academic, you’re changing it with 100 architectural graduates a year. If you want to have a significant effect, and this is important for me as a Māori academic, teaching is the way to go.”
Professor Brown’s teaching, supervisory and research interests are in the fields of Māori and Pacific architectural and art history and indigenous design. Her book, Māori Architecture; from fale to wharenui and beyond (2009) was the result of 15 years of research, and the first book on the history of Māori architecture.
The buildings and objects of the past reveal much about the past. Her research is primarily focussed on the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, and “if you don’t understand what happened in New Zealand in the 19th century you’ll never understand this country” she says.
Consider Auckland, for example. “It is essentially a 19th century city,” she says. “A lot of the housing stock is based on pre-war ideas of what a building should be, the layout of the city is based on Victorian ideas about how a city should be laid out, even in the Victorian names of the streets. We might think of it as the modern city in the country, but it still has this Victorian footprint.
The built environment “teaches us about history, about race relations, about the meaning of the Treaty, how we solved issues or didn’t. You can’t move forward without understanding the past.”
Professor Brown has now authored or co-authored eight books, and her ninth Toi Te Mana: A history of indigenous art is due to be published at the end of 2020. The book is co-authored with the late Professor Jonathan Mane-Wheoki and Dr Ngarino Ellis of the Faculty of Arts.
“It’s a big book,” she says, with up to 500 images and 200,000 words which she jokes that for her and Dr Ellis writing a PhD each. “I don’t know we would have agreed to do it, if we knew that in before we started.”
Register for Professor Brown’s inaugural lecture is on Tuesday, 19, November. Register through eventbrite

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