Called home to work with Pacific communities to create Pacific architecture

Dr Charmaine 'Ilaiū Talei is an architecture alumna who returned to the University of Auckland to teach in 2022, excited by Pacific inputs in the School of Architecture and Planning. She answers some questions for UniNews.

Charmaine 'Ilaiu Talei is an architect and course co-ordinator in the School of Architecture.
Charmaine 'Ilaiu Talei is an architect and course co-ordinator in the School of Architecture.

You’re new at the University. Where were you before and how long were you there?
My family and I have come from Brisbane, our home for the past 11 years. I’m a returning Kiwi, but for my family this is their first time living here. I did my undergraduate architectural degrees and my masters research degree at the University of Auckland and it was reported that I was the first Pacific person at the University to receive a research-based Master of Architecture. I did my PhD at the University of Queensland, graduating in 2016.

Why did you do your PhD at Queensland?
I had a serendipitous meeting with my future PhD adviser and now mentor Professor Paul Memmott. I was presenting my masters research at a conference and heard about Paul’s research to explore Australian Aboriginal uses of spinifex plants to create potential building materials. I had similar aspirations to do a PhD with a technical application, and wanted to explore new building materials from coconut palm fibres to aid Pacific economies. I kept in touch with Paul from that time. But first I practised architecture for several years in Aotearoa, New Zealand and then Fiji, before I made my way to Brisbane to continue practising architecture. I did my PhD with Professor Paul Memmott and Dr Tim O’Rourke at the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre.

At Auckland Girls Grammar, who sparked your interest in architecture?
I studied Latin from Form 3 with Ms Janet Newdick, and took her classical studies class from Form 6. Our classical studies class tour of ancient historic sites through Italy, Greece and parts of France was my realisation of architecture. Also, when architect Pete Bossley visited our school during careers week, that confirmed my interest. Pete showed the work of Dame Zaha Hadid which fascinated me. I later did high-school work experience with Pete Bossley Architects in Ponsonby.

What enticed you home?
Professor Deidre Brown, my masters research supervisor and a mentor has been my link to the School of Architecture and Planning and I thank her for creating opportunities at Creative Arts and Industries for Māori and Pacific lecturers. I’m excited about doing research about Pacific architecture with Pacific communities for Pacific communities – research that could have transformative impact to improve housing in Aotearoa. Alongside my Pacific and Māori colleagues at the School of Architecture and Planning - Lama Tone, Dr Karamia Muller, Professor Antony Hoete, Lena Henry, Associate Professor Michael Davis all led by Professor Deidre Brown, we plan to establish Māpihi: Māori and Pacific Housing Research Centre in 2022. It is important mahi like this that drew me home. I also wanted to give my children the opportunity to grow up in Aotearoa New Zealand and be close to my parents in Auckland.

What do your two sons think of Kiwi life?
They’re enjoying their ‘Kiwi’ backyard with a feijoa tree. They love seeing their grandparents regularly and I love sharing my memories with them as we travel around Auckland and beyond. My parents Falakika Lose and ‘Ahoia ‘Ilaiū live in our family home in Ōtara. My sister ‘Ilaisaane (also an alumna of the University) lives in Torbay with her family. Two brothers live with my parents and the rest live with their families in Australia.

We plan to establish Māpihi: Māori and Pacific Housing Research Centre in 2022. It is important mahi like this that drew me home. 

Dr Charmaine 'Ilaiū Talei, architect, lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning University of Auckland

Tell us about your name and your heritage.
I trace my Pacific ancestry to the kainga of Tatakamōtonga, Houma, and Pukotala, Ha’apai in the Kingdom of Tonga, and further beyond Samoa to Uvea (Wallis and Futuna) on my mother’s side, and Fulaga, Lau Islands, Fiji on my paternal grandmother’s side. My namesake is Auckland Girls Grammar School (AGGS) headmistress and feminist Charmaine Pountney. This came about through Tongan custom. My father’s oldest sister is our family fahu [type of matriarch]. Her daughter Helu attended AGGS in the 80s. When she heard of my birth, she rushed to the hospital to name me as is her birthright as the eldest daughter of my fahu. She gave me the name of her beloved principal at AGGS. My surname is a combination of my father’s Tongan name and my Fijian husband’s surname.

Are any of your family creative like you?
My father once won a national sketching competition as a youth in Tonga, so I know my drawing abilities come from him. My fahu Aunt Sepi creates beautiful Tongan koloa – textile mats and tapa cloth in Auckland and Tonga. My mother and maternal grandmother were seamstresses and also made plastic leis, blankets and pillows to sell at the Ōtara market in the 80s. Growing up around the sound of sewing machines and playing on bundles of fabric are fond childhood memories. Several siblings are musicians, and we all sing. One sister runs a baking business that shows her artistic skills. In a big family, discussing ideas and thinking of creative and entrepreneurial solutions to challenges were favourite pastimes.

What are you teaching?
I’m a registered architect and a research specialist in Pacific architecture. In Semester 1, 2022 I’ve been studio year coordinator and design tutor for ARCHDES 200 and guest lecturer for ARCHHTC 341 Worlds of Architecture. In Semester 2, 2022, I will be course coordinator for ARCHHTC 700 Pacific Architecture with my colleague Lama Tone and course coordinator for ARCHPRM 305 Professional Studies 1 Project Management, with my colleague Lynda Simmons.

I work as a senior architect at Guymer Bailey Architects (GBA) in Brisbane where I recently worked on the expansion of the second largest correction facility to be built in Queensland. There is a benefit to maintaining that connection. Through GBA I’ll also be collaborating with the University of Auckland as GBA’s project team lead of the new Tauranga Moana Courthouse. Through this industry research engagement, I’ll conduct creative and action-based research about the codesign processes with mana whenua as well as the design translation of cultural narratives. We’re also looking at design methodologies to enable therapeutic spaces within an institutional facility.

What’s special about the project?
A key project aspiration is to design an innovative courthouse that enables restorative justice and therapeutic jurisprudence. Of historical note, is the partnership with mana whenua from the very beginning of the project alongside the community service providers, the judiciary, the legal profession, court staff and other court users.

What could Pacific architecture bring to the table with regard to housing shortages?The basis of all Pacific architecture is vā, which is about the relational space between people. To help understand why certain housing types don’t suit all Pacific communities, you need to understand the relationships between Pacific people and then how spaces can support those sociospatial behaviours. Architects who work in this space need to have a good listening ear coupled with customised co-design processes, participant-based research methods, and genuinely learn the cultural ideas of the communities they work with.

The real question is why housing in Aotearoa costs so much. I see the unfortunate contrast between my highly educated friends who are still renting in Auckland and myself who rents out two properties in Australia. A key barrier to housing Pacific communities in healthy thriving homes is a socioeconomic issue as much as it about understanding cultural values and aspirations.

My namesake is Auckland Girls Grammar School headmistress and feminist Charmaine Pountney. This came about through Tongan custom.

Dr Charmaine 'Ilaiū Talei, architect, lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning University of Auckland

Is apartment living an anathema to the Pacific way of life, Pākehā included?
Vā, the relational space between people, supersedes the tangible and physical space. Rather, as my masters research ‘Persistence of the Fale Tonga’ demonstrated, this vā can generate and adapt domestic spaces to suit the occasion. For example, a living room can host a funeral service and a bedroom can store koloa, textile gifts. But I would say it depends on the vā of its occupants and whether the apartment’s design aligns with that vā. A West End inner-city Brisbane apartment for my young Pacific family suited us well, as it meant I could lessen my commute home after work and spend more time with my family in the evenings to tauhi vā or nurture our vā. Being by the Brisbane River meant we maintained a strong connection to water, which is inherently important to our family’s well-being. Our apartment’s rooftop pool and barbeque area became a place to host extended family and friends in our Pacific way and remain connected to our community. When we hosted family functions, mats were laid on the floor of our balcony to enable us to host a lively gathering at our two-bedroom apartment.

Who are your architectural influences?
It’s ideas that have influenced me most. The postcolonial writings of Epeli Hau‘ofa influenced my outlook as a masters research student and empowered my ideas of Tongan self-determination through its architecture. Critical regionalism - an approach in architecture - has always inspired me because it is the concern I face as a Tongan architect. It’s how Tongan architecture transforms under the pressure of modernity and globalisation but remains rooted in Tongan culture. This very idea aligns with the late Queen Salote’s ambitions for Tonga: to embrace change, but in the Tongan way. I am also motivated by transformative design which seeks to support human well-being and enhance the experiences of spaces, which inevitably intersects with the tenets of sustainability in architecture.

How can you inspire Pacific students into architecture?
Telling one’s own story is a great way to inspire people. Lama Tone and I are staff representatives of the School’s Outreach for the School of Architecture and Planning. We hope to share our stories and the achievements of our Pacific architectural students at schools, churches, youth centres and through media. I didn’t know the term ‘architecture’ until my late high-school years, so explaining what it is early on could help foster the awareness of the industry and help not only Pacific students but all students choose the right subjects and pathway into the university degree.

If you were to design one thing that left your mark on Aotearoa New Zealand, what would it be?
That’s a hard question because I work across building typologies and scales, but I think one day I would like to design my parents’ church in Ōtara.

What’s your favourite thing to do in your downtime?
Be with my family.

Best piece of advice to give your 21-year-old self?
Be your best and true self - always and fearlessly.

Extended version of Q and A as told to UniNews in May 2022.