Dialogues between architecture and anthropology

Researchers: Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul, Albert Refiti, I’uogafa Tuagalu
Status: In preparation for publication by Berghahn (projected for 2019)

Pacific buildings are apparatuses which corral and hold communities and their rituals together, reflecting Pacific attitudes to architecture and artefacts in general. The words for building – fale (Samoa), whare (Māori), vale (Fiji), hale (Hawaii) – generally means to cover (malu, maru) or to shade over.

Sacred buildings, like the Māori wharenui and the Samoan faletele are sited on raised foundations, where important clan ancestors once lived. In anthropology, this arrangement has been explored in terms of ‘House Societies’ (Lévi-Strauss) or as a process of ‘topogeny’ (Fox). The houses manifest ancestral ties or vā lines of relations, especially in the roof and posts, and they provide the power and vitality for the continuing legacy of its descendants.

When these houses lose their physical and metaphorical foundations and lines of connection, significant shifts to their being occur. Past and present global movements of Māori and Pacific houses show a performative power of indigenous buildings’ iconicity and relationality in diasporic situations, even as far-away as London or Chicago. What associations arise out of those new cross-cultural configurations? How do they change the houses as apparatuses? Increasingly, critical issues arise from an exponentially growing, global commodification of indigenous cultures that need to be better understood.

Our work in this area so far has given rise to conversations between anthropologists and architects about sites and buildings in the Pacific. It became apparent that the participants can provide external perspectives on each other’s knowledges, practices, and field of vision, extending the horizons of both fields of engagements. In the panels we organised over the last years at the meetings of ASAO (Association of Social Anthropologists in Oceania), the conversations between architectural practitioners, architectural and spatial design theorists, anthropologists and historians showed not only how the rubbing of aspects specific to one discipline against their equivalents of the other can shape new theoretical perspectives. They also demonstrated how, in a juxtaposition of terms and concepts proper to Pacific ontologies and epistemologies with their corresponding counterparts in Western knowledge traditions, a space is created for something to emerge that goes beyond both, enhancing both fields of potentialities.

Rather than attempting direct translations between the disciplines and cultures, the participants engaged with Pacific spaces, buildings and agencies through dialogues and mutual questioning. They unfurled a shared horizon through multiple readings of sites or buildings, preserving specific cultural and social positions. Pacific concepts related to mana and tapu, whakapapa (geneaology) or mafua’aga (origin), vā and vā fealoaloa’i (relational space and social relationships), kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and utu (reciprocity), rituals and sacrifice were re-explored and extended to encompass recent diasporic situations and the movement of buildings, people and ritual spaces. These reassessments are especially important in the case of Pacific scholars attempting to construct indigenous perspectives based on these concepts.

A resulting collection of essays has been accepted for peer review by Berghahn publishers. Collectively, the contributors consider a broad spectrum of notions derived from Western scholarship, such as traditional and contemporary, locally intensive and globally dispersed, relational and singular. They provide fresh insights into the conception, production, designation, articulation and use of physical and cultural states and constructs in the Pacific. From the in-between, they suggest different possibilities of thinking about and looking at space and its experience, and they reveal how spaces, affects and interactions between beings, forms, object sand processes are and are becoming in the Pacific.