Big Interview: Elisapeta Heta.

Elisapeta Heta

We talk with Elisapeta Heta, an architecture graduate who works in the Auckland office of Jasmax, where she is Kaihautu Whaihanga – Māori Design Leader of Waka Māia, a team of dedicated design professionals who specialise in engaging Mana Whenua and applying the Te Aranga Māori Design Principles. Elisapeta has served for three years as Ngā Aho representative on the Council of Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Elisapeta talks about her journey into architecture from a young age, the role of Waka Māia, the quest to help indigenise our cities, her thoughts on diversity, and the future plans for her career.

If we can start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in West Auckland. I grew up in Ranui first and then later in Te Atatu North, which later became Te Atatu Peninsula. My dad is Māori, from Ngāti Wai, and Waikato. My mum is a first-generation New Zealander. Her dad was from Portsmouth in England and her mum was from Apia, Samoa. She was born in Takapuna and grew up on the North Shore.

My mum and dad had a tiny little cottage – I think about 35–40 square metres. It was one of the old cottages for single workmen who built the railway line out to Swanson. Me and my family – there are five of us – were living in a house that wasn’t quite big enough to fit one armchair, a tiny table and two chairs. There was no sink in the bathroom; there was a bath and a toilet. It was a really small, quite rudimentary place but it was right behind Ranui Primary School, so we felt like our whole back yard was the primary school, which was a nice thing, given we didn’t have much else. I grew up with my mum working three to four jobs pretty much to put food on the table.

What work did your Mother and Father do?

My Mum was the caretaker at the school, and she was a cleaner for all sorts of different companies – basically for anybody that would give her a job a lot of the time.

Dad did a lot of things. Probably his predominant vocation through my life was security guard. He often used to work night shifts on film and TV sets around Auckland. We grew up as the kids on the set of Hercules and Xena out at Bethells, on sets for Shortland Street and a lot of ads from Europe, and all sorts of weird things. That was what dad did when he had a job. Other than that, he was a bit of a muso and a party boy. Our step-dad came along when I was 13 and he was also in the film and TV industry. He’s a sound engineer, so it was a bit of a change.

What about your education?

I stayed on the peninsula for most of my education. After Ranui Primary I moved to Te Atatu Peninsula Primary and then Te Atatu Intermediate and Rutherford College. I got a scholarship to go to the University of Auckland and managed to get in by the skin of my teeth to the architecture school.

Why architecture?

My earliest memory – I’m pretty sure I was about five or six – of thinking about architecture was that my English great-grandmother used to buy us lottery tickets. They would come with this pamphlet which would say if you won, you’d get this million-dollar house in somewhere like Queensland, or something like $30,000 worth of gold bullion and a car. With the big pamphlet would come plans of these houses. I used to sit there and look at the pictures and try to understand the plans. I guess because we grew up in such a small difficult environment, and a lot of the arguments at home were often around having a lack of things, that I’d look at these crazy big houses and be like, ‘My God, that would fix everything.’

When a teacher taught us how to draw the bird’s eye view of our school library, I used to take these plans and use my new skill of how to draw a bird’s eye view and try and draw my dream home. It would often start with the pool or my bedroom in the corner of the page and it would go off into some weird thing. I used to sit in the top bunk of my bed at night and I would try and draw plans – I very distinctively remember doing this. Later, when I went to high school and took graphics, I realised that drawing plans was a job and it was called architecture. So, from about 13, I wanted to be an architect.

I used to sit in the top bunk of my bed at night and I would try and draw plans – I very distinctively remember doing this.

What did you make of the school of architecture when you first went along?

It was nothing like what I thought it would be. I figured it would just be like a bigger version of graphics class. There were very few people from West Auckland, which felt strange, very few Māori or Pacific people. Especially for the first few years, I was quite reserved, which is funny if you know me, and generally felt a little bit out of place. The education itself was always really fascinating. Everything I was learning was all brand new. I didn’t do art history at high school, so being able to study architecture from all around the world was mind-blowing.

I didn’t really feel like I got what I was doing until probably fourth year. That was the first time I took a paper with Deidre Brown and the first time I had a design tutor who was Māori – Derek Kawiti. Fourth year was the first time I started making connections to, I suppose, myself and my place in architecture. Up to that point, everything felt quite European, which wasn’t a bad thing, but it just wasn’t necessarily connecting back to a lot of the original ideas, aspirations and things that I dreamed about doing when I was in high school. I knew I would find it, but I didn’t know how I would find it. I took a little while to hit my stride, I guess.

When you were finishing at the school of architecture, what were your plans about what to do next?

The global financial crisis had happened while I was at uni – my last year was 2010. The graduate year before us was pretty much the last group to get jobs. Just as I was coming out, a lot of them were being made redundant. Our year group did get some work but of the 100 of us there were maybe 15 who got work. I had worked for a little while with DesignTRIBE – I was lucky enough to know Maurits Kelderman and Rau Hoskins through kapa haka and living in Te Atatu. I worked with them for a little bit, but they ran out of work, so I ran out of work.

I made do for a long time by doing lots of other things that weren’t architecture-related. I was actually on the unemployment benefit for a good 11 months. I made art, I tried to write proposals to do things, I volunteered for stuff – all sorts of things. I went travelling, thinking that that might be a way to do it, go overseas, get some experience. That was also very hard. There was no work overseas but I spent a good four months in the States with my family. Then, I came back to New Zealand and ended up working for my step-dad on film and TV.

It was while I was doing that that I made contact with Architecture + Women NZ and Lynda Simmons in particular. I kept my toe in architecture by attending Architecture + Women meetings. Through meeting Lynda, I ended up teaching, and started to bridge my way back into architecture. I did a lot of things, including working for the Auckland Arts Festival. I had been doing so much work with Architecture + Women that the year that I was asked to speak at in:situ [2015], Marianne Riley tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I think you should try and get a job with us at Jasmax. A few of our principals have seen you speak and they’re really impressed.” That’s how I ended up here.

Did they ask you to come along and do anything particular at Jasmax? Were they starting up the Māori design unit or did that emerge after you were there?

I came in for a couple of casual conversations and they wanted to know what I wanted. At that point, I wasn’t sure. I felt like I’d been out of architecture for such a long time. I had a few chats with Euan [Mac Kellar] and Nick [Moyes] and they said, “We think you should come in and we do have a couple of young Māori graduates who are here as well, who are trying to make stuff happen.”

When I came into the office, Waka Māia hadn’t officially launched. We had another name at the time that was a stand-in name while we were trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing. Haley Hooper had started at Jasmax about five months before I got there. By the time I arrived, we had this mass of four of us – Haley, Rameka Alexander-Tu’inukuafe, Brendan Himona and me – and it was exciting. That was also the beginning of the discussions that led to the Kawenata [with the NZIA]. A whole bunch of things aligned. I came straight into the schools team at Jasmax and was working on a whole lot of projects with them as well.

Waka Māia – what is the meaning of the term?

Waka Māia was given to us by Matua Haare Williams, as was the Kawenata. Waka, as most people will know, is a canoe or a vessel. We quite liked that because it symbolises and conceptually talks about voyaging, travelling to new distances, trying to push boundaries. We liked the connection back to the Pacific as opposed to it just being a New Zealand-only identity. Also, there’s a vulnerability in being alone in the middle of the ocean, so we thought there’s a charging through new territory.

Māia, the whakaaro, the thinking that Matua Haare gave us around the word māia, literally translates to mean courage or bravery. Matua Haare said that the whare māia is what is conceptually known as the inside of the wharenui. It’s the inside of the womb, it’s the female space but it also relates to emotional intelligence. There was this thing about māia having an introspective view and waka being external, one being maybe more masculine, one being maybe more feminine.

There was quite a nice balance in the name. Waka Māia formed there because we also had two females and two males in our founding group – it was a nice balance in our crew. We wanted to charge ahead bravely, I suppose, and try to cut a new cloth for ourselves within a company that had existed for such a long time. The name encapsulated all of those things.

I suppose there was a beautiful naivety to the four of us who really didn’t know what the heck we were doing but knew that things Māori that we had all grown up with were starting to really be taken seriously. They had a history of existing in Jasmax through Ivan Mercep but we knew we could turn it into something else.

How does Waka Māia work within Jasmax? Does it have its own projects, or does it intersect with other groups in the company that are working on projects?

We like to describe ourselves as a community that exists across the practice, which comes with its own challenges and benefits. One upside is that I’ve ended up being across pretty much all of our client types and project types, which can be quite hard when you’re trying to get registered. Effectively, Waka Māia, as individuals within our team, can go and seek out work but we do so in conjunction with project teams and project architects. We are quite embedded into the practice.

Our involvement can happen in one of two ways. We might support project architects or principals who are seeking a job. Sometimes this involves going to the pitch and sometimes it involves being embedded in a team. Or it could work the other way around – we might really want to get a job or work with a particular client and we might ask for the advice or expertise of certain project architects to backfill that.

There’s still the reality that none of us in the team are registered architects yet. We are all trying to ensure that we stay embedded in project teams long enough to see right through the full spectrum of a job. Our team is growing quite quickly and there are now nine of us. But being embedded across different projects is more difficult now that the demand is really high for Māori leadership and Māori engagement within projects – we don’t quite have the numbers within our team. We’ve been trying to come up with different strategies around how we might approach that, and a lot of it is to do with upskilling the cultural capacity of the office, so that the office at large has a higher understanding of things Māori. People are able to navigate some of those spaces themselves to a point and then we can come in and help beyond that.

Is Waka Māia indicative of a real determination by Jasmax to enter the field of Māori design or explore Māori knowledge? Or do you sometimes feel there’s a sense of ‘we’d better do this because the market’s going a certain way and we have to make sure that we’re seen to be taking care of this dimension?’

To be honest, there may have been times when that has been the case – times when it was feeling a little bit like throw the Māori at the problem. Lucy Tukua describes it as ‘browning up’ something. But actually what has happened is a complete shift in the strategic plan for the practice, such that the whole office is on board with the idea of being a bicultural design practice. We’ve done a relaunch and we’re looking at our operational excellence and our design excellence, and that includes sustainability initiatives and our bicultural understanding.

I can say, genuinely, that the whole practice is committed to this idea of bicultural design. It’s a new, but old thing, and involves a level of exploration, but there is quite a momentous shift happening.

On the topic of diversity, obviously you’re not just a Māori architect – well, almost-architect – you’re also working in a gendered profession. What is the environment like for a woman practitioner in your company?

It’s incredibly supportive. Personally, I get a huge amount of mentorship support, from men and women. Both Marianne Riley and Chris Jack are mentors. I’m also lucky enough to be working directly with Karl Johnstone [Haumi Ltd], who we’ve recently partnered with. He is an external consultant but he has international experience working in the space of bicultural and Māori design.

If you look at the make-up of the profession, at graduate level it’s about 50:50 women and men. There are probably slightly more female graduates than male graduates. Then, as you go through, you tend to get a drop off of women, but the drop off isn’t as severe in Jasmax, from what I can see.

We have two newly appointed principals, both of whom have just had babies. I can honestly say it’s really heartening to see genuine attempts at ‘let’s just give it a go and see what happens’. It’s quite openly talked about and discussed – care, and flexible working options. All sorts of people have different ways of managing and mitigating things. I guess what I’m saying is that, as a young person coming through, I see more options being openly discussed and tried and tested. As a person who hasn’t got kids yet, that feels quite comforting.

I know it’s not all about children – there are other types of flexibility. I have friends here who have parents they’re caregivers for, and they get given the time they need to deal with issues or emergencies. This is quite commonly accepted as par for the course. As somebody who comes from a large family, whose family often has to come first over other things – for example, as you know in the Māori world, when you have a funeral, it takes a week and a half to sort things out – that sort of stuff is really hard to put a price tag on. It’s invaluable to be supported or enabled when I have to step away from work.

All of these things, from my perspective anyway, are the things that will contribute to keeping more diverse people in the industry.

There are gender issues or challenges within a practice, and then there are those that you encounter in the wider industry. Have you encountered attitudes that you’re surprised to find still exist in 2019?

I don’t know if I’m surprised. I mean, you can still get contractors being a bit buffoonish sometimes on site. That sort of stuff just makes me laugh. It doesn’t mean it’s not to be taken seriously, and it affects some colleagues more than others. I can be shocked by the experiences graduates my age do come across.

I will say that architecture – and I feel like I’m stating the obvious – is still a very high pressured environment. The budgets, the timelines, the teams, negotiating personalities, not to mention the intangible thing that is good design – all of these things can contribute to a pretty tense working situation if you don’t have good leadership or people who are able to spot problems and address them before they become big issues.

What of your future in architecture? You’re on the path to registration, I presume.

I am. I have to admit, though, that I accepted a few years ago that because of Waka Māia and, I suppose, because of the multiple diversity boxes I tend to tick, that my path might be a little slower than others because I tend to get asked to be in roles not every graduate is exposed to, like governance positions, or strategic conversations. It’s not a negative thing, though, because I’ve been lucky enough to be pitching for jobs, working with clients and doing a lot of front end stuff that somebody with five years’ experience might not usually be doing.

Do you have an idea of what you want to achieve in your career?

It might sound cliché, but the short answer is indigenising our cities. The longer form answer is getting really good quality built environment outcomes that express our sense of place. We’re starting to see this in projects like the CRL [City Rail Link]. When I look at the things that we’ve done for CRL, I think, “My God, finally, there’s going to be Māori stories actually told in the built environment”. I just want to do more of that.

Take Ōtāhuhu Station. Mana Whenua partnered with AT to enable an engagement process that resulted in making the station what it became, and three great Mana Whenua-mandated artists were involved in creating various embedded outcomes. As a result, every time we go into CRL or Auckland Transport-related conversations, we hear from Mana Whenua “Our community now feels like that building is theirs.” You want to know the tangible things that make it feel like its theirs? It’s simple stuff, things like the fact that buildings are being re-given names that actually identify to place. It’s that buildings are being orientated in such a way to capture views that might not have seen before. It’s that a lot of the symbolism or artwork is capturing stories that you wouldn’t find before. It’s that some patternisation, repeated enough times, with the intention of connection to place, feels Māori.

To me, the only way you can really put a value on that stuff is when the community takes ownership of those buildings. At Karanga-ā-hape Station, the name is going back to the proper name of Karangahape – there’s a real push to move away from K’ Road and go back to Karangahape Road. It might be a simple thing, but for people who whakapapa back to Hape, the tupuna who was one of the first to travel to Tāmaki, it’s a really big deal.

Sometimes just the name in and of itself is enough for people to connect to a place quite deeply. Our buildings are always imbued with a huge story. They’re more than just the materials, they personify an ancestor. For us, it’s very common for objects to have multiple metaphoric and physical symbolisms. They don’t all need to be understood all at once. It is really fascinating watching this highly narrativised design process unfold. It’s not the way I was taught to design at university.

Diversity can be widely interpreted or more narrowly focused. With the Diversity Agenda, the initial launch focussed on gender equity, but now is broadening to encapsulate wider diversity and inclusion. What’s your feeling about this initiative, and where it could go? Is it useful and helpful to you and your peers?

Are any of these initiatives useful and helpful? Yes, well, mostly. Mostly because, I think, more often than not they hit our bosses and the people that structure and frame the places we work more directly and immediately than they hit us. Sometimes we’re the consequence of that work. Is it important? Yes. Is the gender stuff the top of the basket of issues? For me personally, no, but that’s because I’m not really interested in feminism if it’s not intersectional. That means that there are a lot of other intersections, when you talk about equity or accessibility, that need to come first. I’ve sat in some architectural conversations where people will have a bit of a moan about X or Y, and I think this industry is actually incredibly privileged. There are a lot of things we are very lucky to have as a result of our education, the things we know and the things we have access to. There are a lot of communities without that. And I come from those communities. So I struggle when gender equity is the only focus, I switch off.

The challenge myself and a few of us – particularly for Māori and those non-Māori in tune – feel we have is to keep bringing back the privilege we get to the communities who need it, or at the very least open the conversation up to allow other people in. With the Diversity Agenda all of these things need to happen. At some point, I would really like to stop talking about gender. I do feel the Diversity Agenda is important, and what’s good is that it provides a platform to talk about other things, but it tends to mostly focus on the gender thing. For me, I know I can have more impact in other places just because they need that light shone there. It’s not to say one approach or focus is better or worse than another; it’s just that sometimes the fire is bigger in other places.

Thank you for your time, Elisapeta, and all the best for the next stage in your architectural career.


We really appreciate Elisapeta taking the time to talk to us.

If you have any great initiatives that you think would help others on their diversity and inclusion journey get in touch.

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