Big Interview: Nicholas Dalton.

Nicholas Dalton is a registered architect and the founder and director of Tāmaki Makaurau Office Architecture Limited, more commonly known as TOA Architects.

When he was three, he drew up plans to alter the layout of his family home with a crayon; no surprises then when the young boy from Mamaku decided to pursue a career in architecture. Nicholas talks to Anna Kellett of Te Kāhui Whaihanga about his journey into the profession and what he hopes will change in the future.

You said architect Rewi Thompson was a mentor.

Rewi was so influential. He was iconic. Nothing was impossible for him, scale wasn’t an issue, and he did everything with humility. He influenced and mentored so many of us, especially a lot of us here at TOA.

We had no idea about the blessings that we were getting with every single interaction with him. I was upset because I had an opportunity to go out for dinner with him before he died, and I had something on that was obviously forgettable and that still really saddens me today.

There are several people [at Toa] who lean on each other and many of us were taught by Rewi.

In fact, even answering that question makes me think: am I doing enough of what Rewi did for me? To honour his legacy, one thing I’m starting up this year is called The TOA Foundation, in order to uplift the numbers of Māori students within the field.

Do you know the current percentage of registered Māori architects in New Zealand?

It’s less than 4% and it’s a tragedy. I think there are two parts to that.

One is people having whakapapa and not identifying. I think that’s still very much a thing and a by-product of colonisation that is still present today.

The second is people not being in a conducive environment for Māori or Pasifika [to thrive in]. TOA Architects is over 60% Māori and Pasifika. I like that. It’s a bit of a Te Tiriti o Waitangi balance. Our team here are fierce. They’re just fierce in their defence and they’re focused on, ‘What about this for mana whenua?’ and we’re lucky in that regard. 

Do you have any other mentors you want to acknowledge?

Yeah, definitely Te Ari Prendergast, one of our Māori design leads here at TOA and our modern-day Maui. He was taught by Rewi, and so he’s a massive inspiration inside the practice that we lean into. As is Rameka Tu’inukuafe our Studio Lead who fronts the Bay of Plenty operations. He was also mentored by Rewi, as were others.

I had a lot of great integrative leaders and mentors, but Rewi Thompson and Charles Walker really accelerated my ambitions. They didn’t say ‘You’re thinking too big’ but asked ‘Is it big enough?’

Did you have any naysayers on your career journey?

Yeah. We still do and will continue to and that’s kei te pai.

At school, I loved people and I loved technology and graphics. I just enjoyed the people, so my grades weren’t that great. When I went to Victoria University, my father and I had to have a meeting with the head of school. During that meeting, he said ‘Your son’s really going to struggle based on what I can see’ and I got top student in design that first year.

I failed calculus, mainly because I didn’t see any use for it back then and in my opinion, there is still no use for it as a practicing architect today, unless you’re so inclined. I tried again and passed with a B+ in calc, but I still didn’t make the academic grade to go through.

At that point, my father did a bit of searching. We found Auckland University, which needed an A bursary to get in. You only needed a B+ average and a good portfolio, which I had. Three years later, I got top architecture student in Aotearoa, and literally just obliterated it.

How did that feel?

The best part about it – apart from being number one – was that my contemporaries from Wellington came up [to Auckland]. They’d heard about my carving project. It’s in my parents’ house, this beautiful carving. They said, ‘We thought you dropped out and just disappeared’.

Charles and Rewi were my tutors. In my acceptance speech, I said, ‘Thank you to Victoria University for not letting me in twice,’ and everyone laughed. I said, ‘No seriously; it made me try really hard’.

Did you have any Māori classmates at Auckland?

I was one of three Māori in my year. I didn’t practise a lot of Māori things at university in terms of my work. That’s why it was a surprise for many – even my classmates – that I’d arrived and did Bastion Point [Nicholas won the Institute’s National Award for Design Student of the Year for his project Nga Puna Ora, in Bastion Point]. I treated it like a real project. I went and met with Joe Hawke, who was the leader of the occupation in my birth year of 1978, and created something incredible for Aotearoa. 

What did you do next?

I went to Europe, thinking I might go work for Zaha [Hadid] or someone like that. It was dark at 3PM in England. It made me realise that I’d had the best upbringing in Aotearoa; why would I go and give all the fruits of my work to anywhere else? I came home and never looked back.

Did you see more of Europe before you came home?

I love travelling. I’ve been to 30 countries and Portugal was the last. What I love about [the Portuguese] is that they fearlessly celebrate their history, with the mosaics and the piazzas. It made me think: What is the future of Aotearoa, the architecture of Aotearoa, if we want to celebrate our past but also our future? I became more patriotic and proud going overseas.

Now we’re bringing our daughter up on Waiheke Island, which is wonderful. It’s like an old village, a beautiful community, lots of young parents.

There are obviously dangers facing Aotearoa if architecture doesn’t continue to diversify and we get over that 4% of Māori, which is heart-breaking. Did you want to talk about diversity in the profession and architecture and what needs to change.

Yeah, 100%. You want to say ‘It doesn’t have to be a wholesale change,’ but fundamental change is needed. I think when we talk about Māori architecture from our position, there’s the idea of having whakapapa, which is ancestry. But being able to practise as a Māori is quite different. We’re lucky because we work with iwi and we work in government projects where we’re specifically there for that. We often get called by other firms to assist them on their journeys but often those practices want to be different but don’t know where to begin.

We’ve often talked about providing a framework for them to at least understand that. Unless you have an idea of where to start, where you might go with it, it would be quite terrifying if you allow yourself to be scared. That [fear] needs to change.

What about gender diversity?

Auckland architecture school has been 52% female for quite some time, but then soon as they get into practice, it just whittles away. Are we rewarding that kind of leadership or that type of practitioner?

I want to take TOA into the future. I think we’ve got many female staff in administration and not enough in architecture, in terms of where I want us to be. When we do recruit now, we’re keen on opportunities for females and if they’re Māori as well. That’s our target, first and foremost.

We know we need to do more for the LGBTQIA+ community. We partner with others that really fly that flag. I think that as the world evolves, the architecture and how we think about it really does need to evolve as well.

Do you have a positive outlook for the future?

I’m very hopeful. I think there are some great people coming through the architecture community. It is evolving. We need to be brave.

I’m reluctant to say this but I’ll say it anyway.

An associate director here, who is one of my dear friends, said to me, ‘We’re not hiring another white male, at least not for a little while.’ I got my female leader into that recruitment conversation. The best candidate was a white male. She said: ‘Man, this is just pissing me off, but the female actually isn’t the skillset we need.’ We did hire this European whakapapa male, but his middle name’s Māori because of his mum. We thought he was Māori, and he was like, ‘No, my mum just grew up in Tokoroa, with many Māori neighbours and just had the best experience’.

That’s really beautiful – all of these worlds colliding. Coming from a Māori base, but actually all of the different cultures overlap. 

Can you describe some of the damage done to Māori since colonisation?

The last 200 years have resulted in an accumulation of instruments to stop development on Māori land. It’s literally the instruments to stop anyone building anything. The Town and Country Act was one of the first ones. It was about dismantling of kāinga, of Papakāinga and wanting to urbanise Māori. If you had a country block, you were only allowed one house and you weren’t even allowed to upkeep houses.

They also outlawed raupo, which was the number one building material. In the early 1900s, the fine was £100 if you were caught.  It’s like banning Fletchers today. ‘It wasn’t just the building material, but it was actually a whole cycle of maramataka, where you’d do the harvest and then you’d have 10 people and then process it and then build it. You remove this whole part of the Māori economy, which was self-sustaining and environmentally friendly, all of those things. 

Where do you see the profession in 5, 10, 20 years’ time?

I’d love to see 10% Māori and Pasifika architects in the next 5-10 years.

In terms of design, I want to live in all of the villages and new kāinga that we are creating. You have pedestrian friendly, have cycle routes and natural water courses on site. You have mārakai growing, encourage people to tend the land again, and have community facilities. 

I would love every school in Aotearoa to have what’s called a whare manaaki; an actual building that is co-owned by the community and school. Māori tikanga and te reo can be taught and learnt by the parents or anyone in the community. It’s about [reseeding] culture.

Māori might be the first piece of that. Then you might find Arabic there. It’s a home for culture and to raise that. In my view, if everyone feels comfortable in their own skin, then they’re going to succeed.

Are you finding the architecture schools in Aotearoa are changing and are teaching more diversity and culture compared to your time as a student?

It’s still problematic and needs more work, but it’s very challenging. Even if you don’t have Māori whakapapa, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be important to you. This whenua has been Māori for a long time. Don’t feel alienated. It’s not about being guilty or not being good enough. Everyone should be proud of who they are but making space for tikanga and for te ao Māori.

If I was in Spain, I’d be learning Spanish. It’s not that hard or much of a stretch.

Do you have a favourite piece of Aotearoa architecture?

Yes, I do and it’s one of ours. Taumata o Kupe [An indigenous learning centre committed to sharing the original discovery of Aotearoa by Kupe in Pt Chevalier, Auckland].

The centre is a celebration of our Rangatira. One of the original navigators that came to Aotearoa from Hawaiki was called Kupe. He said a karakia and left Tahiti. The karakia describes a celestial event, which has been tracked back to Tokyo Observatory. It’s got the oldest records in the world, and they’ve literally pinpointed the time and day he left. He described his journey through a series of waiata. There’s evidence of him stopping at the top of the North Island and is one of the original Ngāpuhi ancestors.

We’re building this now and it is phenomenal; it’s New Zealand’s Sistine Chapel.

Are you able to share any new projects you are working on or about to start or is it all secret?

We’re doing a lodge in Taupō with a chapel overlooking the lake, working with Mana Whenua and a developer. That’s super and next level. It has a cool underground whiskey den!

Do you have any advice for practices that are sitting on the fence a bit and are not sure about the Diversity Accord and joining?

Do what can be done. At the very least, do that, be present in it and see what you can do. Don’t be afraid. I often think there’s a fear of the unknown or what it all means. If they don’t know what the entry point mid-term or long term is, then they freak out. Maybe don’t worry about that – just get in there.


If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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