Big Interview: T’iafelelea’i Carinnya Feaunati.

This month, Te Kāhui Whaihanga’s Susan Strongman speaks to T’iafelelea’i Carinnya Feaunati, a Wellington-based registered architect and cultural design adviser at DesignGroup Stapleton Elliott, who also teaches at Victoria University’s School of Architecture.

We discuss how being a Samoan woman in architecture brings a unique, enlightening perspective, her passion for equity in design, the opportunity for architecture to bring social change – and more!

Let’s start with where you’re from.

My parents are both of Samoan descent – they were born in the islands, Dad’s villages are Fasito’outa and Mum is from Moata’a and Solosolo. They came over as young adults in the late 70s, early 80s. So they did part of their growing up and finding their roots in Porirua, which is where I was born. Ours was quite a traditional Samoan, or Pacific, family. There were a lot of traditions that were passed on – that was just what my parents knew.

So things really changed when, as a young family, my Dad got a labouring job up in New Plymouth in the oil and gas industry. That really shifted the game for us, because all of a sudden, we were one of the only Samoan or even Pacific families around…

I’ve lived in New Plymouth, it’s not a hugely diverse place…

No. And it was even less so in 1996. So, it was a crazy time for us. At home we were very much Samoan – we would speak in the language. And then we would go to school and it was like… just trying to fit into a completely different environment. I always talk about this, because I know it had a massive impact on how I look at diversity today… the best way to describe it is like being on a tightrope, balancing two worlds. My education was very colonised, and most of my school friends were Pākehā. But at home and church, our parents instilled a sense of pride in us around our Samoan identity. For my parents, who we were didn’t turn on and off, it carried on through whatever we did. To an extent, me and my siblings understood this too, but when the “Poly Dance Club” practices can be held in your sitting room at home because it’s just you and your sisters, being “authentically me” had its challenges. I don’t think I was conscious of it at the time, but I don’t think I took my whole self to school, it was pushed and pulled constantly depending on who I was around, who I was talking to and how they might think of me. It’s crazy to think about that now. These reflections are at the heart of my advocacy for diversity now.

How did your upbringing shape who you are?

We had a challenging upbringing but one that I’m incredibly proud of. It was a traditional Samoan happy family environment, but every dollar counted.  At the time my parents went straight into the workforce after high school. So we were very much in that labouring, working class cohort, and I only ever lived in state housing. We were in a world where you did the best with what you had. As kids, we were all quite outgoing, confident and as we would find later, ambitious. Our education was a huge priority for my parents and they did everything they could to put us through good schools. The flow on from this was that many of the other kids were from families with means, had money. And so all of a sudden your two worlds are colliding.

For me, the most noticeable thing was the built environment – the differences in housing. That classic kid comment, ‘She’s got a flash-as house’, was very real for me. My memory of this epiphany or light-bulb moment as a kid was when I’d go to friends’ houses, and I’d be like, ‘Oh wow Sarah’s mum’s been cooking for an hour now and the windows haven’t fogged up’.  

I didn’t know the terms for it at the time but these thoughts really ignited the fire in me around equity in design and what that looks like for our most vulnerable people. And it made me question the responsibility of our government to be able to provide housing for people who may not necessarily be able to pay for it. So that was the catalyst for me choosing this career path. I was like, ‘There are some incredible things that people who are called architects can do. And I want to be able to do that for my family and my community.’ I’m very much a bite off more than you can chew and chew really quickly kind of person… As a 14-year-old it was just this completely unattainable dream to become an architect, but I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t care how long it’s going to take, I’m gonna give it a crack.’

I’ve always had this passion driving me – I’m motivated by the idea of standing for something – I think that has come through from my upbringing. For me, architecture is not just about glitzy, glamorous houses. I totally appreciate that part of what we do, but I could see so much opportunity for social change in our profession, the ability to genuinely enhance people’s lives and bring delight through design, whether they can afford it or not. You know… it’s more than just a building.

Did you know any architects that you could look up to?

No, there was no one in my family that remotely had any connection to the profession. I remember sitting in physics class and the look on my teacher’s face when I said I was going to study architecture (probably fair given my straight A’s – NCEA context). So, I stopped saying it out loud, but I knew deep down I was going to make it happen. I kind of learned to thrive off the doubt, once I was finally in architecture school. I was proud to say, ‘Yeah, I’m studying architecture,’ and for people to be, like, ‘Sorry what?’ My dad – he’s got perfect English now. But he would explain to his workmates, ‘My daughter’s doing architecture,’ but the way he was saying it, they thought for so many years that I was becoming an ‘art teacher.’

At Victoria [University], there were only a few of us Pacific architecture students, and we all became really good friends. I was one of few women. So not only were there very few people who looked like me, but there was the additional layer of gender, which I think I was oblivious to at the time. There were a couple of Samoan guys who graduated a few years ahead who I’m now good friends with. I remember seeing them with their families on graduation day – mums, dads and siblings all dressed up their puletasi and alo’a’s (Samoan cultural wear) and the look of pride on their faces. I knew then that I wanted that day to come for my family too.

You became a registered architect last year – what was that like?

Oh my gosh, it was quite a challenge for me. I have lockdown to thank. When the lockdown hit I said to myself, ‘If there’s anything that I need to get out of this, I need to have done my case studies’. I would literally lock myself in a room to write. But it was a challenge. I didn’t know any Samoan women who had gone through registration. I can honestly say I suffered imposter syndrome for the entire process. The constant back and forth if I was ready or not. But it took me back to that mind frame of, ‘Wow look at this crazy unattainable thing I’m doing’, and just putting my head down and doing it anyway.

It was December of last year when my registration was confirmed. Even now, I still have to catch myself and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m an architect.’ 10 years ago, Carinnya would just be gobsmacked that I’m sitting in this position, as a registered architect.

You are the only Samoan woman architect currently registered in New Zealand. What do you think is stopping graduates from getting registered?

The first thing that comes to mind is the variety of experiences you hear about. There are so many unknowns given there’s a lot to study. Because it’s very much about your experience, you start to question if you have enough to talk about and demonstrate you’re not a risk. I know I have a responsibility now to bring more of our Samoan and Pasifika through, it’s just the right thing to do. We have so many graduates coming through the universities, I want to see those numbers carry on through to registration.

The stats around diversity in the profession are sombre, but they need to be talked about more, because at the moment our profession does not reflect the cross section of society. As architects, we have this huge influence on our built environment. For many of us, we are designing buildings for people we will never meet. A lot of these spaces will be for our communities’ most vulnerable people. We have to ask ourselves, are the people holding the pen aligned to their needs? Is the empathy there? How can we be designing for their best interests? How can we better understand their needs? I want to see how a shift in the demographics of our profession can influence the diversity of design outputs in our built environment. As shapers and influencers of our environment, we have to be accountable for every line we draw.  

You have an interest in the Pacific diaspora in Aotearoa, and the importance of architects being able to relate to the peoples they’re designing for.

Yeah. A few years back, I was working on a Pacific architecture project. We were going through the concept design and thinking about other buildings that actually reflect Aotearoa’s context in Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, the Pacific Ocean. Looking around our architecture and our built environment, I realised there wasn’t that much.

But it’s not just around designing Pacific-looking buildings. It’s a shift in the way we practice. There’s been incredible work coming through in terms of how we are engaging with mana whenua or iwi and hapu at different stages. But in terms of the Pacific, I think there’s a lot of untapped potential.

Our education system has a lot to answer for – we’re literally pumping out students that have little to no engagement with Te Tiriti – the Treaty of Waitangi. What are the repercussions of that in architecture and the built environment we’re creating? The responsibility of making sure that there is an awareness of the context of Te Tiriti and engagement with iwi ends up being on our practices. Are they all ready and equipped for that?

In terms of the Pacific diaspora, there are a lot of aiga family who have come from across the Pacific who now call Aotearoa home. Aotearoa New Zealand is a Pacific island. How can our profession better acknowledge and celebrate this?

Tell me about your role at DesignGroup Stapleton Elliott.

I’m a registered architect and I also wear the hat of a cultural design advisor. This is the first time that I’ve officially been given a ‘cultural design’ role. I think in previous firms, I was just doing it anyway because the role is who I am – I come to work with my cultural identity and the experiences and community network that comes with it. I work with an incredibly passionate team of Indigenous Designers at DGSE who have founded a rōpū within the company to drive this Kaupapa. More on this to come!

Our work is internal and external. For both our clients and our teams we look to acknowledge and honour the bi-cultural founding of the nation through Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It’s about architecture that is uniquely reflective of our people and place, it tells a story, captures the wairua spirit and is deeply connected in its turangawaewae, it’s a home. We can only do this through building the genuine and strong relationships which are at the heart of it all.

I work as any other registered architect does – on several projects at a time. But I also come on to projects, many of which are with a government agency, or an organisation that has a public responsibility, and in that scenario my role is to understand the clients’ relationship to Te Tiriti and with mana whenua and when appropriate ensure we’re engaging with iwi and hapu in a project partnership.

I’m so fortunate to work in the space because of the relationships and trust built on previous projects with iwi and hapu. It’s about people, right?  Earning the trust and living and breathing the stance that there’s a reason why we want and need to do this – it’s not just a box ticking exercise, it gives meaning and life to a project.  

Does being Samoan make a difference to this role for you?

One hundred percent. It’s been an interesting journey and I’ve had my fair share of burns too. I’m not Māori, I’m not tangata whenua, but my contribution to this work is stemmed from a belief in doing what’s right. There’s a well-known Samoan proverb: “O le ala I le pule o le tautua”, the pathway to leadership is through service. Māori and Pasifika have many shared cultural values and understandings, and one key theme is around the collective and community, our service to others as opposed to ourselves. This work is not about the capital ‘A’ architect. At university we were taught, ‘This is my project; this is my vision. I’m putting this line on this paper that I created’. But when we work on these projects with iwi, it’s no longer about us. We exist to bring the collective vision to life. I think that’s a very different concept to adjust to when our formal education hasn’t been aligned to this.

What are you working on now?

Too many to name! As mentioned, I’m often coming into several projects at a time, at the beginning, to help establish a cultural engagement approach that can then be taken through all stages of the project even to construction. Contractors have been awesome in taking up this type of work and love an opportunity to introduce themselves and share their pepeha. The kaupapa shouldn’t just stop with the design team and consultants! In some cases, where the client was on their own journey of understanding, the work has led to an internal review of the organisation in terms of their responsibilities to Te Tiriti and building on relationships with local iwi and community.

My main project at the moment is a new police hub. I’m excited for what this project needs to achieve. It’s no longer about stations that demand authority or architecture that resembles a fortress, but one that represents the relationship between the community and those who work to keep them safe. It’s a prime example of a project where its more than just a building. The design has an opportunity to embrace its community by telling the stories of its people and place. Meaningful co-design is how this can be achieved and we’re in the thick of it at the moment!

Historically the relationship between police and Pacific peoples has not been great…

That’s right, and Māori and Pacific peoples make up the majority of the prison population. They’re also victims of crime. I’m really interested in what it is about the process that people go through – from interactions with police, through the courts and in prisons – and how the design of those environments plays a role in that process. I think often architecture can enhance negativity and create discomfort for both victims and perpetrators. So, what is it about the identity of the architecture for these new public buildings that means, actually, it’s no longer about this big scary place, it’s a place where people can get help, can feel like someone is looking out for them? That’s a huge shift for us as architects, and there are massive social implications as well for our communities.

It sounds like you have a lot to get on with then. Thank you so much for your time Carinnya. Ngā mihi mahana.


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

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