Pipitea Marae is a signpost at the juncture of many things. Of land and sea, of Maori and Pakeha, of government and commerce, and of the past and the future.
As an example of the Urban Marae, Pipitea could be considered a perfect case study. The site of the marae is the exact site of the former Pipitea Pa, a traditional kainga (village) of several hectares where whare (houses) stood, kumara were cultivated and kaimoana (seafood) was harvested until the arrival of the Pakeha in the 19th century. The mana whenua (home tribes) were Te Atiawa and Taranaki Whānui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika. With the 'Port Nicholson block', which came to be known as Wellington, chosen for the site of a port and city by the colonists who came via the Wakefield Company, the rural lifestyle would be no more.
Te Papa explains in a beautiful story about the early interactions between the Maori of Pipitea and the settlers, the beginning of a changing dynamic which has not stopped shifting to this day. Soon after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and other tools of settlement were put to work, most Maori were displaced to rural areas while the white man's cities grew. Pipitea changed its name to Thorndon and became the seat of government. In 1855, an earthquake uplifted this part of the harbour and banished the shoreline and the kaimoana from the east of Pipitea, creating a whole new area, quickly taken up by Pakeha for railway development and Thorndon Quay.
But Maori were needed in the cities. To work. And the homogenisation of the Capital did not last long, as Maori from many regions came to Wellington to participate in a growing economy. These young workers of Wellington coined the Iwi name "Ngati Poneke", which is a transliteration of the term Port Nicholson Block. With nowhere of their own to socialise, a youth club by this name started in the 1930s, apparently encouraged by Maori leaders of the day, Sir Āpirana Ngata and Lady Pōmare. During World War Two and increasingly afterwards, the urban migration continued and, following the success of two urban (city based without traditional tribal links) marae in Auckland, Pipitea was born in 1980, under the auspices of the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust and Ngati Poneke Maori Association.
Some commercial smarts ensured that the physical position of Pipitea was maximised by the construction of an income-generating parking garage underneath, and the building itself was made from concrete block. After an opening ceremony at dawn on May 31 1980, Wellington had a marae for all, where no-one would be excluded, yet kawa and protocol remained respected. Managers of Pipitea have stuck to the model that engenders equality and access, running a venue that nurtures kawa and tikanga while competently running events of all shapes and sizes.
When the Christchurch earthquakes happened in 2011, with a social conscience like her sister urban marae, Te Puea, Pipitea stood up and stood proud, cancelling commercial bookings to take on the traditional role of a marae, housing travellers to and from Wellington associated with the disasters.
It was identified that the physical presence of the Marae on Thorndon Quay could be improved upon and indeed, the sheer volume of concrete block, coloured grey, in an area of light industry, was for many years unrepresentative and ungenerous to the spirit of the Marae. So in 2013, Newdick and Moorhead Landscape Architects were commissioned to essentially complete this venue by landscaping the grounds to reflect the wairua (spirit) of Pipitea.
The dreary greys have been replaced with patterned and coloured paving, all incorporating cultural meaning, a dramatic koru from treated timber has taken up pride of place in the front lawn, and 'standing room only' has given way to a variety of seating outdoors.
Says Newdick in "Architecture Now": “Inclined, curving banks of ponga logs and plantings now draw visitors into the site, framed on either side with two large enhanced lawn areas – one in the form of a shallow amphitheatre directly adjacent to the atea and the other providing a generous public space with substantial macrocarpa benches.”
Now Pipitea moves forward, exemplary as ever in the interesting and important phenomena that are urban marae.
For more reading: New Zealand History explains the special places that are urban marae and what they mean to the community at large.