There is a certain tradition among some of the Maori that the whare whakairo actually represents and is a metaphor for the world. The floor represents Papatūānuku (the earth mother). It is connected by the posts of the house to the ridgepole. This symbolises the connection between her and Ranginui (the sky father). Simultaneously, the outside of the house represents Te Pō or darkness. On the inside is Te Ao Mārama – the world of light.
These meeting houses weren’t really a part of Maori village life until after the arrival of European settlers. The mid-19th century was a time of social, political and spiritual change. There was much selling of land to the settlers coming over from Great Britain, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and Christianity all created a need for discussions within and between communities.
Whare whakairo began to appear from the early 1840s on the East Coast of the North Island. This area had a rich carving tradition and Christianity and the Treaty of Waitangi both arrived there in 1840. The building of the first of these larger structures by Maori builders and craftsmen probably had a lot to do with the Māori experience of building and assembling in Christian churches.
The whare whakairo is a larger and more elaborate version of earlier house designs such as the wharepuni (sleeping house) and pātaka (storehouse). It is not an ancient form of architecture, but seems to have first appeared after contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century.
This building, which is now synonymous with Maori culture, is typically a single large room with a pitched roof extended past the front wall to form an open porch. Most importantly, the whare whakairo is usually elaborately decorated, both inside and out, with images of ancestors, gods and other figures, and with more abstract designs. The designs will usually be unique to the tribe and place of the whare whakairo.
The Maori bring a whole new meaning to addressing the house. The figuratively carved elements of buildings are personifications, and not just representations, of people and must be addressed as such in formal oratory. So when outsiders are greeted at a marae, an orator is likely to begin with the expression, “E te whare e tū mai nei, tēnā koe” – which means “I greet the meeting house standing before us”. The speaker can directly address the building as though it were a living being, because it embodies a specific ancestor or tribal entity.
Whare whakairo also embody Māori cosmology. The back of the building is generally regarded as representing the ancestral past and the front symbolises the present and future. This arrangement is reinforced by situating the front of the house to face the east, the location of Hawaiki (the Polynesian homeland) and the sunrise, which is an event associated with renewal. Between them is the porch, bounded by the paepae (threshold carving) and pare (door lintel). This is something that not many people would consider or know, but is crucial in the planning of where to start building a new whare whakairo.
By the 1920s, the traditional arts associated with building whare whakairo were in serious decline, and there was a real danger that in a few generations there would be none left to continue building and maintaining these key structures.
A state-funded school opened in Rotorua in 1927, and within two years had a small group of carving trainees – Pineamine and Hōne (John) Taiapa, Wiremu (Piri) Poutapu and Waka Kereama – under the instruction of Te Arawa tohunga whakairo (carving experts).
The school quickly began to take commissions from Māori communities wishing to build whare whakairo and wharekai (permanent dining halls) – a new architectural development. By the time the carving school closed in 1938, it had produced dozens of tohunga whakairo, hundreds of female tukutuku workers, and at least 21 whare whakairo and 10 wharekai, as well as six chapels and churches.
The New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute opened at Rotorua in 1966 and continues to operate to this day.