Akau Studios - Kaikohe

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:06 pm on 6 December 2015
Akau team

Ana Heremaia, Jayden Ruru, Rakky Alexander, Honey Te Rangi and Ruby Watson at Miria, Marae Waiomio Photo: RNZ/Jeremy Rose

AKAU Studio - Rangitahi with Designs on the Future

By Jeremy Rose

When you think design, cities like Milan, Paris, New York and London come to mind... Kaikohe, in the far north of Aotearoa, not so much. 

But architects Ana Heremaia and Ruby Watson left behind promising careers in London to set up shop in Kaikohe - and they're opening the eyes of some of the town's rangitahi to a whole new way of looking at the world. 

Ana Heremaia grew up in Christchurch - a long way from the Ngati Hine lands of her father Ngawati Heremaia. It was the death of her dad and her return from London for his tangi that drew her back to Kaikohe. And it was a conversation with her mum, Christine, that convinced Ana that her interior architecture skills could be put to use back in Northland. 

It's fair to say, Kaikohe is far from a prosperous town, in a far from prosperous region. Northland has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 8.8 percent, and in Kaikohe a staggering 14.4 percent of its people are officially unemployed (the jobless rate is far higher). The blight of unemployment hits rangitahi (youth) particularly hard with  well over 20 percent of young people in neither work nor school.  

So, with strong iwi ties to the region it's understandable Ana would want to give something back to a town which is facing an existential threat but what was the attraction to her Pakeha mate, Ruby, who had forged herself something a career in London?

Jayden Ruru

Jayden Ruru with the Paddle Stool designed by AKAU studios Photo: RNZ/Jeremy Rose

"About two years ago I got an email from Ana, who had been chatting to her mother Christine, and said: 'I've got some ideas'. And they were great ideas so I got involved," Ruby says with a laugh. And as, she's quick to point out, the winterless north does have some advantages over London.

But what exactly were those ideas? Well, like all good ideas, they've evolved. In the beginning there were thoughts of setting up a furniture making business in conjunction with the local prison at Ngawha. But then they decided that maybe working with rangitahi before they were on the wrong side of the bars was a better idea. 

And so AKAU Studio was born. It's early days but if the first intake of students is anything to go by Ana and Ruby are changing the way the locals think about design, their community and, most importantly, perhaps, what's possible. 

Eighteen-year-old Jayden Ruru is one of the initial intake of five students at AKAU Studio - which is an intriguing blend of an architectural practice and educational space.  He's exceedingly proud of the Paddle Stool he helped design. And as he explains the idea came from a brainstorming session that Ana and Ruby held with students to come up with furniture design ideas.

"One day I was out on Waitangi Day. I was rowing with my uncle and my aunty. He was the leader and the captain of it.  And basically what happened was when I was in the AKAU Class I got a bright idea of making a hoe [traditional paddle]."

Rakky Alexander

Rakky Alexander with a rammed earth sample Photo: RNZ/Jeremy Rose

And from that seed of an idea Akau Studio came up with the Paddle Stool - a sleek, plywood bar stool that has since featured in Architecture New Zealand, and is on sale at Akau's website

If the Paddle Stool is a case of a functional Maori design inspiring stylish contemporary furniture; then AKAU's ambitious redesign for the Miria Marae at Waiomio is a case of modern design ideas being adapted to suit a traditional space. 

AKAU's five trainee designers: Rakky Alexander, Jayden Ruru, Honey Te Rangi, Wiremu Daniels and Te Teira Rakete have gone through something of a steep learning curve. Just how steep becomes obvious as Rakky Alexander begins to explain the process of creating rammed earth "bricks" to illustrate what the planned Wharenui will look like to a committee of kaumatua.

Rakky says presenting to the kaumatua is one of the highlights of the course for her. It was meaningful, she says, because it's her marae. It's where she's from.

There's a level of engaged excitement when Rakky starts talking about the project that is hard to imagine being generated by a more traditional classroom-style, theoretical exercise. It's the fact that the design has a real chance of being built that gives it such power. 

And the enthusiasm isn't limited to the design. Rakky is particularly keen to share the story of one of Ngati Hine's tipuna  Te Ruki Kawiti part of the inspiration for the rammed-earth design the students finally settled on after much research and debate. 

Honey Te Rangi, Rakky Alexander and Jayden Ruru

Honey Te Rangi, Rakky Alexander and Jayden Ruru Photo: RNZ/Jeremy Rose

Ana Heremaia says Akau has been running a series of community workshops, alongside its full-time course, and is still working on what the best way of inspiring a design culture in Kaikohe and its surrounds. 

They're working on a project in Whangarei called the Orchard which if completed will provide a work space for entrepreneurs, start-ups and non profits. 

The team described their concept for the project like this: "AKAU youth designers developed the concept of birds, that symbolised new ideas coming together in the space.  They represented their ideas by creating light features, angled and geometric construction and using wayfinding through graphic application." 

The metaphor of birds taking flight isn't bad one for the AKAU's youth designers themselves. As their course comes to a close all are hoping to pursue design in the future. Whether it's Jayden's plan to work on an uncle's farm and help re-design some of his sheds or Honey Te Rangi's desire to travel to Auckland or Wellington and enrol in a tertiary design course AKAU Studio has broadened their horizons. 

And if all goes to plan in the not too distant future they'll be able to return to Waiomio to help build a new marae. 


Oak Tree, Waiomio Marae

Oak Tree, Miria Marae, Waiomio. Photo: RNZ/Jeremy Rose


Ana Heremaia interview with Wallace Chapman 

Ana Heremaia and Felicity Benchley talk to Kathryn Ryan

AKAU Studio promotional video