THE OTARA PROJECT
What follows is a case study in which a Community Design and
Development Project in Otara, New Zealand exemplifies and articulates
the Critical Sustainability Theories outlined previously.The project was
completed in 1994 at the University of Auckland School of Architecture.
It extended over a period of 20 weeks and involved 24 Architecture
students working alongside eight long-term unemployed youth from
Otara, one of Auckland’s poorest suburbs, populated mostly by Pacific
Islanders, indigenous Maori and (more recently) increasing numbers of
This is their story.
Otara is a suburb of South Auckland inhabited
predominantly by Pacific Island and Maori people.
The township is satellite to Auckland and
although it lies adjacent to some of the wealthiest
suburbs, it comprises a swath of often-neglected
State housing clustered around an outdated
shopping centre, much tagged by the local youth
whose opposed gangs divide along ethnic lines
and are modeled on the Cripps and Bloods. of
Los Angeles. Otara provided the location for the
renowned New Zealand film, Once Were
Warriors. Its statistics are depressing. It boasts
the highest truancy, unemployment and crime
rates in the Auckland region, and has the greatest
number of disaffected young people of any area
of New Zealand. In an attempt to improve the
Otara economy, and to attract investment into the
community, a group of local business, civic and
church leaders in 1993 formed Enterprise Otara
- to “turn around” the social, economic and
spiritual image of the town by building upon the
rich and colourful resources and talents of the
residents, to be witnessed at the iconic Saturday
Otara Market. An essential part of this
revitalisation process were refurbishment and
redevelopment proposals for the existing
shopping centre at the heart of the community. In
1994, the Community Design Studio at the
Department of Architecture at the University of
Auckland was asked by the Manukau City
Welfare Day at the TAB
Council (Otara’s legislative body) to do this work.
DESIGN FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
The Community Design Studio already had experience of Town
revitalisation projects, in Hamilton (pop. 70,000), Whakatane (pop. 25,000)
and Highbury (pop. 25,000), working in each case as consultants to the
Town Council. Excellent designs and Design Reports were produced, only
to gather dust on the library shelves. In each case, the real social change
for which the project had been conceived by the Community Design Studio
had remained unrealised. At best, a vision and opportunities had been
opened up for further development and corporate profit, without any benefit
to those for whom the programme had been intended.
The Otara project was conceived differently. Given a history of
municipal neglect, and suspicion of tokenism, a condition was laid
down as part of the terms of engagement. The social change
espoused by the Council must be made a part of the process. The
Council were required to employ long-term unemployed Otara youth to work
in an equal capacity alongside the University students. An agreement was
made to employ these youth on a 1:2 ratio - that is, one unemployed youth
for every two Architecture students. Eight unemployed youth (7 men and 1
woman) from the local community (Maori, Tongan, Samoan and Nueian)
were employed, through government subsidised Work Training schemes.
With the twenty university students enrolled in the course, they produced a design which was justly acclaimed
by the Manukau Council as well as by Enterprise Otara. The Otara members of the design team worked for
24 weeks on an equal basis with the university students and, by the end of the project were producing design
drawings which were indistinguishable from students who had had two or three previous years of design
tuition. At the conclusion of the project, four of the eight were accepted into tertiary education while a fifth now
works as a member of Primitive Nature, a Pacific Island design consultancy working full-time for the Auckland
City Council. This is their story.
Some team members. (Left to Right) Riley Letalu, Daryn Ahotolu, Paul O’Neil, Tony Ward (lecturer) Maurits Kelderman
(tutor) Soli Fonoti , Marina Makani, Charlie Carlson, (project co-ordinator), Len Brown. (Manukau City Councillor). Missing is
Carl XXX (who left mid-way through the project to accept an offered place at Design School).
The Mall looking South
The Otara Shopping Centre (East)
The Mall looking North The Otara Shopping Centre (West)
One of the intended roles of the Otara “buddies” was to link the University
students into the community - to facilitate community dialogue about the
project. The first step in this process was to establish a base within the
community itself, rather than. At the University twenty kilometres away. A local
retailer donated an empty shop (rent-free) within the shopping centre mall.
This was decorated by local Polytechnic students as part of their Painting and
Decorating course and was opened and blessed by local kaumatua. Notices
were displayed in the shop window in Māori, Samoan, Cook Island Māori,
Nueian and Tongan, inviting residents to drop in for coffee and chat about
their hopes and aspirations for their community.
The interior of the Project Office was further
decorated by a large poster about the project, and
colourful paintings produced by local High School
Art students were hung on the walls - all intended to
make the place feel comfortable for the local
residents and to reflect our appreciation their culture
(right). To facilitate dialogue, the team produced a
large (4.8m x 2.4m) scale model of the entire
shopping centre site and its immediate surroundings
(below right). A notice board, with suggestive and
evocative images of the progressing design work
was placed outside the shop (below left), in the
pedestrian mall, to entice passing shoppers to drop
in and participate in the project.
GROUP DESIGN SESSIONS
Students and “buddies” all had regular hours of work which were logged and noted (for payment purposes).
Attendance was mandatory and generally kept. Only one of the employed team members failed to regularly
attend, and it was eventually discovered that he could not read and had been too embarrassed to say. He
chose to leave the team and was replaced.
The first team task was to have each member try to draw their ideas about what ought to be done. From the
start, the “buddies” were reluctant to draw - seeing themselves compared to middle-class design students with
two or three years prior experience. Initially, they sat and listened, but were too shy to engage in
demonstrating their own perceived difficulties with graphic representation. They would talk and discuss, but
they would not draw. They left that to the more experienced of the Architecture students (below right)
The first halting attempts at drawing by one of the “buddies” - the
perspective drawing below - demonstrate a definite timidity which was
understandable in the context of the relative skill levels of the team
members. But it did draw upon experiences and interests close to the
hearts of the Otara members of the team - basketball. The one clear
thing that they shared was a passion for basketball. It was on this
basis, that the whole group decided to form themselves into a
competitive basketball team - The Hupas - playing other local teams
in the evenings. A basketball hoop was set up outside the shop for
practice during breaks and quiet moments.
The drawings produced by the Buddies in the class contained none of the verve and colourful -in-your-face passion of
the graffiti and “tagging”that otherwise covered the walls of the Otara community and with which the Buddies themselves
were at least familiar and in which they were probably instrumental. Still, they soldiered on, laboriously trying to achieve
what they thought were the programme expectations regarding architectural drawing. One day, I arrived from Auckland
for our afternoon design session at the site office. I was a little early and entered the office unexpectedly, just in time to
see one of the Buddies hiding something away under his drawing board. I asked him to show me what it was. With
obvious reluctance, he revealed a drawing that bhe had been secretly doing, of a large-breasted, bikini-clad woman set
against a Pacifica design (below)
I asked him if he was the author
and he admitted sheepishly that
he was. I asked him if he
realised that none of the
architecture students from the
University could draw so
naturally and so well. He said
he didn‘t believe me.
I suggested that he ask them,
and show them his drawing.
Which he did, much to the
amazement and admiration of
the University students.
I asked him if there were
another, similar drawings that
he and the other Buddies had
done. He admitted that there
were, and when prompted to do
so, revealed a veritable treasure
trove of cartoon drawings that
had, until now, remained
To give some indication of the sheer
professionalism and detail of these images.
Compare one original with its line detail. The
sureness and confidence of the line is
astonishing - much greater than that achievable
by the best of the architectural students.
It speaks to a very keen eye for human
observation. The dress, the characterisation of
the subject, the posture, the feelings and
attitude of the subject that are implicit in the
folded arms, the sideways glance, the
suggestion of suspicion and possible
And all carried out with an unself-consciousness
and delight in imagery that characterised by a
lack of any formal training.
The University Architectural students and their
instructors were deeply impressed
AND MORE BASKETBALL
Here was the passion that we had
been missing! Each drawing, lovingly
constructed to depict their humour,
their frustrations (note the on-court
violence), their testosterone. The
female member of the group was not
part of this outpouring.
Occasionally, their graphic talents
started to evoke more serious cultural
images, but always there was a depth
THE OTARA HUPAS
Encouraged, they formed their own competitive basketball team - The Hupas
Once the cat was out of the bag, nothing remained sacred or immune from the piercing Pacific Island
humour of the Buddies as they caricatured their University team-mates! Images of the team itself began to
emerge, making fun of one tutor (below left) and celebrating my own birthday (top right).
They saved their most perceptive (and fun-poking talents for the one for whom they felt the greatest
affection - Maurits, their young tutor, recently graduated, a fluent speaker of te reo Maori (and some
Samoan) and a prominent Palangi (European) member of the Hupas.
This profusion of graphic talent required real celebration! The drawings were at first pinned up on the
office notice board, and then later, as they became increasingly numerous, in the shop window.
Over time - about two weeks - the drawings
began to change, and images specifically
pertinent to the project began to emerge. The
students began to engage with deeper,
historical images of their cultures, of ancient
warriors alongside their contemporary Hupas
descendants. All of this unsolicited!
Although the images of men
continue to show warrior-like
characteristics, the images
of women begin to soften,
and to take on
characteristics and dress of
traditional P. I. cultures. A
subtle shift seems to be
taking place, as the buddies
reconnect with their (more
balanced?) ancestral gender
value and relationship
First indications of the linking of this shift to design issues came in the preliminary sketches for the design
of a fountain/monument to be included in the project. Here, the earlier warrior/testosterone laden images of
the Hupas basketball warriors begins to transmute into specific images of a fisherman raising a net on
board his proa, and a woman pouring water from a jug .
This emerged as the Centrepiece of their design proposals - a proposed sculpture, with waterfall, and
Polynesian fishermen designed to occupy a central place in the Market
This led to more confident attempts to come to terms with the more technical drawing that they saw the
University team members doing. As they gained confidence, the colour and scale of the representations
begins to increase and become bolder - at the same time, beginning to reflect the material technologies of
traditional Pacific Island cultures, and began to image the Market itself as a centre of Polynesian Culture,
drawing on iconic images and references to their cultures of origin..
(E)MERGING OF STYLES
Perhaps most startling, is the emergence of an architectural style which is neither ancient nor
modern, and which appears to be an amalgam of differing Pacifica themes integrated into a new
and dramatic whole - as in this sketch of a meeting house, aimed at exploring traditional Pacifica
design in a modern architectural context. Carl, who drew this image was soon after accepted into
Design School at the local Polytechnic.
Gradually, around week eight,the Buddies begin to demonstrate a new confidence in their technical
drawing abilities. Below, we can see the contrast between Riley’s earliest drawing of the basketball
court (left) with his later designs for a housing complex with an open Pacifica marketplace: Riley‘s Arc.
He is able to adeptly shift his perspective point and use his newly-developed drawing skill to explore the
design inside and out and to locate his building design into an existing context accurately.
Towards the end of the project, as the final form of the design began to take shape, it was important that the
colours used in the development reflected the life and style of the community of users - the Pacific Island
community. Daryl and Soli undertook the important task of experimenting with different colour schemes for
the exterior of the otara Shopping Centre. Mid-way through the process, Daryl got a fit of giggles. Asked
what was funny he responded, “Six months ago I was tagging this building. Now I’m doing the colour
schemes for it!”
DEVELOPMENT Recreation Ctr.
While all of this has been happening, the model, too has
been developing, as design ideas, developed through a
continual process of drop-in community consultation.
Finally, approaching the end of the project, all of these Well-Being Ctr.
design ideal are integrated into a final development
proposal, visually displayed in both two and three
Development Plan (above)
THE SUSTAINABLE PROPOSAL
Participatory research had clearly identified four needed facilities for a the
creation and development of sustainable Otara community. Each was
designed to generate employment, bring in much needed revenue,
provide essential services, act as a cultural clearing-house and support.
1. A Community Centre where:
• Pacific Island groups could meet for cultural, language and art classes
• To create and sell there art and cultural products
• To make artist-in-residencies available with scholarships for P. I youth
2. A Well-Being Centre where:
• Traditional Pacifica Healing Practices might be delivered and taught
• Preventative medicine nutrition, budgeting and culturally sensitive and
appropriate counseling might be available.
3. A Recreation Centre providing:
• 4 competitive basketball courts able to house national competitions
• A Full length swimming pool with a surge machine
4. Urban Housing with:
Affordable housing for singles and elderly built into the development, close to
shops, cultural activities, recreation and education
Short-stay affordable rental accommodation for visitors
CULTURAL CENTRE (EARLY)
By week ten, and working collectively, they are beginning to develop conceptual ideas for a
Pacifica Cultural Centre, to be located at the heart of the redevelopment.
WELL BEING CENTRE
The design has several distinct elements. There is a Well-Being Centre, for instance, where traditional
Pacific Island and Maori healing arts and remedies are practiced alongside their Western counterparts.
Here, the emphasis is placed upon staying healthy, rather than curing illness.
The facility also offered a wide
range of counseling and advice
The design also includes a Recreation Centre,
adjacent to the Well Being Centre and
incorporating an competition swimming pool
and (of course) a competitive basketball arena.
The swimming pool incorporates a wave-
machine, intended to bring in fee-paying PERSPECTIVE
customers from the surrounding affluent
RECREATION CENTRE PLANS
There is the development of a Residential block of one and two-bedroom apartments designed to
accommodate students studying at the adjacent Polytechnic, as well as the elderly, located at the heart of
PACIFICA URBAN VILLAGE
The housing complex surrounds and looks onto a Pacifica Open Market Square, the centrepiece of
which is the sculpture seen earlier. Entrance to the Square is from the existing shopping mall and is
flanked by two upper level gardens serving the resident. One of them houses a shaded park with
water features. “Riley’s Ark” is very much in evidence here!
As the final day fro presenting the design to the community approaches the entire team focuses upon
completing the three dimensional model of the proposal
By the end of the project, the drawings and the model were finished and assembled outside the office in
the centre of the Otara Mall. With the community in attendance, and the City Councillors and
representatives of the University of Auckland gathered around, the students made their final presentation
to the Otara Community.
Following the presentation of the proposal to the
Otara Community, an exhibition of the project was
presented at the University of Auckland. The
“Buddies” went on to be commissioned by the
Manukau City Council to develop a colour scheme
for the shopping centre. As one of the Buddies
was heard to say, “ Six months ago I was tagging
this place, and now here I am doing colour
schemes for it!”
At the completion of the project, all of the Buddies received Certificates of Completion from the
University. Of the eight (previously long-term unemployed) Buddies involved in the project, four
went on to tertiary study. While two went on to work as Pacifica Design consultants
• Karl ???? was accepted into the Manukau Polytechnic Design Scool
• Daryn Ahotolu went on to accept a position in Fashion Design at a local Polytech
• Soli Fonoti, Soli Tafai and Paul O’Neil, formed Primitive Nature Design Consultancy
• Soli Tafai went on the teach Art at Kelston Boys Grammar School
• Allan Ta‘alolo joined Manukau City in Advertising Design and Events Promotion
• Both worked for the Auckland City Council designing the annual Pacifica Festival.
• Marina Makani was accepted in a tertiary programme in Early Childhood Education.
• Riley Letalu,was offered a place at the Auckland University School of Architecture.
• He instead went to work for wages in a factory after he and his girlfriend conceived a child
• Charlie Carlson ??????
• Len Brown went on to run unsuccessfully for the Mayoralty
SO MUCH FOR DREAMS
So what happened in the end to the design
proposals and the vision for Otara promoted by
Enterprise Otara outlined in subsequent reporting in the
•The Recreation Centre was built,
New Zealand Herald (below)?
without the revenue-generating wave-
•The Cultural Centre was never built
•The Pacifica Village was never built
•The Well-Being Centre was never built
•The shopping centre was given a
“face-lift” in the colour scheme
developed by the Buddies.
• Gang violence
All continue to pervade the community at
unacceptably high levels.
But the people of Otara continue to
sustain their remarkable cultures in the
face of political deceit, fiscal neglect and
NEW ZEALAND HERALD, 25TH AUGUST 1994 PAGE 13
TEN SUSTAINABILITY MYTHS
Myth 1. Consultation: Consultation does not mean asking people what they want and then
making sure they get it
Consultation means asking people what they want then telling them
what you have already decided on their behalf.
Myth 2. Participation: Participation does not mean working with different cultural groups
toward common goals to solve common problems
Participation means inviting cultural groups to work towards solving
their problems but reserving the right to ignore their conclusions
Myth 3. Partnership: Partnership does not mean that all players have equal decision
Partnership means that one partner has all of the power to ignore or
veto decisions and conclusions reached either together or singly.
Myth 4. Equity: Equity does not mean that all groups in a working process are equal, or
that the outcome will lead to their equality
Equity means that the most powerful group will use the myth of equality
to undermine political protest, to shape outcomes and do everything in
its power to retain its power. This group is predominantly white, male and
Myth 5. Representation: Representation does not mean that political representatives will
represent your interests to the fullest extent of their abilities.
Representation means politicians will advocate your interests only when
they are congruent with their own, and that your voice and desires will be
filtered and “balanced” to ensure that you get only enough of what you
want to keep you quiet.
Myth 6. Democracy: Democracy does not mean that the voice of minority groups will be
heard or that their dreams and expectations will be met
Democracy means that minority interests will always be subordinated
to the will of the majority.
Myth 7. Social Transformation: Social transformation does not mean that society will be transformed
to be more equal, more caring and more satisfying.
Social transformation means that dominant groups will strive
continually to control all of the information and decision-making
agencies to maintain the status quo.
Myth 8. Employment Creation: Employment creation does not mean that projects undertaken will
create jobs in the community
Employment creation means that employment will be created or
sustained for those within State agencies who will manage processes
and file reports.
Myth 9. Open Government: Open Government does not mean that you will have direct access to
decision-makers or that their decisions will be transparent
Open Government means that decisions will often be made behind
closed doors on the basis of undisclosed information and in the
interests of private interest groups.
Myth 10. Political Fairness Political Fairness does not mean that decisions will be even-handed
and that all groups will have equal access to the decision-making
Political Fairness means that you will be seduced into believing that
the system is fair in order to obviate complaints and protests when
decisions are made that are unfair.
SO WHAT TO DO?
One of the most frustrating experiences to be had in the field of Community Design, Community Architecture or
Community Development is to be when one works through intermediary functionaries at City Hall - from the Mayor,
down to the lowliest employee. The most successful projects are undoubtedly those that arise from the community, that
are initiated by the community and are driven, developed, monitored, evaluated and implemented by the community.
Such examples are rare! Notable examples include the work of:
• The Pratt Centre for Community Development (PICCED) in New York (http://www.prattcenter.net/),
• The Miami University Centre for Community Engagement in OtR (http://www.fna.muohio.edu/cce/index.html)
If you know of any further examples of Cultural Community Praxis that you would like to make public, contact: