It has been a huge year for Māori changemaker and cultural leader Elisapeta Heta (Ngātiwai, Waikato Tainui, Sāmoa, Tokelau) of Jasmax.
The designer who grew up “super poor” in a small railway worker’s cottage in Rānui has been made a Jasmax principal. She has also been awarded the prestigious Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) President’s Award for 2022, and has just been chosen as a co-director of the international UNI Indigenous Peoples Work Programme.
It’s all a bit heady, yet exciting for Heta – a recognition of her sphere of influence, both inside and outside the Jasmax architectural office.
And it’s as though everything in her life has led to a career in architecture. “Our family lived for some time in a railway cottage built for a single man, which would have been about 35m²,” Heta says. “My English great-grandmother would buy lottery tickets and the prize was usually gold bullion or a house in Brisbane, and there was always a brochure with an ugly house on the cover that you could win.
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“I would look at the pictures and pour over the plans, and think, oh my god, that’s how I want our family to live. I wanted to achieve that. Family fights they were invariably about money, and I thought that living in a big fancy house would solve that – as you do in your little baby brain.”
Heta took solace in schoolwork, and remembers being inspired by a primary school teacher who taught her how to draw a bird’s-eye view of a house. “I enjoyed my education, all the while daydreaming about the dream home, and motivated by the desire to do better by my family.
“Making a decision to do architecture was part of that – I thought if I do this thing then I could provide for my family.”
Heta, who graduated from the Auckland School of Architecture, says she has had a lot of mentors: “I just graft myself to people sometimes, and I’m a nerd for learning.”
She names architect Lynda Simmons as one of many mentors – the pair worked together running Architecture+Women NZ for several years. Other key mentors include Lucy Tukua (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Whanaunga and Ngāti Karewa) of Mott McDonald, who has worked with the Auckland Council Urban Design Panel, and Matt Glubb, head of design at Jasmax, who led the design team (including Heta) for the New Zealand Pavilion at Expo 2020.
Heta served as a member of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) board for three years, writing what became a world-first document between the institute body and indigenous peoples: “For the first time we were starting to get a Māori voice at the architecture table,” she says.
And now she, herself, is mentoring the Waka Māia team at Jasmax – she has developed her skills right alongside what she describes as “a massive societal shift as people understand Māori culture is a fundamental part of who we are as New Zealanders”.
“All our ministries, councils and government institutions are aware we have treaty obligations, and that is showing up in every new build project. Jasmax is very much a bicultural practice today – there’s a double-edged drive from within and outside the firm.”
As an indigenous leader, Heta is well aware of the challenges ahead as she encourages “all sorts of conversations that will help iwi and hapu enable their own housing projects”.
“There are so many technical things to be worked out before architects even get involved, including funding – getting mortgages for Māori land, for example, and joint ownership models. And we want the same outcomes for Pasifika communities, even while we bottom out the stats for housing, health and poverty. There are so many bureaucratic challenges and tough financial models to be overcome, but architecture is part of the solution – we have a lot to offer.”
“But sometimes, my advice is we need to slow down and pause the situation – it’s about going slow to go fast. It’s about getting better engagement with iwi and not being scared of it.”
Heta is also working to progress her own architectural career with the aim of gaining registration. She has contributed to cultural design outcomes for nation-defining projects, including Tāmaki Makaurau’s City Rail Link.
Currently, she is working closely on the Porters Ave footbridge in Mangawhau, part of the City Rail Link project. “I call it my ‘little project that could’,” Heta says. “”But it actually is a big bit of infrastructure. And it has been a wonderful opportunity to work with the fantastic artist Tessa Harris to reinforce the stories of Maungawhau and the area.”
Heta attributes part of her success to her love of “performance” and drama. “I grew up performing,” she says. “I’ve been doing kapa haka since I was five, and was always singing in a choir. I am often around actors and musicians – I have been on a couple of albums, and I and still sing.
“I tell young graduates half of your life is performing in this job. You have to speak in front of people and have confidence.”
And for her own future, Heta says she would like to complete her registration and, at some stage, return to university to do a PhD.
She would also like to make more music and “be a mum” one day. But first, with her international role and conference next year, she will be in a position to help effect change globally.
She shares the UIA Indigenous Peoples Work Programme co-directorship with Dr Patrick Luugigyoo Stewart (Nisga’a, RAIC Indigenous Task Force President).
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