Te Hiku Peninsula is a narrow and wild part of the country, with oceans just a few kilometres apart; there are mountainous sand dunes and extensive wetlands. At one point, the area was covered with a magnificent kauri forest that was flattened some 45,000 years ago by a natural disaster, burying the trees beneath sand and peat marshes.
Kā Uri is a building formerly known as the Ancient Kauri Kingdom, mostly associated with the processing and crafting of swamp kauri and until recently it looked exactly how you’d expect it to: a faded green shed with a timber lean-to in which there was a cafe and a shop. Its carved kauri staircase was something of a cult visitor attraction in its own right for those exploring Te Hiku o Te Ika – the Far North.
But it’s fair to say the place had more potential to elevate kauri craft, commercial aspirations – and the community around it. While the site in Awanui is located in the rohe of Ngāi Takoto, in 2016 Ngāti Kuri bought the business, intending to create a gateway to Te Hiku Peninsula. The project forms an integral part of its Te Ara Whānui – The Many Pathways – conceptual framework. “Te Ara Whānui extends from Awanui in the south to Te Rerenga Wairua in the north, and outward to Manawatāwhi (Three Kings Islands) and Rangitāhua (Raoul Island, Kermadec Islands),” explains Ngāti Kuri’s project advisor Arahia Burkhardt Macrae.
As the first project in Te Ara Whānui, “Kā Uri sits at the kei or stern of the conceptual waka that symbolises our connection to land and ocean, our ancestral homelands, and the natural resources – such as kauri – that we have the privilege to whakapapa to”. As well as being a physical touchpoint for visitors to the Far North, Kā Uri is home to Te Tapuwae o te Waka, a waka-carving school, and will house an “enterprise hatchery” to support local startups to benefit from the projected increase in visitors to Te Hiku.
”Representing our stories, our taonga and our people has been the key to making Kā Uri a unique visitor experience, while also centering the values of Ngāti Kuri – community resilience, shared prosperity and mana motuhake,” she says. “In a practical sense, this means we have drawn on the talent of our community first: from our main contractor, Far North Roading, to our project and operational staff, we wanted to create something that is of, for and by Ngāti Kuri. When we need support from outside, we look to bring in people and businesses that can represent our worldview”.
Ngāti Kuri turned to Glamuzina Architects to rework the building. As well as more prosaic concerns – wharepaku, retail and cafe – the building had to tell the story of Ngāti Kuri and their relationship with the landscape. “You have this really interesting crossover between cultural intent and commercial reality,” says Glamuzina.
Faced with a building that had started out life as storage for milk powder, Glamuzina’s thinking was clear-eyed, demolishing the front wooden lean-tos to expose the industrial outline of the original shed, now reskinned in grey corrugated steel with a bite out of one corner to create a covered entry. “It became about that programme,” he says. “Once you pulled off the lean-tos it was quite honest about what it was.”
Inside, it’s crisp and calm, high-ceilinged and airy, with filtered light through Danpalon lining. There are subtle carved touches throughout the building and colours sourced from the muted but rich landscape of the north. The spaces slowly transition down the length of the building, from crisp gallery to practical workshop, via cafe and waka school. The staircase, meanwhile, found a new home in the centre of the building, overlooking the workshop.
The building opened late last year, and the site is still evolving – eventually, there’ll be riverside concerts out the back. “It’s like when people build a new house and think they need to get all-new furniture,” says Glamuzina. “But that’s not how architecture works – you have to work out what it is, and how to live in it.”
235 State Highway 1, Awanui