Thursday, February 7, 2008

Once Were Warriors

One interesting part about the Fords is that John’s grandfather sold land that used to have a dairy farm to the city of Rotorua. They ended up building a lot of state housing there. John took me on a driving tour, and I would have to say I was fairly impressed with the variety and quality of the homes, especially after 50 years. All the homes were detached single family, as Rotorua is not struggling with land or density issues. Yet, they did put many of the new subdivisions to shame in the United States with character and diversity of the homes and forms.

One of the more famous people that resided on this tract of land is Alan Duff, who wrote ‘Once Were Warriors’. While it is set in Auckland, it was based on the Duff’s experiences on the Ford tract in Rotorua. I ended up watching the film and whew, what a powerful one it is. This very intense story weaves through issues of intense domestic violence, Maori culture, poverty, family, and state housing. It is certainly the other side of New Zealand from what I have been experiencing, but more in line with many of the more difficult questions that I believe is critical for architects to explore.

The question and extent of the how the quality of people’s physical environment affects their behavior has always been a nagging one for me. While I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a physical determinist, I find myself continually wanting to believe in the power of the built environment to change lives, culture, and family for the better, largely because that is the profession I have signed up to be a part of. But most of the struggles and continued issues that affect the characters in Once Were Warriors are certainly not unique to New Zealand, Auckland, Rotorua, or even Maoris and are not dictated by the physical house. But they are certainly influenced by it.

Would Jake have been so violent and destructive in his own home had he owned it or even rented it, instead of having the attitude that the state would always provide it for them? Certainly, the context and neighborhood was at debilitating as the physical space of the housing itself. Like the housing in Rotorua, the physical house didn’t seem that bad, but had been significantly altered, changed, and adapted by the behavior within it. And seen from the outside with my own eyes, these looked like they housed quality families. But, that rarely tells the truth as wealthy and middle class non-minorities are just as likely to develop broken families and habits.

In talking with John and reflecting a little more about the movie, it became clear that this was a struggle about the change in values and culture through the migration of people from rural to urban areas, which is a topic I will continually explore much more in depth through many of the next stops of my travels. The movie seems to say that Beth and her family’s conflicts came and were manifested in a large part by her rejecting the traditional Maori way of life and place. This seemed to be quite common as people flocked to cities for better employment opportunities, often times finding life to be a much greater struggle. The question of how cultural and social values are manifested in the physical sense is another one of those big questions of architects. In particular, as cities across the world are exploding, often as a result of rural to urban migration, the ability and need for people to maintain certain heritages and ways of life are often critical and sometimes not possible. Yet, people have found ways to do that, and I still believe the house as a physical structure and a process, not a product can serve as a better conduit to serve as the transition and intersection of many colliding and conflicting realms.

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