The following are two essays I wrote on Samoan architecture - the first is on traditional Western-Samoan architecture, and the second is on Fale Pasifika, The University of Auckland’s main building in its Pacific Studies complex.


Essay 1 - How have the cultural practices, climate and material resources influenced the development of designed environments in a traditional non-western Pacific culture?


Traditional Western-Samoan Architecture

Figure 1 - A photograph of a traditional fale tele under construction. Thomas Andrew 1896. Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. 

To understand the designed environments of Western Samoa, one must first understand the geography and culture, for these influence all aspects of Samoans’ lives, from their social structure, to their art, to their built environments. The Samoan culture is characterized by its openness, known as the va (Refiti 10), and the built environment provides a means of organizing and expressing cultural and social structure.



The islands of Samoa are located in the South Pacific Ocean, on the west boundary of the so-called ‘Polynesian Triangle’, as shown below in Figure 2. Samoa, and many other Polynesian islands, are peaks of volcanoes rising from the sea floor.

Figure 2 - The Polynesian Triangle, with Hawaii (1), New Zealand (2), and Easter Island (3) at its corners. Samoa (4) is shown to the west. Source: “Architecture of Samoa.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.. 16 May 2012. Web. 20 July 2012 (edited). 

Stretching nearly 300km along latitude 14°S, Samoa consists of two main islands, Savai’i and Upolu, which make up 99% of the country’s 2,934 sqkm total land area, and eight smaller islets. The majority of Samoans live in coastal villages, and the lush rain forests which cover the islands provide all the necessary material for traditional construction.



Samoan life is mostly spent in the outdoors, in the relatively benign climate. Temperatures range between 23-30°C year-round, and trade winds blow steadily from the east. Samoan weather is always rainy - in January it will rain 24 days a month, in July 10 days. Annual rainfall is between 2500mm in the low-lying coastal areas (where the majority of the population live) and 7500mm in the inland, elevated areas. Traditional buildings therefore recognize and incorporate protection from rain, while permitting access to breezes and light.



Pre-contact Samoan culture was governed by matai (chiefs or titled persons); the high chiefs (ali’i), and the talking chiefs/orators (tulafale), and this system is collectively known as fa’amatai (the prefix fa’a means ‘being’). The ali’i are known and chosen for their decision- making prowess, the tulafale for their presentation skills. Hierarchically, a matai with an ali’i title is more powerful than a tulafale of equivalent rank, but in a social meeting (fono) where decisions concerning village and aiga (family) matters are made, only the orator (tulafale) is permitted to speak (Higginson 5).

Fono are the most important meetings held in Samoan culture, and they take place in the fale tele. The form of these buildings, and their impact on Samoan life, is basis of this essay.


The va

In Samoan culture, va is the name given to the openness so important to Samoan life (Refiti 10). People present at a meeting will always sit in a circle - the va is the clear space between them, and is the space of the divine - the openness allows ancestors, who are believed to inhabit everything, always, to watch over the living, and is therefore always well presented for their sake (Refiti 9). It is the “space-event enacted by the fa’amatai... in the circle of the fono” (Refiti 10). The va is what structures Samoan life, and, as will be discussed, what influences the shape of the fale tele, the meeting house of the fa’amatai, and also the malae, the centre of a Samoan village. For a matai to be on the path to becoming an ancestor, he must always be facing the va (Refiti 9).


Malae & Town Layout


The traditional Samoan village is centered around the malae, the open, common space at the centre of every village, and malae are often given identifying names relating to important events or figures in their community (Allen 36). Malae are the “sociopolitical nucleus for the community” (Austin 1221), and are the location for community ceremonies. They are “physically marked in two ways; by the openness of the space and by the prestige architecture enclosing its perimeter” (Austin 1221). In 1787, French explorer La Pérouse recorded the basic layout of the Samoan village Tutuila - a “beautiful green”, approximately 300 yards across, circled by grand guest houses (Allen 35). The missionary John Williams noted similar arrangements in Upolo in 1832, suggesting a measure of consistency across all of Samoa. The va influences the shape of the malae - its central openness allows ancestors to visit and communicate with the living, and is therefore always kept in pristine condition. The malae is also used as the burial ground, again linking back to the concept of the connection between the openness and the ancestors (Austin 1211).

Private residences are located around the malae, and consist of many separate fale, each with its own function and social importance, where size, importance, and prestige wane as one moves away from the malae towards more private buildings. Closest to the malae are the fale tele and/or fale afolau, collectively known as guest fale, the open-sided buildings where the extended family host important meetings (fono) and socialize. The guest fale are the largest buildings in the village, and the most complicated to build, with large, curved roofs. Behind the guest fale, (relative to the malae), are the fale o’o, fale umu, and falevao (all discussed later). The village is ideally a series of concentric circles around the central malae, however due to constant expansion and geographic limitations, a guest fale can often be found further from the malae than a neighbour’s toilet - in truth, all properties are built on a hierarchical axis from the malae radiating outwards, as shown in Figure 3 below. Concepts of hierarchy reinforce positions of authority; they also permit consistency of planning, and extension of buildings and new villages.

Figure 3 - ideal malae layout showing the axes of hierarchy radiating outwards from the centre. Source: Allen, Anne. “Samoan: fale.” Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. Ed. Paul Oliver. Cambridge University Press, 1997:1222. Print. (edited). 


Individual Buildings


The fale is seen as the perfect response to Samoa’s climatic and cultural demands. In ‘The Samoan Fale’, F. L. Higginson describes the many virtues of the fale, such as its pleasing aesthetics, its openness to the cooling sea breeze, its resilience to cyclones, and its ability to accommodate large numbers of people for formal meetings. As he states “Nowhere in the Pacific is a more felicitous traditional dwelling to be found” (Higginson 1).


Guest fale / Fale tele

Figure 4 - the two types of guest fale; fale tele (round house) left, and fale afolau (long house) right. Source: Higginson, F. L., ed. The Samoan Fale. Apia: UNESCO Office for the Pacific States, 1992: 77. Print. (edited) 

 Guest fale are the main buildings on a property, and are the pride of the extended family who live together. There are two types of guest fale, the fale tele (round house) and the fale afolau (long house), and both require specialist builders. Fale tele host chief meetings, family gatherings, and funerals. Fale afolau are where the matai and his immediate family live, but are also used for fono meetings.

The shape of the fale tele is driven by the va, for it is the location for all meetings between matai, and it is during these meetings that the matai consider themselves to be sitting before their ancestors, who help and oversee their decisions. Having this central openness means that matai are sitting in a circular pattern, and the fale tele is therefore circular around them. The ancestors are represented by the perimeter pou lalo posts, and a matai will sit with their back to a post. By sitting in this layout, with one’s back to a post, you are therefore hiding your back and facing all other matai and all ancestors (Refiti 16), with the open va between you. “In Samoa, fale tele and fale afolau fix the orientation of the world; they force the body to orientate itself to a central openness”(Refiti 16). “The architecture of the fale therefore plays an important role in demarcating and orderings space for ancestors’ occupations” (Refiti 9), therefore the architecture has been driven by these requirements. Appendix 1 shows the typical construction of a fale tele.

Figure 5 - seating layout during fono ceremonies. Note that the ‘front’ of the fale tele, which faces the malae, is in the ‘up’ direction. Source: Higginson, F. L., ed. The Samoan Fale. Apia: UNESCO Office for the Pacific States, 1992: 12-13. Print. (edited) 

During a fono, seating is arranged by the matai’s rank and whether they are a ali’i or tulafale. Figure 5 shows typical seating layouts for two different fono. The ‘front’ of the fale is that which faces the malae. The fale is quartered - the front is the tala luma, the back is the tala tau, and the two sides are the tala. The high chiefs (ali’i) always sit on the sides of the fale tele, with the tulafale seated next to each other near the front, and the kava preparers sit at the back. Allen describes how the layout of the sittings “is essential to complete the ceremony” (41).

According to the Samoan creation story Solo o le Va, the shape of the fale’s curved roof is said to be as instructed from the god Tagaloa-a-lagi, who held a fono in the ninth heaven with a thousand of his descendent tufuga fau fale (master house builders), where it was decided a fale’s roofs should curve downwards like the heavens extending down to the horizon, with the central, open area (va) being the space where ancestors would interact with the living (Refiti 12).

The size and construction of the fale is also significant in the owner’s social standing. Its size, floor height, and number of so’a (beams) and decorations are all relative to the owner’s position within the village. (Higginson 14) describes how the village chief must always have the most grand fale, and within matai an ali’i would always have at least one more set of beams (so’a) than an equally-ranked tulafale.

In 1797, La Pérouse wrote the following in his journal: “I went into the best hut which presumably belonged to the chief and I was extremely surprised to find a cast latticed room as well and better made than any in the environs of Paris.” (Mallon 50).

Fale afolau are the other grand buildings known as a guest fale, and are where the matai and his immediate family live, but are also used for lesser fono. Fale afolau are similar to fale tele, in that they have large, curved ends, however they also have straight sections between them. Rather than the central supporting posts of the fale tele, fale afolau have two rows of posts, as shown in the Appendix 2. Being very grand buildings, both fale tele and fale afolau require specialist tufuga fau fale to construct them.


Other buildings

Fale o’o, traditionally long in shape, are the multiple buildings behind the main guest fale, and serve as houses for lesser/un-titled members of the extended family. Fale o’o are made in a similar style to guest fale, but usually with a simple gabled roof, and are built by the extended family (agai potopoto).

Fale umu, cook houses, are further back, and are simple in design and construction, their sole role being to shield cooking from the weather. Cooking is done in an earth oven (umu), or over a fire. Falevao are the basic toilet buildings.




Constructing a fale, especially a grand fale tele or fale afolau, is a considerable commitment for an extended family, or aiga potopoto, and therefore all are consulted before a decision is made. The aiga potopoto will be expected to share costs, feed the visiting builders, collect all required material and produce such requirements as ‘afa (sennit rope) lau leaves (thatching), and all other materials. (Higginson 15)

Construction is agreed between a matai, now known as the taufale, and the master builder, tufuga fau fale, in a ceremony where a sua (gift) is presented, consisting of food and crafts, and if the matai or tufuga fau fale are both renowned, an ietoga, a prized ceremonial fine mat. In this situation the sua is known as the tauga, and is called the tauga ceremony - the start of formal discussions. Once the contract has been agreed, the agreement reached is called the feagaiga.

The fale will be planned for the family’s requirements, so the size (and therefore number of posts) will be determined by the fale’s future use (Higginson 43). An important matai will deserve a large fale, due to his social standing, and will need a large fale, as fono he hosts will be large.



Fale are designed and constructed by a dedicated guild of men known as fau fale, or house builders, and their leader is known as a tufuga fau fale, where tufuga is the title of a master craftsman in a particular traditional art form.

Fau fale travel throughout Samoa, building fale as required, in return for food and lodge. As previously mentioned, the god Tagaloa-a-lagi held a meeting with many tufuga fau fale, where the shape of all fale was decided. During this fono the tufuga were given the status of agai o tupu (companion of gods and kings) and lived in heaven, but were frequently granted permission to descend to the main islands of Samoa to construct houses and boats. Some, however, descended without permission, and built a house for the king of the island of Manu’a (now part of American Samoa), which angered the god Tagaloa-a-lagi, who then banished them. Exiled and homeless, they started roaming the islands, offering their services in return for board and food. Refiti describes how “being descendants of a god and companions of kings and princes, these men were afforded respect but were also always seen in a special category of the fallen” (Refiti 13).

During construction, the host taufale’s family (aiga) will house and feed the master carpenter, his wife, and all other builders for the duration of the construction (Higginson 14). Only simple tools are used - mostly cutting blades lashed to handles. Sennit rope (‘afa) serves as a straight-edge, and the master-builder’s eyesight and experience serve as the most important factors to ensure a quality build. (Higginson 18).



Timber is cut down from the forest by the host community, and the builders only take responsibility when the timber is delivered to site. The central poutu posts are from the strong breadfruit tree (ulu), and the curved members are from coconut palms (niu’afa). All timber is notched and prepared by the builders before assembly. Once assembled, the joints are lashed together.

All wood is striped of bark and ‘smoothed’, relating to the Samoan notion of teu, which means to adorn or embellish, and is associated with the finest craft available. The motto ‘ia teu le va means to “adorn and embellish the va and the networks of coexistence that are housed by architecture” (Refiti 14). The circle of fa’amatai must always be well presented, reinforcing rank and status as well as pride of ownership.



All elements of a fale are lashed together with ‘afa, a sennit rope made from dried and plaited coconut fibres. ‘Afa is resistant to being eaten by cockroaches and white ants, and its ability to grip smooth surfaces makes it ideal for fale construction (Higginson 15). The raw coconut fibres are soaked, sometimes for weeks, then beaten with a mallet to separate the fibres, which are then washed and left to dry in the sun. Elders of the village roll bunches of the fibres against their thighs until they form into larger, heavier strands, which are then plaited together to form long, strong ropes which are coiled.

Figure 6 - ‘afa rope around a wooden beam in a fale tele. Source: Higginson, F. L., ed. The Samoan Fale. Apia: UNESCO Office for the Pacific States, 1992: 26. Print. 

A fale can use 10,000-20,000m of ‘afa, and it can take months to make enough ‘afa for one fale. If the fale being constructed belongs to a very-highly ranked matai, then the whole village will help make ‘afa, and present it to the matai, along with food donations to help feed the builders, at a ceremony called a umufono. This ceremony will be ‘returned’ at the completion of the fale, where the taufale will host a ceremony where items like mats will be gifted to those who have donated (Higginson 17).

Lashings which are to be highly visible will be done by a fau fale who is proficient at making fine patterns, as shown in Figure 6 above. Hidden lashings will be done by younger, apprentice builders. Coal is used to colour alternating strands to achieve the desired pattern (Higginson 20). Again, this is done to please the ancestors who will be manifested in the va within the fale tele.



The thatching (lau) covering the fale’s structure is important given the rainy environment of Samoa, and dried sugarcane leaf is used where possible for the best results, otherwise coconut palm leaves are used. The thatching is done in overlapping layers, and are tied to the aso (thatching listel) at each end by ‘afa.

Figure 7 - prepared thatching, lau, made from sugarcane leaves. Source: Higginson, F. L., ed. The Samoan Fale. Apia: UNESCO Office for the Pacific States, 1992: 19. Print. (edited) 

Traditionally, women weave the thatching which covers the completed structure, and it will take about 3000 sections to complete a fale. A high quality thatching should last about 7 years.



The height of the stone platform base, paepae, is determined by the status of the owner, and is made up of stones, sand, coral, lava, with the top layers (ili ili) made up of smooth pebbles and stones. The base is actually built near the end of the project (Higginson 44), while the thatching is being completed, and the final height will be accounted for by the builders when setting the height of the poutu posts.



Pola are screens which are hung around the perimeter of the fale between pou lalo. Pola are lowered on the windward side during bad weather, and are raised or stowed away when not required. Pola are never used for privacy. Though flimsy and easily damaged, they can be easily made when required.




The form of the malae and fale are influenced by the va, the requirement for a central openness before the ancestors, and lesser buildings are simple variations. Structures are open and airy to cope with the warm climate, but can be easily sheltered with blinds when required, given the frequent rains.                        

All materials are from the forest, and the whole community is involved in the construction, from master builders making the complex frame to women and children making the simple pola screens.

F. L. Higginson was correct in his assessment: “Nowhere in the Pacific is a more felicitous traditional dwelling to be found” (Higginson 1).




“Architecture of Samoa.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.. 16 May 2012. Web. 20 July 2012. < Architecture_of_Samoa>. Note: all information found on Wikipedia’s page was checked against other texts. 

Allen, Anne. “Architecture as Social Expression in Western Samoa: Axioms and Models." Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Volume 5 No.1. Berkeley, California: The Association, 1993. Print.

Allen, Anne. “Samoan: fale.” Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. Ed. Paul Oliver. Cambridge University Press, 1997. 1221-1222. Print.

Austin, M. R. “Samoan.” Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. Ed. Paul Oliver. Cambridge University Press, 1997. 1220-1221. Print.

Higginson, F. L., ed. The Samoan Fale. Apia: UNESCO Office for the Pacific States, 1992. Print.

Mallon, Sean. Samoan Art and Artists. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2002. Print.

Refiti, Albert L. “Whiteness, Smoothing and the Origin of Samoan Architecture.” Interstices 10. Adam’s House in the Pacific. Auckland: Enigma Publishing, AUT University, 2010. Print.



Essay 2 - Identify and discuss an example of hybrid architecture of the Pacific.


Fale Pasifika

Figure 1 - Fale Pasifika at Auckland University’s Pacific Studies Complex. Author's Photograph.

Fale Pasifika, The University of Auckland’s dominant building in its Pacific Studies complex, is an example of hybrid architecture that combines traditional Samoan fale construction with New Zealand’s building techniques and regulations. This essay will discuss the relative successes and failures of merging these two cultures within one building.


Samoan Culture and the Fale

In Samoan culture, va is the name given to the openness so important to Samoan life (Refiti 10). People present in a meeting will always sit in a circle - the va is the clear space between them, and is the space of the divine - the openness allows ancestors, who are believed to inhabit everything, always, to watch over the living (Refiti 9). This spacial relationship drives the form of the fale, the circular buildings, and the malae, the large open, common space at the centre of every village, the “socio-political nucleus for the community” (Austin 1221) and the location for community ceremonies.

Figure 2 - A Samoan Village in a 1905 Photograph by Thomas Andrew. Austin and Milbank, page 757. 

Private residences form the perimeter of the malae, and are comprised of many fale, each with its own function and social importance. Closest to the malae are the fale tele and/or fale afolau, collectively known as guest fale, the grand open-sided buildings where the extended family host important meetings (fono) and socialise. The guest fale are the largest buildings in the village, and the most complicated to build, with large, curved roofs. In his UNESCO Book on the subject, F. L. Higginson describes the fale as the perfect response to Samoa’s climate, with its large open sides able to cool the interior with the steady trade-winds from the east.

Figure 3 (Left) - A photograph of a traditional fale tele. Figure 4 (Right) - A modern Samoan fale, with a corrugated iron roof. Higginson, page 32. 

Construction material was, pre-contact, sourced from the surrounding vegetation. The strong, straight, central poutu posts were from the breadfruit (ulu) tree, and the curved members were from flexible coconut palms (niu'afa). The whole structure was held together with ‘afa lashings (a sennit rope made from plaited coconut fibres), then covered with thatching, lau, made from sugarcane leaves. Master carpenters known as tufuga fau fale design and assemble the structure, and the whole community was involved with making the ‘afa and lau. The most vulnerable permanent aspect of the fale is the lau, and requires replacement every 7-10 years (or earlier if damaged in a cyclone), and would again bring the community together to replace.

Post-contact, many traditional elements have been replaced with alternatives, such as corrugated iron instead of thatching for the roofs (Figure 5). In a 1985 survey of Samoan villages, only 22 of 887 fale were fully framed, lashed, and thatched in the traditional way (Treadwell 111).


Fale Pasifika

Figure 5 - External view of Fale Pasifika. 

Auckland is acknowledged as the largest Polynesian city in the world, and with so many Samoan and Polynesian people living and studying in Auckland, the need for a dedicated area at the University was required, as the existing facility was inadequate. Constructed 2003-2004, the Pacific Studies complex was initiated by its director Dr Melani Anae, in partnership with prominent Samoan writer and academic, Albert Wendt. Anae explains in her entry to Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand; “By 2001, over 2,000 New Zealand Samoans held university degrees, and at both Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland there were flourishing programs in Samoan language and culture”. The complex teaches Pacific Studies, Samoan, Cook Islands, Maori and Tongan, and is located in the university’s ‘Pacific Edge’ (McKay 32), adjacent to the Waipapa Marae Maori Studies complex.

Figure 6 - Fale Pasifika Complex Site Plan. 

Central to the complex is the grand Fale Pasifika building, its scale ensuring it dominates its surrounding area. A paved entrance connects the road to the fale, and there is a small grassed malae to its side. The sculptures are of flying birds, and with the malae signify “the vast dimensions of the Pacific sea and sky, and an ocean that nurtures and connects islands rather than separating them” (McKay 32).

The complex is mainly for Polynesians living in New Zealand, but also for extending New Zealand’s relationship with other Pacific nations. Designing a building for these relationships, within New Zealand, had its challenges, as Treadwell explains: “Displaced from traditional context, the design of a fale becomes, in part, the design of representations. A chain of negotiations arises between elements signifying tradition and requirements arising from the new context” (111).


Cultural Design Influences

Fale Pasifika was designed by Jasmax’s Ivan Mercep, who “has always believed architecture should convey an awareness of place - and Auckland’s place is in the Pacific” (Walsh 104). When designing the complex, Jasmax worked closely with Senior Lecturer and Architect Albert Refiti, who acted as a cultural advisor and coordinated the artistic representations of the other Pacific nations represented.

Figure 7 (Left) - Mercep’s Waipapa Marae at Auckland University. Figure 8 (Right) - Mercep’s Samoa House on Beresford Street in Auckland. 

The choice of Jasmax, and Mercep in particular, to design the Fale Pasifika complex was based on their history of cross-cultural design. Mercep co-founded JASMaD in the 1960s (which later became Jasmax), and has a long history of involvement in Maori and Pacific projects, such as Auckland’s Hone Waititi Marae, The Rarotongan Hotel in the Cook Islands, Auckland University’s Waipapa Marae (Figure 8), and Samoa House on Beresford Street in Auckland (Figure 9). In a book chronicling Jasmax’s design history, Deirdre Brown notes “Jasmax’s urban yet customary Maori and Pacific projects have set the aesthetic and functional benchmark for secular Polynesian architecture in New Zealand, and through their visibility they have made an important contribution to the country’s awareness of its South Pacific Identity” (172).

Samoa House in central Auckland offers an interesting comparison to Fale Pasifika, as an example of the difficulties of a hybrid building incorporating a traditional fale outside of its cultural context. Designed by Mercep and built it 1979 to house the Samoan Consulate, Schnoor describes the building as “at best, displaced” (9). There are many criticisms: the usual connection between the inside of the fale and the surrounding landscape is lost as the building sits above a carpark, suggesting the need to house cars was more important than the fale’s openness and usual spatial relationship with the public; the location of the building - down a service route and tightly adjacent to an apartment building - removes the usual relationship between the fale and the openness of the malae; and most importantly, the interior is completely enclosed (except for a few small, tinted windows), turning what should be a very open, public space into a very closed, private area which has lost all of its connection with the va. It seems that in trying to create a hybrid building which is as Samoan as it is New Zealand, the result is an inelegant construct which fails both parent cultures.

Rather than repeating the apparent failures of Samoa House, it seems the Mercep’s aim of Fale Pasifika was to be Samoan first and foremost, and incorporate local building techniques only as required to meet legislation. During my visit to the fale, Dr Anae explained that the choice of a fale over another Pacific nation’s traditional building style was simply due to Samoans making up almost half of New Zealand’s ethnic Pacific-Island population, while the artwork surrounding the complex represents the other Polynesian nations.

While the building is obviously a reproduction of the Samoan fale afolau, many of the standard details, such as the lashed joints, have been replaced or modified to meet New Zealand’s Building Code; “The challenge was to construct a building that represented the shape and function of a traditional Fale while also meeting the structural criteria of the NZ building code and providing protection form the Auckland climate.” (“Jasmax Limited, Fale Pasifika”).


Physical Attributes


To those unfamiliar with a traditional Samoan fale, the form of the building is what one would expect of a Samoan fale built in New Zealand. Upon closer inspection however, there are numerous examples of western design ideas and features which, while subtle, have influenced the overall form and its meanings.



Fale Pasifika is surrounded by the supporting buildings of the complex, in a similar way that in a traditional Samoan property, the fale afolau will have lesser buildings surrounding it. The curved roofs of these surrounding buildings reference their connection with the grand Fale Pasifika.

A traditional fale is always situated next to a malae, which plays host to important large, community gatherings, while the fale afolau is the location for smaller meetings, such as the fono meeting held between village leaders. In the case of Fale Pasifika, many articles or promotional material describes the building as being next to a malae, “a traditional public space ... an informal gathering space for educational and cultural events for the Auckland Pacific community (“Jasmax Limited, Fale Pasifika”). However, I see this gesture as superficial, and Schnoor describes how the usually public, free access which defines a fale and malae is lost due to access being from a private road, complete with security barrier (10).

The loss of a traditional malae is a result of the complex being established in a predefined location. A traditional Samoan village can be thought of as defined by one ring - the perimeter of the malae - and all buildings in the surrounding properties radiate outwards, always aware of the va and the importance of keeping the malae clear and open. The outer buildings form the village perimeter which is uneven and constantly evolving. In the case of the Fale Pasifika, the outer perimeter was pre-defined, and to fit a traditionally circular malae in the middle of the rectangular property, with the fale on its edge, would have been unpractical. Therefore, while some may criticise this ‘creative freedom’, I believe it was simply the best way, albeit at a compromise, to provide a fale, a malae, and the adjoining buildings.

Another consideration is that in Samoa, most fale are less than 10m in length. Fale Pasifika, at 26x15m and able to accommodate 300 people, is considerably larger than this (reportedly the second largest in the world), and therefore, while not evident in any of my readings, I believe the size of the fale replaces the need for a full-size malae. This hybrid approach of merging Samoan spatial relationships and incorporating them into a typically western rectangular section is successful: Hybridity “is a space where cultural elements are continually rearticulated and reconstituted.” (Hernandez 58).



Figure 9 (Left) - Traditional Samoan timber structure with lashed joints, and Figure 10 (Right) - Fale Pasifika under construction, showing the gusset frames joining timber members before being covered in ‘afa lashing. 

The design element that has drawn the most discussion is the structure. Traditional Samoan fale are constructed from timber posts, notched and completely lashed together with ‘afa. Mercep explains “This system of construction would not meet New Zealand structural standards ... so the timber poles are connected with unobtrusive bolted steel gussets that are set into the framework. These will be covered with traditional lashings” (Treadwell 112). It seems this method of hiding the joints with lashings can be interpreted two ways; McKay explains that the connections help “retain a traditional appearance while complying with modern design requirements, allowing the construction of a simple, clean and authentic timber structure, which clearly reflects its heritage” (31), which plays to the fale’s pacific influences, however he laments the missed opportunities; “What is disappointing is that the structure at the heart of this fale is almost pure New Zealand Building Code: tanalised poles and steel bolts with some bindings serving a purely decorative function. It could have been an opportunity to develop a new system of visible steel connections, perhaps inspired by binding” (34). Beyond this simple description however, he offers no further ideas or practical solutions.

Figures 11 & 12 - Construction images of the metal gussets joining laminated timber members. 

Incorporating the idea that Fale Pasifika serves all Polynesian cultures, the lashings were done by Tongan artist Filipe Tohi, using ‘afa made in Fiji from local coconuts. The lashings highlight the lower level of the horizontal members, but this also draws attention to their absence on most of the higher members. This is one criticism I have of the building, and one that can’t be explained as adherence to a Building Code. Given the community’s involvement in producing ‘afa in Samoa, the lack of ‘afa lashings on all visible joints, as would occur in a Samoan fale, suggests a lack of community involvement in the project. Dr Anae explained that all decisions regarding the lashing were left purely to Tohi, and that it was a massive effort to source the lashings that was used.

Another criticism is that in a traditional fale, the number of horizontal members is linked to the status of the owner, and not all are necessarily structural (Figure 14). In Fale Pasifika, the poles and ties seem to be driven by structural requirements, with no ‘extra’ members added as a symbol of authority or status. As a building for all Pacific Islanders in New Zealand, and one with such a responsibility within the Auckland community, I believe many additional members should have been added.

Figure 13 (Left) - Traditional structural members, with their number linked to their owner’s social standing, and Figure 14 (Right) Fale Pasifika structural members. 

An interesting comparison to Fale Pasifika is the fale constructed at Unitec (Figure 15), which was built in 2004, and skirted New Zealand Building Code requirements by being classified as a 1:1 scale experimental research building. Frustration at the Building Code is evident in McKay’s article on the fale, as it does not provide or permit the recognition and incorporation of other, notably Pacific, influences and styles “The [New Zealand] Building Code could be seen as a political document that marginalises other cultures by discouraging the pursuit of indigenous architectural authenticity” (McKay 36)         

Figure 15 - Fale at Unitec, Auckland.



The roof of Fale Pasifika comprises asphalt shingles over plywood, supported by purlins (laau matua), which themselves are supported by the curved rafters (fatuga). The use of shingles on plywood is obviously more durable than traditional lau thatching, which requires replacement every 7-10 years. In an effort to mimic the traditional thatching, which is usually laid perpendicular to the purlins, the plywood ceiling panels are grooved, which also helps achieve acoustic performance. This hybrid detailing is successful for the central panels, however in the curved end-sections of the ceiling, these panels are laid parallel to the rafters, not perpendicular (Figure 17), “denying all sense of their constructional role” (Treadwell 113). Again, following my own visit to the fale, this is a design decision that can’t be explained without first-hand knowledge of the design process.

Figure 16 - The transition from the straight central section (left) of the roof, where the grooved panelling representing the thatching runs perpendicular to the purlins, to the curved end section (right) of the roof, where the individual wooden pieces run parallel to the purlins. 

In traditional Samoan fale, the roofs are made of thatching which needs to be continuously replaced. This is a community effort, and by having a solid roof, this social interaction is lost. Rather than a living, dynamic structure, the Building Code has dictated this building be frozen in time, “eroding social bonds and the opportunity to pass on traditional skills” (McKay 36).



The Samoan climate, with its year-round temperatures between 25 and 30°C, means that Samoan fale are alway open on their sides to aid cooling, but Auckland’s common cold south- westerly winds dictated that Fale Pasifika was to be enclosed. Jasmax’s response was perimeter glazing, approximately 2.2m tall, which is mostly bi-fold aluminium doors and louvres, which meet at columns similar to the perimeter posts of a traditional fale. This represents the transparency and openness of traditional fale. This also gives, as McKay describes, “a sense of contemplative repose suitable to the fale’s use, rather than the total enclosure we are used to in halls and seminar spaces" (34).

While the glazing is an obvious response to New Zealand’s Building Code and climate, there are still complaints that it interrupts the free movement between inside and outside, and the openness of this threshold in a traditional fale. Treadwell sees this as a scenario driven by the strict Building Code, and a lost opportunity to generate a new, more culturally interesting response: “Taken seriously, the radical openness of the fale tradition offers Western architecture a chance to rethink its strategies of achieving openness in buildings, beyond the ubiquities of aluminium joinery” (13). However, like McKay’s discussion on the structure, he offers no realistic alternative.


Interior Space

The interior space created by the domed roof is truly and deliberately impressive, and McKay talks of “constellations of structural frames and tie beams” - referencing (intentionally or not) the samoan myth of Solo o el Va, which talks about how the roof of a fale was to reflect the heavens - a fale’s roof should curve downwards like the heavens extending down to the horizon. “When entering [Fale Pasifika], the sensation of moving from the vast exterior to being under the dense space created by the roof structure is the same as that experience in a traditional fale tele.” (Schnoor 10).

Figure 17 - Interior of Fale Pasifika. Reinforcing the concept of the va, during my visit the seats were arranged in a circle. 

Lighting of the fale is achieved by natural light through the facade, complimented by electric lights as required. The lights are also batten lights, not spotlights, which link visually with the structural members of the building. “Mercep would have preferred that the artificial lighting in the interior was more discrete, but the use of the fale as a lecture room meant that lighting was necessarily more obvious” (McKay 35). The result, upon visiting the fale, is an unobtrusive solution, elegantly executed.


As the designers have acknowledged, the intention was to design a contemporary fale, and hide all non-traditional detailing. Fale Pasifika is a hybrid out of necessity rather than desire.

The design and construction of a fale in New Zealand, representing not just Samoan but all Pacific people, has shown the dilemmas architects face when designing a traditional building for a modern, foreign country. As Treadwell describes, “over-generalisation had to be avoided and materials and elements employed that could take the fale towards a new, hybrid complexity” (114). It seems however that the complexity is what draws the criticism - both Treadwell and McKay criticise the demotion of lashing from integrally structural to merely decoration, yet in truth the building could not have been built (in New Zealand) in any other way. While I agree with McKay that it would have been interesting to see what sort of connection could have been devised that met the Building Code, he offers no realistic alternative and engineering a custom connection (different from the gussets used) would have been expensive and might have detracted from the design intent.

I believe that not having decorative lashings on all upper connections is mistake for its cultural implications, as they would also have added a depth to the interior and additional focus points for the vast interior space, linking to the roof’s inspiration as the heavens.

Some may bemoan the different construction techniques, or the Building Code’s forced requirements, but the truth is that Fale Pasifika is a great response to New Zealand’s Pacific importance and our own building styles and codes. I believe there exists a somewhat romanticised view of the Pacific Islands amongst the articles I’ve read, where the re-thatching of a rotted or damaged roof is done by a picturesque group of elders, happily working together, rather than the reality - a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming exercise. The replacement of traditional building materials and techniques is simply an example of the technological progress that happens worldwide, and as Dr Anae explained, had traditional fale builders had access to modern resources, they would have used them.

I personally believe the building to be a successful hybrid structure, and leading on from this building, Jasmax will continue to steer hybrid Pacific design in New Zealand. The success of this building in its role of incorporating Pacific construction into New Zealand may be a catalyst for more buildings of its type, cementing our place in the Pacific. This will hopefully help drive the changing, or at least relaxing, of the Building Code, to allow a progression of a more interesting, culturally relevant architecture, taking Auckland, and New Zealand, away from a generically European to a more Pacific style, based on contributing culture’s strengths rather than legislation founded on foreign requirements and understandings.

Given a traditional fale’s social importance, any attempt to hybridise it with another culture would always be met with some disdain. Hernandez writes that hybridity can have adverse implications, in that the hybrid could be considered impure, and lacking the same status as the original (59). And as we’ve seen, it’s the ‘impurities’ that have had so much written about them; by being 95% Samoan, the 5% is what stands out and has so much written about, when little has been written about the centre’s role of unifying Polynesian students, of which Dr Anae described as an absolute success. The University is justifiably proud of the building, having displayed it on the cover of their 2004 Annual Report. As Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon explained; “The Fale, which is architecturally one of the most striking buildings constructed in Auckland for some time, is also a landmark in the development of the University's relationships with the communities of the Pacific. It will strengthen the University's relationships with Pacific peoples, provide a platform for engagement of Pacific people with each other and the University, and act as a catalyst for enhanced teaching and research in the field of Pacific Studies" (6). Fale Pasifika has therefore achieved its hybrid design intention.



Dr Melani Anae, University of Auckland Centre for Pacific Studies, for her explanations provided to me during my visit to Fale Pasifika on Wednesday 10 October 2012.

Mr Ivan Mercep, Jasmax, for providing access to construction drawings and images.


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