Linda Clapham has been the driving force behind the Maori cultural centre Te Hana Te Ao Marama over the last 20 years. She was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for community development at Te Hana and for work involved with setting up the Guardians of the Kaipara in the early 2000’s, along with receiving the Auckland University United Nations Award for sustainable communities.
I remember when my mother was the first woman to be voted on to the Auckland Regional Authority and she was given a tie and a pair of cufflinks. When she asked what she was supposed to do with them, it was suggested she give them to her husband. That’s always stuck with me. A lot of women take things for granted where we are now. We’ve come a long way but we’ve still got a way to go.
My mother didn’t need to be loved and that made her strong. She wasn’t afraid to speak up or speak out when she needed to, when she felt strongly about an issue. Dad had been a prisoner of war for four years during World War II and his health had suffered because of it. When he and my mother came over from England, they lived in Hamilton. They had no money. Dad got a book on how to build a house out of the library. He worked a night shift so he could build our house during the day. By the time I was five or six, while the other kids were drawing horses, I was house mad and always drawing houses. When I was seven I’d drawn up a little subdivision and every visitor had to buy a section, so I could draw a house for them.
I hated school because I was bullied. I wasn’t like the other kids – I was an only child, came from a slightly alternative family and was perhaps too sensitive. I was almost physically sick every day at the thought of going to school. It was a lonely time for me and I used to retreat into imagination, almost a spirit world. When it came time to consider careers, I was told there was no way I was going to be an architect and I needed to focus on something more realistic. I was told occupational therapy was a good option because I was creative and practical. I didn’t listen and enrolled at Auckland University’s School of Architecture where maths or science subjects were compulsory, but I failed my maths. I tried again the next year and while my maths was better, it still wasn’t good enough.
I decided I would design and build a house anyway, which I did. Later I heard the enrolment criteria had changed and you could show a folder of work. Well, I had hundreds of house designs to show them. I got in. But now I had a house and a mortgage to pay, no bursary and no money. I rented out the house and lived in the garage. I commandeered an unused kitchen in the basement of the School of Architecture and set up a lunch takeaway for the students. That got me through the first year in which I got an A+ for my design work. I continued the lunch bar as it was quite lucrative. But the most important thing for me was I found a whole lot of other people who thought and were interested in the same kind of things as I was – kindred spirits.
Architecture is very male dominated. All through the degree there was no reference to women in the profession. The architect was referred to in lectures as “he”. When the architect goes onto the site it was “he”. The engineer was “he”. The quantity surveyor was “he”. The structural engineer was “he”. I stood up in lectures and said I’m sick of hearing about “he”, we need to be included. I’m sure they got sick of me in the end, but I wasn’t having it. I was lucky to have the mentorship of well-known architect John Goldwater. During school breaks I also got to work with, Harry Turbott, a well-known architect and landscape architect. He had a design philosophy of integrating building with the landscape.
I graduated with honours after the five-year degree, specialising in tourism and hotels. Women made up half the student numbers at the start, about 50, but there were only five women left at the end.
I accepted to do my masters at the School of Fine Arts and Architecture, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, when I was 30. While waiting to attend I walked into my favourite local architectural practice and asked if they had any work for me. They looked at my folder and offered me a job on the spot. They didn’t do hotels but a hotel design competition turned up in my first week and was given to me to do. We entered and won. Then I had a tough decision to make. Did I go to the US for my masters or should I stay and do the type of work I adored. I stayed and was soon an associate and then a partner. At this time, I don’t even know if there was another woman who was a partner.
It was a big practice with international projects. I was the concept designer and worked on proposals for projects in Sydney and around the South Pacific including Parliament Buildings for the Cook Islands.
There were a lot of hotels. Coming up with those concepts was a gift. I don’t know where it came from. I then went out into my own practice – Linda Clapham and Associates – doing high end residential and landscape work, and tourism lodges that needed landscape context within a landscape. It was unusual for a woman to have her own practice, though the sites I was dealing with were still very male dominated.
It was a very rewarding time professionally in a creative context and in a collaborative way. When my son Cameron arrived I was living in this northern area with my partner Chris, who was connected to the Oruawharo Marae. I continued to commute into the Auckland CBD each day. I became well acquainted with the local whanau and the marae, including Chris’s mother Betty Farr, who was a local legend. She had six children of her own plus another six foster children. She was instrumental in setting up the marae at Rodney College and the te reo language nest there. In her early days she had been like a women’s refuge facilitator before there was the domestic purposes benefit.
Out on the marae a man called Thomas de Thierry would sometimes come and talk about his dream of a pa with bus-loads of children going into it. At the time, Te Hana was in absolute chaos. Socially, and in the aftermath of the dairy factory and railway closing. At the marae, everything worked like clockwork, there was structure, people felt complete with their identity – who they were. I spoke with Thomas one day that the basis of his dream, with more of a cultural centre, would provide culturally responsive employment opportunities and use the skill base that the whanau all naturally had, but didn’t have an outlet for. From then my full-time practice job in the city became less as my volunteer work on the Te Hana project became more.
We set up a charitable trust with local whanau and community members including accountants to find a better way forward for our community. We had no land, no money – just a dream. I approached Rodney Councillor Grahame Powell and he suggested the reserve land currently being grazed might be suitable.
We went through a resource consent process where the whole of north Rodney had to be consulted, putting forward a proposal for what we have here. All of my colleagues from over the years came together, supporting me to get all the documentation together. All that is there now was either donated or given by the community, or philanthropic organisations. The marae and village was finished in 2010. I left in 2014 and spent the next few years farming on the historic farm Minniesdale with my son. After a much-needed hiatus, I returned to Te Hana Te Ao Marama three years ago as chief executive. I’m so proud to be back here.