Iconic Transformation

Words by  Nick Walker
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

One of New Plymouth’s most distinctive central office blocks has seen the modernist monolith undergo a major metamorphosis courtesy of a total transformation at the hands of its iwi owners.

The revamped Ngāmotu House, formerly the Atkinson Building on Devon Street West, was unveiled in February after a two-year redevelopment to turn it into a cultural and commercial hub for Māori and Taranaki businesses.

Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa, the Post-Settlement Government Entity of Te Atiawa iwi, exercised its right under its Treaty Settlement to purchase the building in 2022. The upgrade was completed by its commercial arm Te Atiawa Iwi Holdings.

The two-year upgrade is much more than a beautification of the building. It is a stake in the ground; the creation of a home for a community, and one that boldly represents iwi Māori in a premium city location.


The Atkinson Building was constructed in the 1960s, and was showing signs of wear and tear when it was purchased. 

It required some strengthening, but the refurbishment was focused on how Te Atiawa, in conjunction with Ngāti Te Whiti hapū (sub-tribe), could retrofit its own cultural assertions on the existing structure.

“One of the foundations of the development is we wanted the place to be inspiring,” says Whanake Design Director Hemi Sundgren (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa).

“The idea was for it to humbly portray our iconography and represent the values of who we are. We have permanence here, we’re resilient, and we’re especially committed to providing opportunities for our community.”

The redevelopment was a collaboration between Te Atiawa, including Hemi Sundgren as the lead designer, and artists Barry Te Whatu and Kereama Waru, Clelands Construction and BOON architects, with project management led by Egmont Dixon. 

BOON Design Director Murali Bhaskar says the process was different to many projects, with Sundgren’s artistic and cultural expertise especially informative.

“At the start, there was a lot of listening,” Bhaskar says. “It was about understanding the background and aligning our values to help to come up with a design solution. The focus was on whakawhanaungatanga; building relationships and trust through that process. It is important and it takes time.”

A stunning new facade takes the metaphor of a parawai – a high status cloak made of flax fibre – and is immediately striking for those passing by. The interior fit out is just as spectacular, with stone and timber panels, cultural motifs and colours expressing the identity of Te Atiawa and Ngāti Te Whiti.

“There aren’t a lot of buildings that celebrate Māori design, and provide a sense of pride for tangata whenua of Taranaki, especially in the CBD,” Bhaskar says. “This building is quite special in that way.

“We looked at it almost like a gateway to the CBD from the south – before you hit the clock tower you’re passing this building. It’s quite a significant landmark.”

Then there’s the functional element of the 6-storey building itself. It’s a modern office space with a 5-star efficiency rating, earthquake-strengthened, asbestos-free and with a focus on accessibility for those less mobile. There’s also been real consideration for creating shared community spaces.

“There’s a huge focus on enabling manaakitanga – being able to show respect and generosity for people as they’re welcomed into the space,” says Bhaskar. “It’s designed to be able to receive people and host gatherings, so spaces can be shifted to enable a high level of hospitality for guests.”

It’s envisioned many tenants will be iwi businesses, but it’s not exclusive. There are also central government and private tenants, and there is still space available for more.


The significance of this cultural expression for Taranaki Māori in such a premium location – right across the road from the Len Lye Centre and an extension of the popular West End Precinct – should not be underestimated. Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa also owns the land of the adjacent courthouse and police station, creating a large block of iwi property in the CBD.

For perhaps the first time on this scale in Taranaki, it creates a home for local tangata whenua and affiliated businesses.

“It’s a strong symbol of reclamation of the land and a statement about our active role in building a really strong bicultural community,” Sundgren says.

For Sundgren, reasserting a tangible Māori presence on this particular building has a sense of irony. Sir Harry Atkinson, the former New Zealand Prime Minister who it was originally named after, has been described as a polarising figure. He was a senior officer during the Taranaki Land Wars and an architect and adopter of Māori land alienation schemes.

“Having a place named after him that’s now owned by the very people he sought to displace, adorned with our symbols and imagery and stories that he was keen to remove – it is meaningful,” he says.

“The juxtaposition is that you have this 1960s architectural form that’s now been made so beautiful through a process of being decolonised and reindiginised, it’s a true representation of a bicultural nation.”

This is no revenge project. The process of the name change has been carefully managed at every turn, with consideration given to respecting the dignity of the old name and instilling mana in the new one.

The name Ngāmotu House was decided upon after many discussions with local hapū. Ngāmotu is relatively well known as the Māori name for New Plymouth, but there are additional layers to it.

The Ngā Motu Islands, or Sugar Loaf Islands, are considered very significant to local Māori, while New Plymouth hapū, or sub-tribes, are collectively known as Nga hapū o Ngāmotu. 

“We landed here because we wanted to make sure it fed into local history,” Sundgren says. “It represents the local context and it connects directly to the community.”

The design is packed with local symbols and motifs, which all feed into the aesthetic of the building being distinctly Taranaki. 

The parawai on the façade is one of high status, including many different designs that tell a range of stories. 

“The cloak is a metaphor for us to bring together our collective strengths and shared values for our wider communities that we represent,” Sundgren says. “We all come under his cloak of shared values and integrity and opportunities.”

There are needle and triangle patterns that are inspired by the idea of the niho of Te Atiawa, which represents a tooth. In this context, the niho also represents the body of people that is Te Atiawa, who are the kaitiaki, or guardians, of the land and building.

The colours, both inside and out, include the traditional Te Atiawa blue, and oranges and reds that connect to Taranaki Maunga and also symbolise the vitality of the people of the iwi. The windows on each floor are tinted in different shades to reflect the horizontal layers of the mountain – from the green of the bush on the bottom to the white of the snow and blue of the sky higher up.

The cloak metaphor is also seen from the interior, with translucent patterns added to the windows to remind those inside that the parawai is around you, adds Murali.

“It’s another way of telling stories without having signage boards up,” says Pouwhakarae / Chairperson of Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa, Liana Poutu (Te Atiawa, Taranaki, Maniapoto).

“It’s a way of creating discussion, and people being able to engage in conversation about who we are and why we’re there. That’s really important because who we are is at the essence of what we’re trying to do to support different things in our community.”

“When someone passes by that building, there are all these different things they can feel and connect with,” says Murali Bhaskar. “They can see things they haven’t seen elsewhere, but they know it’s there and what it means. That’s what creates varying emotions.”


With Ngāmotu House completed and open in February, the second part of the Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa mission is now underway. That part is how the iwi engages with its people and uses the building to contribute to the community in a range of ways – commercially, culturally, socially and environmentally. 

“We’ve always envisioned this building as providing a foundation for our community to prosper on,” says Sundgren. “That’s the purpose of the building – to provide opportunities for groups to engage and to build relationships within the rohe (region).” 

The goal is for Ngāmotu House to be a hub for Māori businesses and people, where they can come together to complement each other within a shared space. With a total of around 4,000m2 of office space across the six storeys in total, the building offers space for a large variety of businesses and organisations.

Hemi Sundgren says the engagement piece is even more critical in light of the recent history of local Māori.

“Our Treaty settlement divided us somewhat, rightly or wrongly, because we had to focus on our own things. But we’re at the point of maturity now where we see the benefits of collaborating and can take that next step towards cohabiting, recognising we have our individual things to do, but there are also opportunities to go downstairs, look across the wall that speaks to our shared history and our culture, and talk about what we can do together.”

“It just makes sense,” adds Liana Poutu. “When we have a hub that encourages collaboration between us all, we can achieve so much more.”

Poutu says it’s not just about benefits for iwi either. It’s her vision that the building, and the organisations that are based there, will add to what is already a vibrant end of town.

“There is already so much diversity in that area, with the Len Lye Centre, Govett Brewster Gallery, Puke Ariki nearby and Te Whare Hononga just over by the cathedral. It’s nice that this building brings its own different flavour. 

“We’re really excited about being there, to have a space that our whānau feel really good about being in. It’s something we can share with our community and those other tenants in the building.” 

Like any building, the contribution Ngāmotu House makes to the community is down to people that inhabit it. It’s hoped the building will inspire and empower those people to do exactly that.

“The house is really nothing unless it’s engaged with by our people,” Sundgren says. “The push for us is to build a community, and while it has a higher corporate function, hopefully it provides a place to come and celebrate who we are.” 

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