Wharekai, Unitec Marae


When Auckland’s Unitec opened a marae on its Mt Albert campus more than seven years ago, it was a milestone for the institution.

Te Noho Kotahitanga was officially opened on Friday, March 13, 2009  with the wharenui (meeting house), called Te Ngãkau Mãhaki, at its heart.

But it wasn’t until the Wharekai (dining hall), called Manaaki, was completed that the development was finished and felt whole.

Hospitality towards guests is at the heart of Maori custom so the 200-seat dining room and purpose-designed kitchen allows the marae to host visitors in the appropriate manner. 

Architect Alastair Kay says the Wharekai was designed to reference the buildings either side of it – the Puukenga building (a Maori staff and student centre) and the Wharenui - and to form part of a concept for the marae developed by master carver Lyonel Grant of a bird-headed Manaia reclining on the land. A Manaia is a communicator between the spirit and earthly worlds and is a guardian against evil. 

“The concept of the marae was initially established with the Wharenui forming the head of the Manaia,“ says Alastair, who was with Kay and Keys Architects at the time but is now with Ministry of Architecture + Interiors. “Our design for the Wharekai located and shaped the building to evoke the idea of the creature’s reclining body.”

Alastiar adds, “In our response to the site we were also struck by the idea of the Marae being in openness at the edge of the bush. The concept of the people sitting facing the Marae, sheltering under a cloak became a parallel idea to that of the Manaia.

“The connection to the open space of the Marae was important and so the building was designed to open generously to the Marae and to form an active edge that would be used by the people.”

The diagonal  arrangement of the oiled cedar weatherboard cladding ties it in with the other buildings, as does the COLORSTEEL® Endura roofing in ‘Karaka’.

“We elected that the new building would follow the existing buildings in form and materials and aim to tie the adjoining buildings together into a set,” Alastair says. “We were sensitive to the ethos of Maori and their respect for the land and resources. We designed the building to sit lightly on the land, to be constructed from natural materials, to be naturally ventilated and cooled and to celebrate the evidence of the hands that made it.”

He adds that they approached evoking the Manaia in the building design in the same way that a carver might emphasise different features to bring the creature to life.

“The internal structure can be seen as the spine and skeleton and also the people sheltering,” Alastair says. “The ceiling drapes a skin over the skeleton and is the cloak over the heads of the people. The outside shape is softened to form the body. The curved stone wall forms the shoulders. The sharp shapes of projecting timbers evoke the claw-like hands and feet of the Manaia.”

On a practical level, a servery and gallery separates the dining hall from the kitchen and ablutions areas respectively. A combination of eye-level and high windows flood the dining rooms with light.

A macrocarpa veneer slatted ceiling and high-span engineered timber beams are supported by poles and struts with a carved, organic look.

“With the inside of the building the idea was of being in the bush so the poles and struts have a tree-like structure,” Alastair says. 

The vision for the wharekai and its execution saw the building win awards from the Property Council, the NZIA and in the Master Builders Commercial Projects.

And even better, as Alastair says, “The people of the Marae say that the building has evoked the Wairua, the spirit, of the place.”



Design: Kay and Keys Architects.

Project architect Alastair Kay (now with Ministry of Architecture + Interiors)


Alastair Kay is a registered architect with 40 years of professional experience. His project experience has ranged over a wide variety of project types and scales. While he has held roles at management and director level through his career, Alastair has always maintained a hands-on involvement in projects and in all facets of the design and delivery of projects. His design work has been recognised with a number of awards and by grateful clients.



Alastair Kay

Kay & Keys Architects


Telephone: 09 5299481


Roofing Manufacturer: 

Steel and Tube 

Telephone: 0800 427 663



Colour: Karaka


Roofing installer: 

Kiwi Roofing, Auckland

Telephone: 09 263 9988



Kalmar Construction, Auckland, 

Telephone: 09 489 3470


Photography: Greg Kempthorne