Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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A River's Call: An Architectural Response

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posted on 2022-07-28, 03:33 authored by Buxton, Bridget

The Whanganui River was the first in the world to be granted the status of a legal person. Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill was passed on 16 March 2017 after a 140-year long campaign by Whanganui Iwi. This groundbreaking piece of legislation was a call for protection of our environment. Since the 1870s, actions such as channelisation, hydropower diversions, port dredging, agricultural development, climate change and densification have fundamentally changed the river and the way she performs her journey from the mountains to the sea.

This thesis imagines a future for sites within the wider Whanganui lower river area, with architectural interventions that recognise different elements of Te Awa Tupua and respond to their specific site conditions, past, present and future. The process and design outcomes recognise Te Awa as an “indivisible and living whole,” with shared influence of, and benefit from the architecture.

The thesis uses traditional research and design-as-research concurrently to gain an understanding of the historical, cultural, political, ecological and social context. Conversations with local people, photography, mapping and drawing analysis of the Awa lead to an understanding that fostered empathetic design responses. At every scale, design decisions scrutinised not only the human perspective, but the River’s too. A shifting legal-social-ecological climate is presented through the body of work as the designs embrace necessary changes in the way we interact with and understand our environment.

The thesis illustrates the potential of Te Awa Tupua to revolutionise future urban and social developments in Whanganui. As well as this, it provides precedent of design outcomes in a shifting New Zealand legal landscape, one that aims to protect the environment and uphold bi-cultural principles. Multiple methods and processes express the multi-dimensionality of Te Awa Tupua.

By learning from past wrongs, and working for ecological integrity, there is potential to improve human and non-human relationships within water edge conditions in Aotearoa and beyond. For designers, this is a responsibility.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Architecture (Professional)

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Architecture


Southcombe, Mark