There’s architecture and then there’s social design. It’s that second one – approaching social issues like poverty and inequality with systemic solutions such as improved housing – that drives John Belford-Lelaulu. The New Zealand-born Samoan went through his early architectural studies without finding anything that truly excited him. When he discovered that it was because the country’s typical architecture failed to represent his Samoan and Pasifika roots, he knew what he needed to do.
As a Master’s student, he was a finalist for the Unitec Department of Architecture’s design award for “Le Malofie.” The building proposed for his project focused on incorporating the traditional Samoan tattoo into the architecture of the building itself rather than simply using Pacific arts as a visual design element or building façade.
“My thesis was based around architecturalising the traditional Samoan tattoo,” he explained in Architecture Now. “I was really interested in values such as our responsibility to our family and our community and self-exploration, but mostly, this idea of service. In Samoan it’s tautua, and it is such a fundamental and intrinsic part of what it means to be Samoan.”
After graduating, Belford-Lelaulu went in search of design opportunities with more meaning. First it was New York City. There he joined a non-profit organization to help develop community gardens that would improve the lives of the city’s homeless through training selling their products as a source of income.
Later there was a trip to the Philippines, where he focused on developing cultural centers. He also worked with Habitat for Humanity and Bringing Our Children Home in Chile, where they built houses specially adapted for families with children with special needs. Through all these opportunities, Belford-Lelaulu began to develop a new perspective on architecture and its larger societal impact.
“My ultimate goal is to open more career opportunities for young Pasifika people in humanitarian and social architecture,” Belford-Lelaulu said in another interview. “Creating responses to social inequality, inequity, injustices are inherent within our culture, especially diaspora and migrant Pasifika communities. But to express our culture in the way WE see it, is still young and unexplored territory within spatial industries.”
To help reach that goal, Belford-Lelaulu created MAU Studio. Educational opportunities and experiences allow New Zealand’s youth to connect with their culture and engage with their community through meaningful architecture and institutions.
Much of Belford-Lelaulu’s motivation comes from his own upbringing – he is one of 12 kids in a family that struggled with poverty – and culture. “There’s a (Samoan) proverb which is ‘O le ala i le pule o le tautua’, meaning, ‘The path to authority is through service,’” he told Architecture Now. “In order to do anything in Samoa, you need to be serving. You can’t just become an architect or a chief. You have to be helping different members of the community. For me, I ask myself how I can serve the most vulnerable people in our communities.”