A courageous conversation with TOA’s Nick Dalton - People NZ
A courageous conversation with TOA’s Nick Dalton

A courageous conversation with TOA’s Nick Dalton

Nick Dalton named his practice TOA after the Māori word for brave. We talk to him about the courageous moves he’s made during his career and the ones he plans to make next.

Words by Jo Seton

Using a crayon, when Nick Dalton was just three years old, he drew up plans to alter the layout of his family home. No surprises then, when the young boy from Mamaku decided to pursue a career in architecture.

Nick’s father is an architectural designer in Rotorua, and he spent his childhood tailing after his dad, absorbing the familial gift for design and spatial planning.

“That’s my earliest memory—sitting in dad’s office and looking at these models and being immersed in all of the language and drawing.”

When it came to the end of school, it was expected that he would pursue a university education like both of his sisters, so Nick chose to do what appeared to be already in his blood and enrolled in a degree in architecture at Victoria University. He completed two years there before transferring to University of Auckland, where he completed two degrees with first class honours.

He was so exceptional that he won the National Award for Design Student of the Year for his project Nga Puna Ora, in Bastion Point, Auckland. The scholarship offered him an extensive three month trip around 27 countries in Europe, to absorb the architecture.

“It was amazing to see it—going on an architectural tour and witnessing how Europeans celebrate culture and history. Portugal just blows me away because the walls of the plazas are battles in mosaic—they're not afraid of it, they’re proud of it and some of the stories are quite dark. They really do wear it quite proudly. I was like man, what if we could do that?”

With these thoughts in his head he eschewed the pull of a further stay in Europe and decided to plant his roots—and his talent—firmly back at home.

“I reflected, man I’ve had this incredible childhood and upbringing and then university was fantastic for me, I felt—not just obligated—but compelled to go home and build Aotearoa.”

Nick Dalton at the 2021 Best Awards. Image credit: Designers Institute.

Back in New Zealand, his first job was for Auckland firm Francis Group Architects, a large multidisciplinary firm.

His first project was a $52 million apartment building and it was fairly intimidating.

“I was like wow, that is a lot of zeros! But what I found in the process, because I was under the principal, was that everyone is just mums and dads and cousins—they’re all still people.”

He wasn’t particularly happy about how that project worked out, and that was a major lesson for the young graduate: to stay true to the initial intent of a project.

After three years there, and feeling far less intimidated by the big numbers and the decision-makers, Nick moved on to ASC architects, where he worked on a $52 million dollar (his magic number!) public school.

When he first saw the plans, he was excited to see Māori names on the plans for the classrooms, something he’d never before encountered in his work.

“On the plan it had whānau one, whānau two, whānau three and whānau four. It was the first time I’d seen a Māori word on a plan and I felt strangely uplifted. I thought, man that’s cool!”

Working on the school involved a lot of learning and it was at ASC that Nicholas got registered. He was, however, disappointed at the culmination of the project, when he saw that the Māori names had been replaced.

“They just called the blocks something like ‘mountain’ and ‘sky’ and I just thought, what is that? It was just so generic. No one’s learning anything—it could be anywhere in the world. Then there were a couple of Māori projects that were treated really badly and I’ll put my hand up in the fact that I wasn’t brave enough or had the courage to make it different.”

Nick says after three years at ASC he was still very much the observer, and was standing back waiting for someone else to provide solutions, when he realised “you can’t really moan about something unless you’re presenting another option.”

And so TOA was born. Nick liked the idea of being courageous and creating an architecture that was enduring beyond commercial considerations.

“I liked that idea of being brave, being strong—to be a warrior in the context of architecture was quite compelling.”

That was 11 years ago. He started with just one alteration on the books in Hillsborough. He says it was terrifying, but that the payback was the freedom to follow his instinct.

“There was freedom, and there was the pursuit of culture, and particularly Māori culture in our environment—I was in control of that. I think on the surface it was brave. But sometimes I still say to myself, ‘You’ve got to be braver’.”

In spite of having very little work in the pipeline, TOA booked a major government and iwi project within three months of operating, which was the Waka Māori for the Rugby World Cup.

This meant Nick had to employ three staff immediately, and learn “on the fly”, which he says was a great training ground for his young staff.

TOA's Waka Māori project for the Rugby World Cup.

At the time, the work TOA attracted was 70 per cent culturally driven, whereas now he says it’s virtually 100%.

“By and large there’s a yearning and an openness [to adopt Maori design principles], but the only thing that I’m still mindful of is, depending on the situation and whoever’s driving it and what their appetite is or what the mandate is for this stuff to exist, it can mean it can still be very token.”

He says he’s had experiences where he’s had to walk away from big projects because of that tokenism.

“I think sometimes it’s a courageous conversation. That idea that we need some boundaries up front, when it’s not kaupapa Māori driven. It’s not a design aesthetic for us. I think that’s the key difference between us and other practices that are developing their ‘Māori capabilities’.”

The Mahitahi Kainga is a social housing project in Otara, Tāmaki Makarau consisting of 41 single bed apartments, Whānau apartment and Whare Manaaki.

Nick says that all TOA’s work has a “legacy” framework, where the future of the land, the environment, and the people who use it are considered in the design.

“It is called a mauri framework, and so we literally come into an area and we ask, where are the awa—the rivers, where is the maunga? What is the condition of the awa? Can we daylight them? Because often they’re piped under the road. So we do a health check for the natural environment before we even start. Then we do a plan for when the project might be built to make sure that the environment is protected. And then, what’s the 20-year plan to get the creeks clear?”

The other part of this approach is considering the wairua—the spirituality—of a collaboration.

“I find that you almost have that alignment or you don’t.”

Currently TOA has a pipeline that is unrecognisable from when it first started. The practice is expected to double over the next year (it currently has 34 staff) and there are 1,000 Papakāinga housing units to be designed.

On a personal level, Nick is involved in an exciting home build on Waiheke for him, his wife and daughter, which will be constructed from 3D printed concrete, and will be filmed for the Grand Designs NZ show.

Nick says he’s excited about the opportunities the post-covid future presents, as he feels we’ve learnt so much about our environment from the lockdown experience.

“I think that we’ve got a massive opportunity—our population isn’t that big. In world terms, we’re still a village in many ways, so we still have an opportunity to ask what shape our future is, what does it look like and how does it feel?”

No doubt in the near future we can expect some brave new architectural moves from Nick and TOA.

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