Becoming the greatest architect in the world

posted: 11:30 am - 26th April 2018
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(Picture caption: John Belford-Lelaulu receives his award at the Prime Minister's Pacific Youth Awards.) 

At 13-years old, John Belford-Lelaulu told his high school graphics teacher he wanted to be the greatest architect in the world.

That saying became the 2018 Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Award recipient’s curiosity and then his passion, he says.

“Now it has become my purpose to use it as a tool to eradicate poverty,” John says. 

“My focus on architecture has shifted to social design (to consciously plan and design social space within physical space to optimise human interactions and maintain intended social frameworks), and this allows me to use architecture in the way I believe it can make a difference in marginalised communities in New Zealand, Oceania, and globally.”

This year’s winner of the Creative New Zealand and Massey University Arts and Creativity category is one of 10 children born to Samoan migrant parents, who arrived in NZ in the 1950s.

John and his family moved around a lot growing up, attending various Auckland and Wellington primary schools, before attending De La Salle College in Mangere East.

 “Moving around so much when I was young probably explains why I can’t sit still now but my heart belongs in South Auckland, particularly Panama Road and Mangere East, where I have cherished memories of pain and happiness.”

During his high school years, John developed a love for graphics and technical drawing, and he went onto study architecture at Unitec, becoming the top student of the Year 5 Master of Architecture programme in 2015.

Since graduating, he has worked as the Project Lead on designing the Mobile Education Facilities for New York’s homeless community.

He has also set up his own social design business, MAU Studio, which seeks to use design to enhance family well-being, while addressing poverty, racial and gender inequality, and environmental challenges. 

John says his inspiration for his work comes from his ancestors.

“They were voyagers of oceans, skies, and land.

“Understanding that my thinking is part of 3000 years of practices is a very, very strong influence,” he says.

His mentors Waikare and Martin Leung-Wai have been extremely instrumental in his growth, he adds.

“I have seen architecture can be used as a platform to uplift others, to enable them to understand that change comes from within.

“The works of Epeli Hau'ofa, Albert Refiti, Rau Hoskins, and Peter Sykes continuously push, pull, and shape the way I practice social design.

“It's bigger than us, it always has and it always will - their work has helped me understand this.”

Winning a Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Award means the world to John and his family, he says.

“Hopefully it means I don't have to pay for rent anymore,” he quips.

More seriously, he says it reinforces his family’s journey, and that it takes a village to raise a child.

“The Ministry of Pacific People, Creative New Zealand, and Massey University are now part of our family, our aiga.

“They have shown their support in raising me, and I will always be grateful for this opportunity, and I promise not to let you down - fa'afetai lava.”

John is planning to use his award to assist with the rollout of his second business, MAU Support System, which works with secondary and tertiary students to create responses to humanitarian challenges affecting Pasifika communities.

“I will implement MAU Support-System over the next 10 years, and this will provide opportunities for Oceanic youth and professionals to engage in social design projects in Oceania, and beyond.”

The system will work to provide more education and employment opportunities for Oceanic families to live more purposeful lives, he adds.

The ambitious young man is constantly looking for new challenges, and envisages working further afield than the Pacific.  

“I see myself continuously exploring how social design can influence international development,” he says.

“I would like to work more in Oceanic nations with more permanent programmes, and in 10 years, I aim to be working in refugee camps, with displaced communities and helping out with humanitarian crises' across the world.”

John is one of nine Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Award recipients in 2018.

Visit PMPYA for more information on the Ministry for Pacific Peoples initiative.