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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Opening up the ranks Print E-mail

ImageThe worst thing to do when the going gets tough is to close ranks.




As Charles Darwin put it "It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change".
The digital revolution, for example, came out of left field before it could be stopped by Luddite regulations and bureaucracy. In contrast the sustainability revolution, which also came from the fringes with its whiff of subversion and hint of a different kind of architecture, has been successfully neutralised by triple glazing and the new Building Act, before it could do any real damage. We are not as responsive as we like to think we are. However other revolutions are on the way.
Closing ranks is a mistake that planners have often made. When any one group in society professes to understand the minds of others, and takes it upon themselves interpret what they think they have understood, an unresponsive unsustainable cycle is locked into place.
The Department of Planning at the University of Auckland has just been written out of existence. A new School of Architecture and Planning is to arise from the ashes. In part the change seems to reflect the belief that architects really do it better. Another view would be that the change is only buying time. While the architects have not gone as far, they are going down the same road of unresponsiveness.
The global scene is perhaps rather different from what we find in New Zealand. Internationally young architectural graduates are not only challenging the wisdom of closing ranks, they are also questioning its morality.
The built environment, for example, is responsible for 70% of global warming. The carbon tax debate can become an excuse for evading what really should be a building tax. Fuel efficiency is not as effective as staying home.
More than 60% of the world's population live in illegal housing. The houses are often exemplary for their design; the laws are often not. Every architect needs to choose which side they are on. Architects who design proposals which involve the demolition of houses people have built for themselves are acting immorally, although what they are doing may be legal.
On November 28 2005 President Obasanjo of Nigeria gave the go-ahead for the world's greatest forced eviction programme. More than four million inhabitants, out of a total of seven million inhabitants in the federal capital, will be affected. The bulldozers have begun destroying schools, hospitals, churches, mosques and houses in Abuja. The reason given is the decision to implement the master plan drawn up by the International Consortium of Planners, Urban Designers and Architects (USA).
For more details and some photographs look at www.habitants.org
For those who feel there are more important issues than whether liquid ambers should be replaced by nikaus there are not only opportunities but also the structure of the UIA to make architectural morality a global concern. New Zealand can choose to lead or to follow.
We all admire the work done by "Doctors Without Borders". Doing even a little to help the under privileged and disadvantaged makes our triple by-pass seem less selfish.
In November 2005 the Charter of "Architects Without Borders" (Architecture Sans Frontieres, ASF) was formally ratified in Rome by ASF-Italy, ASF-Milano, ASF-Belgium, ASF-UK, ASF-Portugal, Architecture et Developpment-Paris, and Arc-Peace. (A motion requesting NZIA affiliation to Arc-Peace was passed unanimously at the Branch AGM.) ASF will provide a vehicle for idealistic young architects to help those who are not part of the establishment.
ASF will be one of the NGOs at the World Urban Forum which will be held in Vancouver from 19-23 June 2006. This is 30 years since Habitat I was held in Vancouver in 1976, and 10 years since Habitat II was held in Istanbul in 1996. The event is coming to be known as Habitat III. Like other United Nations gatherings the emphasis will be on practical action rather than academic surmising, and there will be a strong NGO presence, reflecting the political achievements of 1976 when the Forum participants arrived with chainsaws and built themselves a venue, just as the New Zealand architecture students had done at Warkworth in 1971.
New Zealand architects could make a significant contribution once again. We only need to see architecture as social responsibility rather than just protecting our patch. In a responsive world it would be easy to distinguish the real architects. They would be the ones tackling the difficult issues with passion and enthusiasm.
Tony Watkins


This article "Architects acting morally in an immoral world" first appeared in Architext, the Monthly Newsletter of the New Zealand Institute of Architects Auckland Branch, Issue 115, January 2006

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