Urban Designer - Vernacular Architect - Maritime Planner - Owner-Builder - Servant of Piglet - Educator - Author - Revolutionary - Peacenik - Tour Guide 

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Put the cart after the horse Print E-mail

Vancouver Maritime Museum 1990
Great communities build great cities. It has always been that way, and it has always been that way around.



Before there was the city of Venice the merchants and sailors were first living life to the full, trading around the world, loving and learning. They came home to celebrate with good wine and great architecture. The romance came first, and the urban design came later, with another island added as another family became prosperous.
In contrast well designed cities have never brought great communities into being. You cannot do it the wrong way around.
Canberra would take an architectural prize as one of the dullest and most boring places on earth. It has taken a hundred years for a community to arise out of the neat concrete walkways and generous parks and even now if you want to feel alive you still head for Sydney or Melbourne. There is nothing wrong with the design of Canberra. It is the process which is wrong.
A city is a celebration. When there is a reason to celebrate, celebration comes easily. It is both spontaneous and contagious. On the other hand if there is no reason to celebrate it can be painfully obvious that you are trying to whip up enthusiasm when there is no substance. The contrived is as transparent as it is hollow.
Cities which are built on reality pulse with life, but the life comes first and the architecture comes later. Synthetic cities which have no substance subside into boredom, alienation and ultimately violence. They cannot be rescued by good design. Having bright ideas is not the same as involvement.
Breathing life into a corpse is an impossible task and spending a great deal of time and energy designing a better corpse does not make the task any easier. Architects, urban designers, developers and consultants know all this so they take their money and run. As soon as the glossy photographs have been published to secure enough reputation to capture the next job it is time to move on. Consultants roam the world looking for another Tank Farm dollar opportunity.
The naive "public" clip ideas out of magazines, or out of their latest overseas trips, and make a folder of them, just like they do when they want a house designed. Architects of course throw away the folder of clippings because they read different magazines and travel to different places. The politicians however look more carefully at the clippings because voting is never more than three years away. No one concedes that trying to assemble a collection of pieces from different jigsaws is a fruitless waste of time.
Architecture is best seen as infrastructure. Ideally it should work, but not get in the way of life. If the electricity comes in and the waste goes somewhere most people are not concerned about the details. They want to get on with life. If their hearts pump and their lungs do their task people go out and climb mountains rather than reading text books about their bodies. Introspection comes with failure. Beauty in turn is the body fully alive.
When Aucklanders marvel at the cumulus clouds soaring up into the sky to catch the last colours of the day, and their lives are filled with wonder, joy and the smell of salt, you know that their architecture has set them free. When Aucklanders stand on top of a volcano with the wind blowing through their hair and their view across the isthmus is unimpeded by the urban growth strategy you know that urban design really is more than a catch phrase. Before the planners came along Auckland was the most beautiful site in the world for a city.
With an astonishing site, and a "vibrant" community, it would seem that all the ingredients for a great city are at hand. Not so. Process is important too.
A sculptor like Michaelangelo could look within a block of marble and set Moses free. A lesser sculptor will do a design, write a specification, get a permit, comply with the regulations, collect a fee, even win some awards, and then go off searching for a block of stone to batter into an intellectually pre-determined shape. When the process in place for the Tank Farm is the same as the process which resulted in the Railway Land urban design disaster we can only presume that the results will be similar. Magnificent dreams morphing into tacky burger bars.
The big decisions have been made by default. Everyone seems to have agreed without thinking about it that the Tank Farm should become another architectural corpse. Now, it seems, it only remains to design the best possible corpse. If we do as well as Canberra we know that it will then only take a few hundred years for the maggots to make something useful out of the world-class urban design.
The Venetians must turn over in their graves as tourists come to look and admire, but fail to learn anything about their urban design process. Imitating a product misses the point.
However there is hope. At least another great seafaring city like Auckland has the potential to understand that building community comes before building a city.
Tony Watkins

Tony Watkins was the urban designer responsible for locating the dredge wheel sculpture at the tip of Tank Farm to symbolise the way in which real people doing a real job for a real purpose can also effortlessly, and for no cost, produce great works of art.

Tihei Mauri Ora - The breath of life
More than good design is needed to breathe life into an architectural corpse, suggests urban designer Tony Watkins.


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