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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Graeme Robertson Print E-mail
Chicago breakout June 1993
Graeme Leonard Robertson
Born 11 April 1944, in Wellington.
Died 6 March 1996, in Auckland.

Sustainability is more than a word.

It is naive to assume that planning leads to action. Strategic plans are all too often little more than another reason for avoiding action. Planners escape into their dreams while the world finds its own way through the wilderness they fear. In contrast people of action engage both the insecurity and the adventure which lie beyond theme-park architecture.

Graeme Robertson was a person of action. Others scurried to find excuses for failing to implement remits that New Zealand should become a member of the International Union of Architects. Graeme simply responded to the warmth of the international invitation by getting on with the job. For him to ignore the cry for help from our global ecology would have been like driving by a person stranded helplessly at the roadside. Sustainability begins with compassion and selflessness. Sustainability has become a fashionable word, but sustainability itself will never be a popular cause.

The UIA "Road from Rio Group" was formed in Rio de Janeiro at the Earth Summit, which Graeme attended on behalf of both the NZIA and the University of Auckland. Susan Maxman, then President of the AIA, took the challenge back to her Institute too. One of the consequences was the UIA Congress on Sustainable Architecture in Chicago. More than 20,000 architects attended that gathering, and Graeme chaired one of the three breakout sessions. It should not have come as a surprise that New Zealand had a higher profile in Chicago than any country outside of North America.

We did not pay our money and ask what we were getting for it. We rather earned our place by our performance, and we were respected for what we gave.

In Chicago Graeme had no time to wait for grey-suited bureaucratic inertia. His body was already being consumed by cancer. Grey people persist in describing what they are going to do in response to the way life is supposed to be. Colourful people enchant us with quirky stories we recognise as archetypal of life as it is thrust upon us.  Insights, not intentions, are the stuff of which stories are made  Wisdom is founded on experience.

Graeme Robertson was a generator of legends. New Zealand's NZIA Environmental Policy and the Environmental Position Papers set a standard which the rest of the world has followed. His leadership style in the Environmental Group of the NZIA Auckland Branch crystallised one of the truths of architecture. The real fun is in being involved during the action, rather than after the event.

Graeme has passed his baton on. He left no instructions, but the words of Peter Carey come to mind. "Bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like hell."

Tony Watkins

This Editorial first appeared in Architecture New Zealand

Jonathan Mayo Editor
3 May 1996

An internationally sustainable architect.

Obituary - Graeme Robertson 

When the chairperson at the NZIA Papatuanuku Conference referred dismissively to "the students over there", while mentioning by name any architects who were asking questions, there was a strong voice of protest. "Students are individuals too." The chairperson begrudgingly allowed Nicki, one of Graeme Robertson's students, to ask her question, but did not invite the panel to answer. With a sense of purpose all too rare at conferences Nicki walked the length of the auditorium and up onto the stage, gathering a chair and a companion as she went. When they sat down with the panel of experts the average age was halved, and the audience was polarised into declaring a commitment.

Maturity, wisdom, a sense of timing, the ability to see issues clearly, and the courage to take action, were all characteristics which Graeme Robertson expected his students to display. For him learning facts and acquiring skills had little meaning if they did not find expression in an enthusiasm for life itself.

Many of the students at Papatuanuku had recently returned from the International Union of Architects Congress in Chicago where they had tested their intellects and their ideas against the best architectural minds in the world . Encouraged by Graeme Robertson they had submitted papers which had been published and circulated internationally. They had assisted Graeme with his chairmanship of one of the three breakout sessions at this 20,000 architect gathering. Their entries in the Sustainability Competition exposed them to the comments of the panel of international jurors.

Graeme assumed that his students must be leaders, not followers. Existing academic perceptions had led to global environmental collapse, unsustainable energy and resource usage, and the withdrawal of architects from a sense of social responsibility. Radical change was needed, and his vision of sustainable architecture demanded much more than refereed rhetoric.

Graeme Robertson established New Zealand as a world leader in environmental issues. Through his efforts the New Zealand Institute of Architects adopted an environmental policy, and his example was followed by more than eighty other countries. He recognised however that the need to write policy is but a symptom of cultural failure. Policies restrict. Policies are inherently reductionist. Only creativity will make possible the "renegotiation of our contract with nature" advocated by the Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit", at which Graeme represented the University of Auckland. He believed that the University should be deeply committed to providing a healthy built environment for the whole community.

The first Passive Low Energy Architecture Conference to be held in New Zealand was organised by Graeme Robertson. The number of overseas delegates far outnumbered those from New Zealand, giving some indication of his significant international standing. He was an active member of the International Union of Architects "Road from Rio" working group, and was elected to become one of only fifteen members worldwide of the World Renewable Energy Network. His commitment to solar energy and wind power meant that he was seldom happier than when living out his beliefs by sailing down the Waitemata converting a yachtful of overseas architects to an alternative way of life.

During the Papatuanuku Conference Graeme stayed with a cosmopolitan group of students, lecturers and architects in a Taupo house designed by Claude Megson, one of his colleagues in the Department of Architecture. Few knew at that time that Graeme's body, like Claude's, was being consumed by cancer. Both were generous, positive, and compulsively creative. Both had to be wrenched away from their students, because their bonds were much more than academic.

It was typical that more than eighty students should pack into the Bodrum Restaurant to celebrate one of the birthdays Graeme frequently seemed to have. Now, as then, it is a pleasure to thank him for his commitment to the earth, to "Papatuanuku".

Tony Watkins

 This obituary first appeared in the University News
Editor Margaret Thomson
18 April 1996

Graeme Leonard Robertson

Many people presume that talk and four-colour brochures will lead to action, and enhance quality. Money changes hands, expectations are raised and nothing happens.  A smaller number understand that quality action leads to memorable story-telling. Those stories in turn enshrine the vision and wisdom of a culture. Graeme Robertson was a person of action, and a generator of stories.

When a remit recommending that every Institute of Architects in the world should have an environmental policy was adopted at the International Union of Architects Congress in Montreal in 1990, there was one country which already had an Environmental Policy in place. New Zealand. It had been achieved largely through the work of one person. Graeme Robertson. The vision he had realised became a foundation for the rest of the world, Soon more than seventy countries had adopted, or built upon, the New Zealand experience.

New Zealand's NZIA Environmental Position Papers set another world benchmark. Graeme's vision was so clear that he gathered a team of enthusiasts around him, and the documentation was already on the desk of every architect in New Zealand before those who prefer talk to action had cleared their throats to make their pronouncements. A vision, once set free, goes on to achieve what it set out to do. Akio Hayashi, who edited the Japan Institute of Architects Sustainable Design Guide, said simply and proudly "We followed your example".

When Graeme was leading the Environmental Group of the NZIA Auckland Branch there was never talk about what ought to be done. That was perfectly clear. As much as possible. Meetings focused rather on what had already been achieved over the preceding weeks. Stories of action achieved inspired further ideas for action because they not only indicated what was possible but also released a flow of positive energy. Deeds of course are always dangerous whereas words are safe. Amidst the laughter of those meetings there was also healing and support for those who had been hurt by the dark side of human nature.

Graeme, the low-energy expert, was a high-energy person. At the Rio Earth Summit, while others were trying to arrange meetings with their government delegations, Graeme had already taxied across town to be waiting outside the lift for our grey-suited New Zealand delegation to appear. Two days later he was being invited to private breakfast briefings because it was recognised that, with his unique knowledge of renewable energy, he had much to contribute.

His understanding of energy issues came from listening to his worldwide network. His letters, his faxes, and then his e-mails became a symbol of his commitment to a world community of architects. His dream that the NZIA should become a member of the International Union of Architects was founded on his belief that to act effectively you need to know what the rest of the world is thinking. Graeme was unwilling to be deterred by grey-suited bureaucratic inertia. His participation in the UIA Road from Rio Group, and other activities, established a "de-facto" New Zealand membership.

Graeme was a challenge to those people who devote their lives to tasks which do not need to be done, and assume power over others,  He even preferred to do his own xerox copying because it was a time for socialising, meeting people, and making decisions which would lead to action. For him life was holistic and sustainability was exciting. Vision was needed, not rules.

Graeme practised as an architect. He served as Auckland Branch Chairman. He inspired a generation of students. He ensured that architecture was both a national and an international issue.

Graeme recognised the work done by others, perhaps nominating them for an NZIA Fellowship, an NZIA Honorary Membership, or even a Civil Honour. He never missed sending a note of thanks. Now it is our turn to give thanks for his life, and to keep his vision alive.

Tony Watkins

This obituary first appeared in Architext
Editor Geoffrey Richards
5 April 1996

Graeme Leonard Robertson

When two New Zealand students received a standing ovation in Chicago from more than three thousand of the world's leading architects few people paused to ask why New Zealand should have such a position of international leadership. At that International Union of Architects Congress there were more entries in the "Sustainability Competition" from New Zealand than from any other country. Only the host country was represented by more students than there were from New Zealand.  The motivator, Graeme Robertson, was chairing one of the three break-out sessions for this 20,000 architect gathering, but most of his work was behind the scenes, ensuring that the Congress produced political action rather than platitudes.

Graeme Robertson, the specialist in renewable energy and low-energy commercial buildings, was a high-energy person. Only a few very close friends realised that while he was maintaining such a high profile in Chicago his body was being consumed by cancer. His doctors suggested he should not travel, but he knew that only his commitment and his love of life was keeping him alive.

Within months of Chicago he was the motivator behind the largest student group to ever attend a New Zealand Institute of Architects Conference. The "Papatuanuku" Conference in Taupo was ahead of its time, and it was typical of Graeme that he should have such faith in the next generation to fulfil the work he had already started through the NZIA Environment Group.

He never completed his own PhD only because he devoted so much energy to helping others to complete their degrees. His positive enthusiasm inspired others all over the world. His faxed messages of support became a legend. He always ensured that there was media coverage for environmental issues, and never failed to take advantage of a political opportunity. E-mail made his international network even more efficient and effective.

He was able to look back to environmental battles won in early Christchurch days. He was able to engage the present, even selling his car so that he could get to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. He was able to look forward to a vision of a sustainable world.

His love of the sea and his feeling for the craftsmanship of boats led again to a selfless generosity. Many must have wondered what it felt like for disabled person to be strapped into a wheelchair tied down on the back of a yacht, careering under full sail down the Waitemata Harbour. For Graeme it was not a question to be asked. Life was for the living, and it belonged to those who lived it with passion.

Graeme Robertson was an architect, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, a world leader in sustainability issues, and an environmental politician. Numerous honours and awards were showered on him, but when he died he asked only to be allowed to "shout" for all his friends at the Globe Hotel.

Tony Watkins is an architect who lectures at the University of Auckland on sustainability and healthy environments.

This Obituary was first published in the Sunday Star Times
Tony Potter, Time and Tide Editor
12 March 1996

Chicago breakout June 1993


Architecture week- photo by Ana


Graeme & Pat Hanly flying a kite at Karaka Bay - photo by Ana


Gus Watt, Graeme, Tony - photo by Ana


The hands belong to TheatreSports - photo by Ana


On Queen Charlotte



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