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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Kiwis as world leaders Print E-mail

My Twingo
Anyone wishing to develop "carbon-neutral" built-environment strategies for New Zealand also needs to understand a little of recent architectural debate, and the part played by New Zealand architects in that debate.




Agenda 21 envisaged vernacular architecture and vernacular building processes.
Twenty years after Stockholm 1972 a second United Nations global environmental conference was held in Rio de Janiero in 1992. It was officially called UNCED, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, but came to be popularly known as "The Earth Summit".
The main outcome of UNCED was Agenda 21, an agenda for the 21st century.
New Zealand played a significant part in the preparation of this document. Wellington architects, notably Derek Wilson, succeeded in having a chapter on Human Settlements included in Agenda 21. The first draft of that chapter was then written in Auckland.
Maurice Strong, the Secretary General for the Earth Summit, flew to New Zealand just before it began to discuss Agenda 21 and the potential outcomes of UNCED. At that time New Zealand architects, most notably Graeme Robertson, were the world leaders in environmentally responsible design.
New Zealand's 1991 Resource Management Act became a world first in introducing the concept of sustainable development into legislation. The Earth Summit then introduced the concept to the rest of the world.
Agenda 21 recognised the importance of local climate, local geomorphology, local skills, local traditions, local culture, local building materials and local craftsmanship. The Earth Summit also supported the diversity of vernacular architecture through seeking to protect the diversity of the natural world in the Biodiversity Convention.
A carbon-neutral built environment will always be vernacular, belonging in place, culture and occasion. It will celebrate eccentricity.

In 1993 the NZIA Conference focused on "Papatuanuku". Mother Earth.
In preparation for the AIA/UIA Congress in Chicago, and as a follow-up to the Earth Summit, the "Papatuanuku" Conference explored the new concept of "creative sustainability".
This was the idea that saving the world should be fun, and it should fill our lives with joy. It was an antidote to the gloom and doom people who seemed to feel that life really was only about reducing everyone's carbon footprint. It was an endeavour to move from negative thinking to positive thinking.
Our Aotearoa tikanga gives us many unique cultural advantages. Our Mother Earth is to be embraced. The role of architecture is to allow us to feel the warmth of that embrace.

The AIA/UIA Congress in Chicago in 1993 introduced sustainability to the USA.
Susan Maxman, President-Elect of the AIA, came to the Earth Summit knowing that she had the privilege of selecting the topic for the next AIA Congress. Graeme Robertson convinced her that it should be "sustainability".
There were more New Zealand students in Chicago that from any other country except the host. They changed the direction of the Congress. Verney Ryan and Sean Lockie challenged the delegates to change their own lives, making headlines in the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.
One of the outcomes of the AIA/UIA Chicago Congress was the Declaration of Interdependence which recognised that a carbon-neutral world could only be achieved when architecture was seen as a living part of the whole living planet.

Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996 identified "placelessness" as the greatest problem which would face the cities of the world in the following twenty years.
A cycle of United Nations conferences followed the Earth Summit repeating the cycle which had followed the 1972 Stockholm Conference. Once again the cycle culminated with a conference on the built-environment, Habitat II.
Once again New Zealanders played a significant part. Megan Howell, Mark Tollemache and Heidi Mardon had gone to the Second Preparatory Committee in Nairobi and one outcome of their interventions was the introduction of the concept of "Peaceful Cities". Wars have a very big negative carbon footprint.
The impact of globalisation on vernacular architecture was of major concern at Istanbul.
When Jaime Lerner, UIA President, was in New Zealand he said the greatest challenge for architects was to globalise the local.
Only a generation ago every back-country hut and bach in New Zealand was unique and distinctive. The Department of Conservation has now homogenised their built environment by destroying a culture which touched the earth lightly. They have substituted standardisation.
While well-intentioned but poorly-informed architects in New Zealand were busy writing standards the world leaders at Habitat II were warning that standards were the problem not the solution.

At the United Nations Third World Urban Forum, WUF3, in 2006 the concept of "Do no harm" was developed.
WUF3, in Vancouver, was thirty years after Habitat I and ten years after Habitat II.
By this time terms such as sustainability had been captured and distorted so that most people were confused. It was time to reassert that sustainability was not about sustaining growth or the economy. It was, and always had been, about sustaining the life of the planet.
Concerns about climate change moved very quickly around this time from being seen as fringe to becoming mainstream. Denial morphed into acceptance, and world leaders began wondering how they could make money or mileage out of climate change. While the idealists were meeting in one part of Vancouver business leaders and politicians were meeting in another to consider different questions.
This ideological conflict will be the focus of the next decade.

Saving the world has become fashionable and carbon is the new black.
Carbon has presented the market opportunity to dream about. Carbon is everywhere. It is free. Carbon has thus become the new political focus. Kyoto made it possible for it to seem that everyone making money from carbon-trading was actually saving the world.

It was the perfect game plan. Every environmentalist could be your ally. Carbon could take the heat off the built-environment.
History will eventually judge carbon-trading to be the greatest con-trick of all time. In creating wealth from nothing at a scale never seen before it could bring an end to civilisation.
The counter-attack of the environmental movement has been to reassert the need for ethics. The questions about climate change are finally spiritual, not technical.
The issue of working to gain the support of everyone for the ethic of a built-environment which does no harm to the life of the planet has a long history. New Zealanders have always been in the lead in the past which leaves us in a strong position to also lead in the future. It will however require the courage to be different.

< Prev   Next >