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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Democracy empowers people Print E-mail

ImageOur local library is a superb example of democracy in action.












A library empowers people. It sets them free. Instead of making choices for people it assists individuals to make their own choices. It gives them the knowledge to make moves which are both wise and informed. The library goes further and supports complexity and diversity, which are the very foundations of sustainability. If you ask for a book on Karl Marx the librarian fetches it, and never thinks to ask why you might be interested, let alone being critical of your politics.

If the Local Government Act is the question, when it states very clearly that the purpose of Local Government is to enable democratic local decision-making and to promote the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities, then the local library is the answer.

In contrast the Council’s building-consent process is not only undemocratic but it would also seem to be illegal, as it fails to meet even the purpose of the Local Government Act.

Image Democratic architecture empowers people. It sets them free, but with that freedom comes responsibility, and with that responsibility comes the need for knowledge, skills, sensitivity, awareness, and a questioning attitude to life. Democracy is rare because it is not an easy option. It is so much simpler to just cast a vote and walk away.

Democratic architecture begins with intense self-awareness. If you do not know your whakapapa how can you enrich it and pass it on to future generations? Only development of your whakapapa is sustainable. All other so-called “development” does environmental harm which cannot be sustained.

Urban design which begins by empowering self-aware people has diversity and complexity as its very foundations. Every person is unique and quite different from every other person, just like all those books in the library.

Trying to apply the same sets of rules to all buildings destroys local character and ultimately leads to the alienation of people from their diverse natural environment. Even architects can become the victims of their own fashions, so that their awards to each other all end up looking the same. Undemocratic architecture disempowers people until the only thing left for them to do is to spray graffiti on walls to try and release their totally justifiable anger and resentment. The placelessness of our cities is the greatest problem of our time.

It is the differences and eccentricities which are important in life. A library does not tell anyone what they ought to read. It rather encourages everyone to read widely so that they are constantly excited by new ideas, and their horizons are expanded by new discoveries. The library moves the community forward, while ensuring that, at the same time, the richness of heritage is not forgotten.

It is alarming enough to discover that the people who take power over our built environment all drive cars which look like each other, all live in houses which look like each other, and all dress in suits so that even they will look like each other. It becomes frightening to discover that on Saturdays they also all go to exotic garden centres to buy plants which do not belong so that they will be able to smudge the natural world they profess to love into bland nowhere-in-particular.

Democratic architecture is about much more than just being different. It is about celebrating difference. It is about enjoying the fact that your next-door neighbour has different tastes and different values. The amazing thing about libraries is not just that the books are so different. It is the fact that they are all squeezed together on the same shelf. What? Aristotle and Rodney Hide right next to each other. They do not even inhabit the same universe. It could only happen in a library.

We all need irritants in our lives. People who drive us crazy with their negative energy so that we become lifted out of our self-satisfaction and do something worthwhile with our lives. Irritants turn complacency into action, but you cannot thank them lest they stop annoying you. This is all part of democracy. It is not about agreeing, but rather agreeing to not agree. In a real democracy everyone has value.

Building inspectors should get a life and give up on trying to control other people. With a subtle sideways shift they could become more like those wonderful educators who set people free. Overcoming insecurity, or giving some good advice about skills to realise dreams.

There is nothing wrong with the Local Government Act. The problem is that it has never been implemented. If Local Government is to promote the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities, the first move should be a commitment to democratic architecture.


Tony Watkins 


This article won an award in the AAA Urban Eye Competition

October 2009 

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