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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

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ImageI came across this book in a lovely art gallery in the tiny community of Kohukohu, Hokianga.

It is in landscape format with soft cover and glossy pages, one side for text and the other for the author’s photographs illustrating the point of the text. These are beautiful and often unusual compositions, with a caption encapsulating the text.

Watkins often uses an introduction to a theme with simple things such as the rescue of an injured bird on a building site. From finding grubs and worms turned up by the spade digging the foundations, to using a bent sheet of iron as a bath and drinking water, “Looking after Charlie became an extra to the contract.” Charlie built a nest and brought up a family on site. When it was time to leave and clean up the site, the bent sheet of iron was left. “Soon enough someone will decide it is illegal to a bird bath outside, particularly when it is not connected to the drainage system. Charlie is a problem for the system. … Birds like Charlie will always be in trouble, because they do not fit. … Perhaps the real purpose of a house is also to make love present in the world.”

Watkins draws on the simplicity of our past, of happy childhoods in simple homes. He talks about houses as an expression of life, the network of community. He deplores the attitude that sees a house as an object, a product, or a possession. “The need to consume the world’s diminishing resources will reveal the irresponsibility of building for status or prestige.”

Tony Watkins graduated as an architect in New Zealand in 1961, travelled the world, became passionate about vernacular architecture, became an owner-builder – rejecting the loan from “thew grey manager in his grey office in a grey building”, and discovered “that the housing industry knew very little about housing.” His book has developed from the articles he wrote for the Auckland Star between 1975 and 1979. He has been at the forefront of environmental policy in various capacities, and influenced hundreds of students he has lectured at the Auckland University School of Architecture.

I loved this book and its quirky but true and meaningful stories. What will strike true for you? At random I picked the picture of a weedy guttering – “An ecologically responsible gutter would slow down the passage of water just as nature does.” One less job I have to worry about!


Reviewed by Marion Bridges in the Autumn 2010 issue of “Earthbuilding”, the magazine of the Earth Building Association of New Zealand

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