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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Ego to Eco Urban Design Print E-mail

Vancouver tell-tale
The primary purpose of the built environment is to strengthen and enhance the relationship between people and the natural environment.




Buildings and cities which are primarily seen as providing "shelter" from the natural environment assume that the natural environment is both hostile and life-threatening.

Our natural environment is in reality life-giving, and it is through intimate contact with the natural world that we come to understand the nature of life itself.

The intellectual and rational thought processes of the "Modern Movement" have produced some rather unexpected results. We are now living in a world where a whole generation of people have never questioned the concept that "food and shelter" are basic requirements for human existence. Our consumer society has lost sight of the fact that if we eat too much food we die, and that if we build too much shelter we also die.

We have now trained a whole generation of architects to assume that their professional role is to overcome the problems presented by the natural environment. The sunset is seen as a problem, but one that can be overcome with technology. We feel pleased if we use appropriate technology.

We have now trained a whole generation of urban designers to assume that place is a problem to be overcome. Planners escape into romantic visions as they fail in their struggle to resolve the unresolvable incompatibility between the static perceptions of intellectually conceived plans and the unceasing mobility of nature. If the coastal edge would only stop moving the planners could get on with their plans.

Redefining the problems may slow down the process of planetary environmental collapse, but if we are serious about actually preventing collapse a much more fundamental paradigm shift is essential.

Pessimists see life as a series of problems to be overcome.
Optimists see life as a series of wonderful opportunities to be explored.

Eco-design is inherently optimistic.

The built environment has an educational role in leading us to a fuller and more intimate understanding of the natural environment.

This understanding in turn enhances the possibilities both for individuals and for the human community to be more fully alive.

There is no middle ground. Cities are either a barrier or a link. The ecological shoe has all the characteristics of bare feet.

The bare-foot architect sees buildings as enhancing and revealing the wonders of the natural environment. The bare-foot urban designer sees cities as enhancing the relationship between people and place.

We do not build schools. Buildings are schools. The powerful symbolism of a building which sees nature as a problem to be overcome will overwhelm any teacher who is trying to show that design is a process of resolving conflict and bringing complex networks into creative harmony.

The assertion that the answer to the environmental crisis lies in education fails to recognise that that education is impossible when it is undertaken in built form which is a denial of what is being taught.

Education can be very dangerous when it results in the loss of knowledge and the loss of skills.

Sealing windows and doors and creating artificial environments is a form of self destruction. It is not a way of surviving. It is a way of ensuring that we do not survive.

We have finally shown that it is possible to totally dominate nature, and seem surprised to discover that when nature dies we die too.

Human beings are now an endangered species.

Buildings or cities which are seen only as sculptural works of art, juxtaposed in contrast to the natural environment, reinforce the misunderstanding that people are not an integral and potentially harmonious part of the natural environment.

Ego-architecture and ego-urban design relate to the world by standing apart from it. Ego-architecture is, by choice, outside the mainstream of building. It is a diversion, not a path to follow.

Philosophers have often been fascinated by the perception that human beings alone are able to stand outside themselves, observing and judging with their intellects. It is a position which seems to open up the possibility of gaining power over our destiny, but it also invites intellectual arrogance.

Architects and urban designers have also often been fascinated by the power of dichotomy.  Contrast can be a valuable source of clarification. It can also lead to polarisation and create dangerous divisions. Birth and death are not opposites. They complete the circle. A building which moves only from completion to demolition will never touch life.

Many planners really do believe that they are able to analyse society without the analysis changing the nature of the society. Quantitative techniques always lead to reductionist positions. Planners are part of the process.

Ego-urban design can be a powerful aid to understanding.
Eco-urban design however goes much further and recognises that we can never fully understand a process of which we are an integral part.

Pursuing comfort, convenience, privacy and individuality beyond the point of counterproductivity leads to a loss of contact with reality, and finally the collapse of life itself.

Pain, trauma, anguish and death have a purpose in life and a place in the built environment.

The principle of counterproductivity operates in every aspect of life. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Even built form.

The pain from the heat of a flame warns us that if we do not withdraw our hand we will be badly burnt. Taking away pain only ensures that we will be burnt. The pain no longer protects us.

Those who are concerned about global warming agonise about their inability to communicate the seriousness of the problem to a society which is committed to built form which has the purpose of protecting it from that very communication.

The ability of political power or economic power to take away pain reduces the possibility of sensitivity to danger.

Ego-urban design promises people that they will never die.
Eco-urban design helps people understand the meaning and purpose of death.

Developing built environment which is in harmony with the life force of the natural environment is the primary way to reduce the energy and resource demands of the built environment.

Buildings and cities which see the forces of nature as problems to be overcome engage in a conflict which is extremely destructive of resources, energy and finally the environment.

It is not possible to win a war against the very forces which give us life.

Attempting to overcome a poor acoustic space with electronic sound is a futile task, not an economic problem.
In contrast a well designed yacht will travel at a speed which is several times faster than the wind which is driving it.

The "hard" engineer sees nature as a powerful force to be struggled with, and finally overcome.
The "soft" engineer sees nature as a gentle force which constantly moves towards beautiful harmony.

Ego-urban design will always be energy-intensive, confrontational, static and unsustainable.

Eco-urban design is dynamic and sustainable, resolving confrontation through design.

Violence places stresses on the natural environment which cannot be sustained.

Buildings and cities are violent when they bruise the landscape through destroying water tables, geological forms, solar access and wind patterns.

In contrast cities which relate to the deep structures of place, and buildings which touch the landscape lightly minimise energy and resource demands.

The traditional New Zealand "bach" was a superb example of built form which touched the landscape lightly. It left no mark on the landscape, although it was often situated in areas of extreme environmental sensitivity.

In contrast the violence of imprisoning water in pipes in our cities only generates more violence to the harbours downstream.

Violence never resolves conflict.

Built environments which enhance the reality of the natural environment will display the primary characteristics of diversity, complexity and uniqueness, in their indigenous response to place.

Cities and buildings which seek to conform to universal norms, universal intellectual ideas, and universal expectations will always stress specific local environments and finally destroy the ability of those local environments to support life.

The ego urban designer begins with the power of perceptions, visions and ideas.
The eco urban designer begins with the wonder of each unique place and seeks to be "at home" in each unique context.

The transportation reductionists, for example, who advocate the single solution of increasing city densities in Australia as a means of reducing energy usage, fail to take into account the ability of the quarter acre culture to sensitize people to their environment. Growing flowers teaches a great deal about the sun, the wind, and finally climate change.

Development which exercises a role of responsible stewardship will develop a relationship to place similar to that which can be discerned in indigenous flora, indigenous fauna, and indigenous landforms.

These design solutions have responded to a natural planning process interacting over millions of years.

Ego urban design is sourced in intellectual "texts".

Eco urban design is sourced in the "texts" of deep structures which over millions of years have made each place different.

The ability of any culture to withstand the impact of reductionist economic, political  and social theories is dependent on the existence of cultural "immune systems" which are capable of rejecting foreign matter, while not in any way impeding growth and change within their own healthy organism.

The continued existence of "immune systems" is dependent on an intimate and harmonious relationship with place. The built environment is one of the primary means for enhancing or destroying that relationship.

Ego urban design is a relatively new idea, although it seems old to those whole fail to think in geological time.

Eco urban design is a very old idea, although it seems new to those who fail to notice that ego architects generally spend their holidays in old vernacular villages.

Place is not necessarily territorial. The principle of diversity recognises that harmony is possible  between non-territorial built form and territorial built form. The basis for that harmony remains an intimate and harmonious relationship with place.

Design is the art of networking complexity in a multi-polar, interactive, co-operative process. Design enhances, celebrates and respects differences.

Eco-urban design recognises that all too often "development" is used as a term to describe discontinuity rather than continuity.

Development which exercises a role of responsible stewardship will enhance the continuity and sustainability of place-specific vernacular built form.


Tony Watkins   M.Arch, Dip.TP, FNZIA, RIBA.


"Ego-Design" is sourced in intellectual "texts" and seeks to provide shelter and protection from the natural environment.
"Eco-Design" is sourced in the deep structures of each unique place and seeks to enhance and reveal the wonders of the natural environment.
"Eco-design" offers a strategy for designing our way out of planetary environmental collapse through re-establishing our relationship with place.
The Argentinian city of Mendoza is described as an example of an ecological city.

A paper presented at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, 22 October1991.

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