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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Mediaeval creativity Print E-mail

ImageCreativity, and the path to holiness,
begins with a distribution of power.









In 1000AD the world population was around 275,000,000, and fairly stable. By 2000AD the world population was around 6,000,000,000 and rising rapidly. In broad terms you could say that there are now twenty-two times the number of people who were alive during the mediaeval period. As a wild approximation we might expect to now find the equivalent of twenty-two Chartres cathedrals or twenty-two Le Thoronet monasteries.  

For all the talk of “economic recovery” anyone taking a long, hard look at New Zealand, or the rest of Western Civilisation for that matter, would be forced to conclude that in comparison with the mediaeval period our “human creativity” is a basket-case. Something has gone seriously wrong. Most tourists wandering around Europe are overwhelmed by so much mediaeval built-environment excellence that it becomes almost boring, and they need to take a break in any one of the superb mediaeval hill-towns. A tourist wandering around New Zealand needs a guide book to find any built-environment excellence, and even then the urban context is dismal.  

Why is our human creativity at such a low ebb, and what might we do about it? Instead of throwing around the fashionable clichés about how much better our drains are, to justify our failure, it is worth asking what we might learn from how things were done in mediaeval times.  



In a sweeping overview of history we could think of 600-800AD as the golden age for Ireland. Most of what we know about Greek or Roman civilisation was rescued for us by the Irish monasteries. They saved the books, and they copied them, so that eventually they were passed down to us. The Roman Empire had never taken over Ireland. The Irish were Celtic, nomadic, tribal and fiercely independent.
As the monasteries became more powerful they were able to challenge the bishops. The monasteries were autonomous, independent, and rural. The Irish monasteries followed the tradition of the first monasteries, which began when individuals went out into the desert to search for God. These individuals wanted to be alone, but others sought them out to learn from their holiness. Even today a monastery creates an environment within which an individual can seek out God.
The bishops in contrast had picked up on Roman ideas. Power was focused in cities like Carthage or Ephesus. Paul kept his finger on the pulse. Today we follow this same concept of hierarchy. A concentration of power rather than a distribution of power.
The Irish monks set out to convert Europe. My theory is that they found a ready acceptance among the nomadic people who had moved into Europe as the Roman Empire crumbled. They talked the same language and had the same values. This was not unlike Pompallier in the Hokianga. He took Te Reo for granted 150 years before Rome thought it might be a good idea.
At the heart of the mediaeval distribution of power was the concept that searching for God was a personal spiritual journey. Others could guide you or make suggestions, but finally you had to work it out for yourself.
There has always been a close link between power and architecture. Urban design is a direct reflection to attitudes to power. In the mediaeval rural countryside a complex network of villages offered an infinite array of possibilities. In the Cotswalds, for example, you can still set out on your bicycle and move comfortably from village to village until you finally return home by a different route. The next day you can follow a completely different pathway.
A Roman road, in contrast, got the army to where it was needed. Our motorways take us to nowhere in particular because we miss out on making a journey when everything in-between is a nuisance rather than something to be discovered. Life is a journey not a conclusion.
In mediaeval times every building was a journey rather than a conclusion. There was no rush to get anywhere. If a building took 400 years that was not a problem, because it was the personal spiritual journey of everyone who worked on the building which was important. Love made the difference. Through the process of building individuals found not only themselves but also their way to God. Mediaeval buildings are quirky and eccentric, just like the people who built them.
In a monastery you grew your own cabbages. You fell in love with your place and began to understand it. You learnt how to hew stone. By the time you got to the serious part of building you were lost in love. Architects who imagine they can “design” a monastery miss the point.
When seen like this it is no wonder that our economy-driven society is a creativity basket-case. A materialistic society sees buildings as objects and people as “human resources”. Individuals are reduced to boredom and frustration. Grafitti is not the problem. Our built environment is the problem. It is a direct reflection of how we go about building. No one is going anywhere. Individuals are only supporting a power-structure which makes it possible for the super-rich to indulge in even more useless activity.
Personal creativity is the foundation on which the creativity of a society is built. A distribution of power is an essential first move to make this possible. Only when every individual is on a journey will it be possible for our whole society to be going somewhere.
Along the way war, conflict, inequality and all those other results of concentrations of power could be left behind. Everyone would be too busy getting on with life. Individuals would suddenly have the opportunity to do something which needed to be done.
As a beginning perhaps everyone could build their own house. Not so that they will end up with an object, but rather so that they will discover themselves and God along the way. 


  Tony Watkins


First published in Tui Motu August 2010 

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