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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Event centre Print E-mail

ImageEvery Auckland beach was once a free event.



Before Councils came along and began organising our lives everyone in Auckland loved going to the beach. This was where, as a nation, we were fully alive and free. The edge of our island nation; the constantly changing light as our planet soared through the cosmos; the Gannets wheeling overhead and plummeting down to catch a fish. Swimming at high tide; building a sand castle; watching the moon rise with a lover; bare feet on sand and rock.

Unfortunately nothing offends people with power and authority quite as much as watching other people having fun. It was understandable that the bureaucrats and planners felt left out, as they sat in their dismal offices passing mediocre regulations telling other people how to live their lives.

Our beaches were of course also beyond the comprehension of economists. Financiers loathe anything which is free. How can you make money out of something which costs nothing? Unless you sell it of course. You do not need to be an economist to realise that the profit margin is never higher that when you sell someone something which comes free. The concept of “waterfront development” was just waiting to be discovered.

Image An “events centre” at the waterfront goes much further than being faintly ridiculous. It is a classic example of cultural insensitivity and misunderstanding. It is nothing more than taking something away so that you can sell it to the people you have robbed. Once we took it for granted that our cities, like our waterfronts, were pure theatre, with only the buskers asking for a dollar, while everyone else simply put on a show. Now we argue about how many seats there should be in the venues.

When we reduce people to watching someone else’s performance we take away their humanity. People who do not participate in life are already dead. The truly disadvantaged are those not playing the game, although perhaps the people we should feel really sorry for are those who do not realise it is a game.

No one really goes to an architect to get a house designed. Clients want a display to reassure themselves and their friends. The annual architectural fashion awards have nothing to do with architecture. They are just another theatrical performance of catwalk display. The puzzle with “Auckland Unleashed” is why anyone would bother to participate in such a dull, boring performance. If you put on a show at least let it be a good one.

ImageWhen our beaches were themselves an event everyone was a participant. Councils changed all that. The new static built environment of architects and bureaucrats got everything wrong. It fractured the water cycle, for example, and even destroyed those dynamic natural eco-systems which had formerly breathed life into our world. When the natural processes which produce sand had been brought to a standstill Councils had an excuse to re-sand from elsewhere to create their image of the Bahamas. The tourist brochures of those selling beaches, quite understandably, assured the bureaucrats that beaches in the Bahamas were better than anything we had in Auckland. Did no one notice they were deserted?

Before long everywhere in Auckland looked like Pakiri and the uniqueness and diversity of our beaches had been lost. With the people gone we now had Disneyland theme parks, with public relations firms and beautiful architectural presentations to tell us how good they were. Groomers sifted through the imported sand looking for rubbish dumped into the harbour, mostly by Councils, because personal responsibility goes out the window along with participation.

When the bureaucrats had finally taken the fun and the freedom out of going to the beach the people went away to find somewhere else to be alive. Now it was necessary to entice them back, by providing for created needs. Boardwalks instead of sand. Steps where once there had just been a grassy bank. A host of professionals and experts invited to realise their dreams of what might be, and of course there was a great deal of public consultation. None of the experts bothered to understand our whakapapa. Doing nothing was not going to provide income and satisfy egos.

Into paper dreams architects and planners stuck photographs of synthetic people, lifted from magazines, to add life to synthetic environments. Now the real people were given a new role. They were to pay for all the improvements they did not want. They had to leave the beaches behind and go off to offices to earn money. They joined an economy cashing up the wonderful natural environment which had been freely given to all of us.

The city itself was once a real place where people did real things. Along the waterfront you could buy a schnapper off the back of a fishing boat or get a shackle welded. The old-fashioned ships chandlers were treasure troves. Everywhere there was a story waiting to be told to anyone who cared to listen. No one needed to invent words like “vibrant”.

Cities which are no longer real cannot be vibrant. When the Institute of Architects recently gave a sustainability award to an office block it became painfully clear that Auckland had lost the plot. Urban design is theatre and the best show in town was once the waterfront.

A truly liveable, vibrant city would have no bureaucrats.