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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Our culture died Print E-mail

ImageThursday 1 March 2012 will be remembered by history as the day on which our culture died. On this day the government instructed those resourceful, valiant, entrepreneurial souls who had built our nation to put their tools down, sit on their backsides, and join the queues waiting for a hand-out.





This day marked the end of the “number 8 fencing” mentality which had made us the kind of people we are. Beyond the low-tech myth there was an important high-tech reality. If you wanted a problem fixed quickly, efficiently, and with few resources then you asked a Kiwi. Everywhere from London to Abu Dhabi Kiwis were sought after. They did not complain. They were hard working and cheerful. They took responsibility for whatever they were asked to do and just got on with the job. They loved freedom. They loved being independent. They knew how to stay out of trouble.
For the first hundred years after the Treaty of Waitangi New Zealanders produced some of the finest buildings in the world. From marae lost in the heart of the Ureweras through to St Mary’s Cathedral in the centre of Auckland we built with pride, integrity, and skill.
The rot began when the idea of building permits was introduced, surprisingly recently. Bureaucrats with no understanding of creative processes began meddling with the sophisticated, elegant ways in which buildings had traditionally been fabricated. They imagined that you could define an end result and ignore questions of culture or the personal and spiritual growth of those creating our built environment. Head thinking replaced heart feeling because love was too difficult to define.
The rot finally developed into the leaky building crisis. With the building industry now in control, our built environment began literally falling apart. It was not a problem which lawyers could solve.
Other cultures know that when in trouble you always look for a scapegoat. If you can find someone else to blame then it is possible to deflect the blame away from yourself. We have all found ourselves caught in this trap from time to time. Yet it was not part of our culture, because for a long period there was no one else to blame. Kiwis paddled their own canoes.
Faced with a crisis our inspectors never doubted their process of inspection. It is however not self-evident that inspectors improve standards. On the contrary they tend instead to lower standards to the lowest common denominator. Poets write poetry. Authors write books. Owner builders create wonderful living environments for their families. Those who can do none of these things become inspectors.
Many Kiwis inspire us and lift us up so that we become more than we might otherwise be. Many teachers recognise potential, and gently fan a flickering flame into life. We admire those who show us a path to take us beyond the horizon. In contrast no forgotten, anonymous building inspector or bureaucrat will ever feature on our banknotes.
The building industry never doubted their myth that seeking to make a profit was the route to excellence. It should have been obvious that the more you leave out the bigger the profit. Economics goes further and inevitably produces mediocrity because it assumes the need for repetitiveness and uniformity. Every house has now ended up looking like every other house. Even architectural awards look like each other. Only the people are different.
The obvious person to blame for the building crisis was the owner builder. The ordinary Kiwi bloke who had enough common sense to know that Spanish haciendas might be good in the desert but are not suited to New Zealand rain. In the political arena independent individuals are always vulnerable because they are not a cohesive force. When a common chippie goes along to a select committee hearing they are out of place because everyone else is wearing a suit. So the only person who was not to blame got all the blame.

Becoming a Licensed Building Practitioner (LBP) by answering a few questions over the phone does not inspire confidence in the alternative now on offer. Some of the inspectors in Christchurch have had only two days training. Recovery is more serious than that.
If we want a quality built environment we need a whole culture which understands building, and is involved, in many different ways, in the process. Knowing how to build is a basic skill just like knowing how to cook a meal, or how to read and write. Great poets and great literature will never result from stopping people reading. Leaving everything to self-styled experts is a fast track to national illiteracy.
Completely different systemic changes are needed. We do not issue permits for people, because we do not know how they are going to turn out. We do not stop beekeepers from climbing mountains.
1 March 2012 will be remembered as the day our culture died. We lost faith in ourselves. We handed responsibility for our lives over to self-styled experts with a proven track record of failure.
In an ideal world as we build we discover who we are, and explore the meaning of life. We grow and change, developing our sensitivity and awareness. Building is a spiritual journey, not a technical skill. It is a verb, not a noun.

No one else can do it for us.


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