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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Resilient bach Print E-mail

ImageResilient baches sustain resilient cultures.


Baches are more concerned with culture than architecture. 







 All architecture  should be concerned with culture first and only then with building, but for the moment let us look just at the bach. Mountain huts, would be another building type clearly concerned more with culture than with architecture. Mark Pickering's book "Huts" brings these buildings to life by telling their stories.


ImageResilient people bounce back from disaster.


There is an art in turning negative enrgy into positive energy. It is not easy, just as life is not easy, but taking advantage of setbacks can be very rewarding. 


The root of the word disaster is astro, or “lucky star” in Italian. It seems to me that we often make our luck. Zorba the Greek used to say “To be alive is to undo your belt and go out looking for trouble”. We are so obsessed with comfort and security that we ignore the dynamic ground under our feet. Auckland has had two earthquakes in the last two years. Anyone who thinks we will never have another earthquake is dreaming.



ImageNew Zealand signed up to the United Nations “Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters” but did nothing about it.


Take-it-or-leave-it bach romanticism is not the same as life-or-death-survival of our nation and our culture. 





Bureaucrats think they are brilliant at handling disasters, while they think individuals are hopeless. Individuals on the other hand know that bureaucrats run for cover when the chips are down, leaving ordinary people to fend for themselves. 



ImageThere is nothing wrong with being different.


Diversity and complexity are necessary foundations for sustainability. 





Before we begin I want you to accept two important principles. Unless you do you will not be able to get your head around what I am going to say. Each deserves a full lecture, but we do not have time for that. Those in power feel threatened by the bach. Auckland City is afraid of the bach.


ImageOur council, our government and our planners have completely lost the plot.


The cultures which survive are not the most powerful, but those most responsive to change.



In seeking for power and control our government and our planners get the very first move wrong. They support a unified, globalised power structure which in turn is supports them.



ImageA unified, global, free-market economy is doomed to fail.


Our economic system cannot change and thus all it can do is to get bigger, making the rich richer along the way.



We are now living in a police state, with government taking desperate measures to blame owner-builders for a leaky building crisis caused by having slowly allowed an industry, concerned with profit and power, to take over the built environment.


ImageWe need disaggregation of both structures and infrastructure.


We need different solutions for different individuals.






The one solution fits all concept does not work in medicine, in housing, in planning and in government.


ImageFundamentalism is a much bigger problem than climate change.



Polarisation is the kiss of death wherever it occurs.





The second big principle which I want you to accept is that life is lived in grey areas, not where it is black and white. Polarised thinking has  consumed our society. Good and evil. Right and wrong. Guilty and not guilty. Rich and poor. Affordable and unaffordable. Us and them, knowing that they are not like us. Unfortunately our brains are hardwired for polarisation.


ImageFill the seats of justice With good men, not so absolute in goodness As to forget what human frailty is. Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd


The Family of Man MOMA New York


Instead of taking a fundamentalist view by comparing what is good and what is bad, it is better to understand comparing good with good so that we might understand differences. Saying something else is wrong does not mean that what I am saying is right.





ImageTeaching is arrogant.


Education is humble.



Humble buildings make you welcome. 



I do not expect anyone to agree with me. Truth is found in pitting yourself against the universe, not in libraries. “Architecture’s evil empire” as just a rehash of other books by someone who obviously had never built anything.





ImageA waiata lightens the tongue.



Baches are all about stories and memories. 


Last month I put forward the proposition that baches were all about stories. It seems appropriate then to begin with yet another story.



A couple of weeks back I headed off to Coromandel for the opening of the 25th Anniversary Coromandel Group show. I took with me a Japanese friend and her 11 year old son, who were fleeing the Fukushima nuclear disaster. We had a flat tyre while crossing the Hauraki Plains. It was the first flat tyre I had had in perhaps ten years. In a few minutes everything from the boot was spread out on the side of the road, and in twenty minutes we were on our way again. The 11 year old decided it was the most exciting thing on his trip. Who needs a bungy jump when you can have a flat tyre, and get involved in fixing it? What had seemed to him to be a rather tedious trip to get somewhere suddenly became the events along the way. In my last talk I called this journey. By some miracle we were at the opening on time.

The next day we headed off to Stony Bay and had a second flat tyre. I thought of Oscar Wilde “To lose one parent is a tragedy; to lose two parents is carelessness.” Now we needed a whole new set of skills. Beyond being self-reliant there was the need for community. We had a table booked at the Peppertree Restaurant and we needed to be there in 45 minutes to meet Barry Brickell and a group of other friends. The first vehicle to come along stopped to help. Yes, he would take my guests through to the restaurant. Yes, he would wait a minute or two until I had the wheel off so that he could also take the wheel and me to Driving Creek. He went further and rang a mate who arrived with a big block of manuka to put under the car to stop the jack sinking into the ground and creating an impossible situation. We all knew what needed to be done and why. We were all at the restaurant on time and had a wonderful night of celebration, laughter and story telling. Barry took me to task by saying “The Human House” was too dogmatic in trying to convert people to my way of thinking. I took him to task over his gallery. He knew I would. We stayed in his old railway carriage. Helen did attempt to get the AA involved but I knew that would mean missing the dinner and all the wonderful fun. She rang back and cancelled.

In Christchurch it was different. Civil Defence got there first. Back in the 60s I was part of the Disaster Response Unit operating out of Oxford University. We concluded that, apart from providing medical aid and food, it was critical to not let anyone in authority near a disaster for the first ten days. People were resilient, authorities were not. That is what we saw in Christchurch. The police produced a book to say how wonderful they were, and the mayor held memorial celebrations to say how wonderful he was, but I am still waiting for a book on the amazing people of Christchurch who suffered so tragically at the hands of both government and local government.




ImageImageThe resilience of both government and local government in Christchurch was the worst the United Nations had ever recorded.


The resilience of the people, in contrast, was fantastic.


For many years I was involved with search and rescue. In the early days it was a self-help organisation. If any of our mates got into strife we went out to give them the help they needed. Much later the police got involved. I remember the first joint exercise. We were all soaking in the Waiwera hot pools at the end of day when we were told we had to get out because one of the search parties was missing. The police. We went out, found them and returned to the hot pools. Smart uniforms are not what you need when there is a job to be done and decisions to be made. For many years I was a tour guide. Most people thought it was easy. It was, until something went wrong, and then you had to be very quick on your feet. I have saved a few lives, but you never talk about it.




ImageImageTo destroy our baches is to destroy ourselves.


Getting NZHPT to preserve corpses in formaldeyde is a waste of time.




All this is a long introduction to the United Nations programme for building reslience to disasters. Put another way, when measured against the UN criteria, why was the response of government and local government to the Christchurch earthquake the worst ever recorded anywhere in the world? To my mind it was because we have destroyed the bach culture, which was all about building resilience. If you have never changed a tyre then I suppose a flat tyre is a disaster. If the AA rescues you then your resilience is reduced. You become authority dependent. This is fine until the big one comes and no one turns up to help. I argued against centralising all Auckland’s medical services into one hospital built on the edge of a volcano. In even a simple disaster Auckland could end up with no hospital. There is an argument for a disaggregated water supply. Any terrorist who wanted to destroy Auckland would only need to poison the water supply to eliminate all of us in less than 24 hours. It would be both effective and inexpensive. Baches know all about disaggregation. They also know a lot about other things. I want to explore a few of them.




ImageNo need to look at this. We will come back to it. However as we look at the detail I would ask you though to allow me to make a few generalisations. The bach is such an enormous conceptual challenge that an hour is only enough to skim the surface.





ImageElitist design could be called architectural consumerism.


Elitist design can be seen as the intellectual activity of a single intellect which precedes action.


(There are many people working in the office but the “brand” is always Richard Rodgers.)




ImageThis activity is concerned with solving a problem which is functional using known means and resources.


(We know what is the space for, and every product can be identified.)





ImageImageVernacular could be called appropriate design. It belongs.


Vernacular design can be seen as the craft activity of a whole culture exploring life through event. (We are our whakapapa.)









This activity is concerned with expressing a vision, which is non-specific, in response to means and resources. (We are all different, and we use local and found materials).



The “affordable” housing enquiry forgot to ask the obvious question. Can the environment afford the house?











ImageNumerous other design methodologies might include the skilled activity of a team of experts, responsive to change.








Image This activity could be concerned with satisfying personal wants and needs while allowing for flexibility and taking account of means and resources.


Better to have some of the characteristics of the bach, rather than none. 







ImageThe mind.




Power, efficiency, achievement. Abstract thought, intellectual satisfaction, aesthetic pleasure.










ImageThe heart.




Autonomy, self sufficiency, self fulfilment. Love, emotional satisfaction, tactile pleasure.


Scarpa’s maze in Venice is not only seductive. You know exactly where in the world you are. The problem with mind architecture is that it is placeless, and finally all ends up looking the same.Mere







ImageConcentration of power.












ImageDistribution of power.







We keep rebuilding Queen Street and can never work out why it always ends up being a mess. The planners identified Westbourne Road as one of the most pleasant areas in Auckland, but failed to notice that it was not planned.









Judged by intention.

What we say.







ImageNon verbal.


Judged by results.

What we do.







ImageThe problem is known and it can be defined.


We know the purpose of life.

A closed world view.








ImageThe problem cannot be known.


It is discovered.

Life is a mystery.

An open-ended world view.







ImageWe shape our environment to enable us to do.




Product is primary.




Image We shape our environment to enable us to be.


Process is primary.





The bach is always owner-built.





ImageImageImageWe form materials to our image.


Energy intensive.


High technology.


We find our image within our materials.


Energy efficient.


Appropriate technology.





















ImagePlanning approval is not possible.













ImageBaches are concerned with autonomy, self sufficiency, the heart rather than the mind, a distribution of power, an open-ended world view, appropriate technology, waste reduction and much much more.


Anyone wanting to learn about green architecture should begin by studying bach culture rather than bach buildings.




Bach culture is a living culture. It is an attitude and a way of doing. It is in a constant state of renewal. Growth means true growth rather than just getting bigger.










ImageIt is not just that baches need to be part of our future.


Without baches we do not have a future.




You do not prepare for life. You just get on with it. The best preparation for tomorrow is to live to the full today. Dealing with all life’s small disasters is the best preparation for the big disasters. Life insurance is a peculiar waste of time. If planners led inspirational lives they would gain some credibility as people to move us forward. Tonight I have had all the fun because I have been active while you have been passive.






ImageBaches have made us the nation we are.



They are the way of the future.


I always remember 3000 people in the Civic watching “An inconvenient truth”. After such a powerful film all Al Gore could do was to suggest that we should change our light bulbs. Everyone began walking out. At the end of “Economic hit man” all James Perkins could suggest was to walk to the shops. My suggestion is that we throw out the hopeless, dumb people running our lives, whether they are in planning or in government, and start building baches.