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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Architectural colonialism Print E-mail

ImageArchitects, planners, the bureaucrats who issue permits, developers and even new people moving into an old street all have one thing in common, suggests Tony Watkins. They are outsiders.


 Outsiders have a different world-view from insiders so that misunderstandings and conflict between them are inevitable.






Outsiders not only put up a flagpole, hoist a flag and declare that this “new” country they have found, or street they would like to move into, belongs to them. They also establish laws and administrative systems to ensure that any discussion is carried out on their terms. To say that what they do is legal rather misses the point that newcomers have the audacity to make laws which enshrine their own world-view.

Outsiders discuss architectural style, density, or their concept of liveability. Insiders get on with life and are dismayed that no one notices the old peach tree, or the log where Mavis always takes a rest on her daily walk. Residents are invited by those in power to take part in a discussion about the built environment which is not their discussion. We might call this architectural colonialism.

The aborigines in Australia demonstrated their ability to lead a sustainable life style by getting on with it, for 100,000 years or so. The newcomers not only brought new ideas and new values but also a new definition of sustainability. It was concerned with double-glazing or insulation, which the aborigines had never realised they needed. In the twinkling of an eye one of the greatest civilisations the world has known had been destroyed and 100,000 years worth of knowledge had been lost. When the Queensland Premier this week dismissed the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef as just an unfortunate by-product of getting rich it felt like end-game.

We need to remember that the Spaniards destroyed whole civilisations in South America so that they might become one of the richest nations in the world. Now Spanish bankers are hoping that all will be forgiven and forgotten, and the Germans will bale them out. The lessons are there for us all to learn, if only we bothered to take a cursory look at the history of economics.

The pattern is much the same at the small scale.The locals know where the birds nest, and that the tuis will turn up when the kahikatea berries are ripe. The locals know how the storms come and go, with tales of the big one fifty years ago. They remember the sign which used to exist but was stolen twenty years ago to be melted down for scrap metal and never replaced by the council. They value the place where the now-famous yachtsman first learned to sail. An immense amount of local knowledge is enshrined in the whakapapa of place.

Outsiders never talk about any of these things because local stories are not part of their built environment memory. Most Aucklanders have never met any of the anonymous planners who run their lives and tell them how to live. No planner has ever visited their street. No one from council ever comes to the local parties. Why would anyone invite them when they are strangers? Architects come and go, and you never see them again. Developers at best leave behind a trail of destruction and take away everyone’s gold in their galleons. To fight back against council bureaucrats is hopeless when they have the guns and the police to go with them.

Comparing one architectural consumer product with another misses the point. Insiders get on with their lives in spite of the architecture and what the architectural debate is about remains a complete mystery to them. Giving awards to architectural objects is a very strange idea to those who just want to spend their time a garden which never got a permit. Insiders fail to articulate any of this because their concerns are not intellectual. Their focus is on hearts rather than heads. Outsiders spread around a few beads and blankets and feel affronted if everyone does not make them welcome.

Heritage is not about buildings. It is rather concerned with a way of life, and a way of seeing the world. Essentially it is about belonging. As a broad generalisation you could say that insiders are those who belong and outsiders are those who do not.
The game of course can become a little confused. Sometimes outsiders defend local values, particularly when locals do not see themselves as being anything other than normal. Sometimes insiders sacrifice local values when they become consumed by greed or the lust for power. The contrast historically is between the Bay of Islands where the outsiders raised a flag while the insiders did a deal, and the Hokianga where the outsiders were absorbed until they were lost among the mangroves, adopting the values of the locals. Even today it is impossible for people from the Bay of Islands to understand those from the Hokianga.

When outsiders arrive with a materialist view of the world, talking about densities or bay windows, they have nothing in common with locals who are talking about a peculiar mix of spiritual values along with gossip about the violent argument two neighbours had last week.  It seems astonishing that those with colonial power do not realise that no one can hear what anyone else is saying.
Systemic problems can only be resolved by radical solutions. Power needs to be replaced by respect. Telling people how to live their lives needs to be replaced by listening carefully to what others are saying through the way they live out their lives. Those unable to give up their lust for power or money need to be normalised though a feedback loop which allows them to feed off themselves rather than others and the environment.

Institutionalised architectural colonialism continues to thrive, even in a world where everyone pretends that colonialism is no longer acceptable. Every country is different. Every street is different. Only outsiders think they are all the same.
Tony Watkins is an architect, a planner, and a Karaka Bay insider.

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