The fundamental connectedness of things
A book review by Greg O’Brien
“Thinking it through”
by Tony Watkins, with photographs by Haruhiko Sameshima
Karaka Bay Press/Rim, $30
At one point in this thought-provoking and often inspiring collection of essays, architect Tony Watkins describes how the shell-laden path down to his home at Karaka Bay, Auckland, came to be replaced by a heavy-duty concrete thoroughfare. This was back in the 1990s. Whereas ‘the old path hugged the landscape, emphasising the landform and encouraging people to relate more closely to the earth. Now the straight lines of the new path became a symbol of power, and the alienation of people from place.’ He then itemises the environmental damage stemming from the new walkway: erosion, damage to the pohutukawa trees, heavy metal deposited in the bay, lowering of the water table and contamination of the shellfish beds.
Thinking it through reminds us, time and again, of the connectedness and interdependence of Humanity and Nature. First published in Home and Building magazine between 1988 and 1996, the essays propose a holistic approach to architecture, town-planning, conservation, and just about every other aspect of life. While never pushy Watkins is a man with a mission, extolling the virtues of sustainability, the ritual element of human life, aesthetic and ethical values, the need of community and, again and again, this fundamental connectedness of things.
An ex-lecturer in the architecture department at the University of Auckland, Watkins is most at home in the field of design. He reminds us that design is also, fundamentally, ‘the art of making connections… Designers are sensitive and feel pain in a way that totally escapes the isolated specialist.’ He certainly feels pain when confronted with the rampant monetarism, bereft values and impaired thinking that are often extolled as virtues in contemporary New Zealand. Yet far from being a hard pill to swallow, this is a curiously joyful and optimistic book. Haru Sameshima’s lively photographic montages transform the book into a colourful, animated and informal conversation between a writer and a visual artist. After these early ‘collaborations’ for Home and Building, Sameshima went on to become one of New Zealand’s leading contemporary photographers.
For Watkins, the Karaka Bay path embodies the contact we all have with the earth. In the broadest possible sense, he asks us to consider what path we are on. Humanity needs to consider itself a part of the cosmos rather than to persist with the self-annihilating delusion that we are masters of it. We need to build sensitive and sympathetic pathways, in harmony with the physical and metaphysical world. And when they are washed away – as is nature’s right – we need to rebuild them.
I remember walking along the old path at Karaka Bay before it was ‘upgraded’ – the brittle crunch of shells underfoot, the ‘pfff’ sound of jandals on sand, the gritty soles-of-your-feet feel of the place, and the sandy, salty breeze meandering among the pohutukawas. Something of that too is enshrined in Watkins’ prose. Thinking it through is as light-footed and beguiling as it is wise, soulful and indispensable.
First published in Tui Motu InterIslands September 2013