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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Buildings with nothing to say Print E-mail

ImageOne person will travel the world and arrive home with nothing to say. Another person walks down to the corner dairy and comes back with a story.



When Gaylene Preston, herself a wonderful weaver of stories, made this comment, she might well have been talking about buildings. A building may be designed by a world-famous architect. It may be documented with hundreds of sheets of drawings. It may meet the most stringent requirements of the most demanding building inspector ever cloned. It may comply with every known regulation and planning scheme. It may use the most lavish of rare marbles. The building may be flawless in every other respect, and yet have nothing to say.

It would be better if such a building had never been built. You cannot hear yourself speak for the deafening noise of buildings which only shout. They contribute nothing to civilisation or culture.

In contrast a tree-house built by a child from trash may have the most wonderful stories to tell. Owner-built homes are seldom "frozen music". Dreams and drama are the stuff of which they are made.

Owner-builders need courage to step outside the mould. They need tenacity to hang onto their beliefs. They need to be gentle, even though this makes them vulnerable. They need passion and love, for these provide the foundation of craftsmanship. To succeed they need to be careful observers, paying attention to detail. To survive they need a sense of humour.

Owner-building is not a technical choice. It is an attitude which belongs to those who want to go out and embrace life in all its fullness. This attitude makes for a good story teller. Everyone knows that when you call in to see an owner-builder you will end up, with a cup of coffee in your hand, listening to stories.

The stories will be as odd and eccentric as the people and their houses. The only common thread will be the ability of these stories to give form to a truth you always knew, but had never been able to express.

Who has not sat in a derelict settler's cottage and listened to silent stories of hardship and deprivation? Who has not sat among the crumbling bricks of some past civilisation to hear stories of cultures long gone?

The Modern Movement in architecture took away our stories. Everything was to be mass produced. Everything was to be globalised.

The glossy architectural magazines took away our stories. Intellectual critique was substituted for tactile pleasure.

Developers took away our stories. They had nothing to say. Not even about being a nomad.

The planners took away our stories. They talk about sustainability but fail to realise that cultures are sustained by story-telling.

Building inspectors and bureaucrats took away our stories. They are never interested in listening. They know they have heard it all. After all, they are experts.

Standards Associations took away our stories. Great story-tellers like Shakespeare broke all the rules only because life itself breaks all the rules.

The universities took away our stories. The erudite written word became a substitute for an oral tradition.

Fortunately there are still owner-builders left to tell us who we are. They sing the songlines of our land and our existence. Without them we would die. Their time will come again, and when it does every home will be owner-built. Every building will have a story to tell.

Tony Watkins.

This article was first published to celebrate 100 issues of The Owner-Builder magazine.
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