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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

The design of the Planning Department Print E-mail

Attic Design Studio
The University of Auckland has acknowledged in its Mission Statement that students learn as much from the environment within which teaching takes place as they do from the lectures themselves.








A brief history of the design of the Planning Department.

Maori move forward by looking back to the past. Destroying your past takes away your future and condemns you to living in a meaningless present.
Planners are always ahead of their time and this principle provided the foundation on which the design of the Planning Department was developed, long before any Mission Statement was written.
For thirty years the most significant research carried out in the Department has focused on the relationship between environment and education. Most did not realise that they were players in a game. They simply contributed by doing it their way, declaring their values because the spaces were designed to allow them to move beyond complaining to expressing their own preferences. The only tragedy was that most of the moves they made tended to restrict the options for future generations. Sustainability was the driving idea behind the original design, but the players who inherited a sustainable world too often did their best to destroy that sustainability. However the robustness of the original design allowed it to survive a great deal of misunderstanding.
The loneliness of the long distance planner
Every planner should take an oath to protect life and do no harm.
Good planners take the long term view. Geologists and astronomers make good planners precisely because in their world a million years is but the twinkling of an eye. Good planners understand that when they do harm to the delicate ecological balance of the universe it will take millennia for the equilibrium to achieve balance once again. Good planners measure every move they make against the impact it will have on the life of the planet. Their ethic is to protect life.
Of course there are many bad planners who understand none of this, but students in the Department have had the opportunity to learn all these things from the environment within which they were studying. They have also had the opportunity to watch the eternal struggle between good and evil being played out. In human affairs there will always be jealousy, resentment and misunderstanding. History sadly does not rate highly in the education of planners.
When a tree is cut down everything it had to tell us about climate for the last hundred years is lost. When a building is destroyed all the research which it had been doing is also lost.
Architects tend to take the short term view. They follow trends and fashions. Greek columns are in one year and out the next. Glass balustrades can be used to date a building with a fair degree of accuracy. Architects tend to demolish the work of other architects because they passionately believe that this year's fashion is just so superior to last year's fashion. Architects, sadly, are poorly suited to teach sustainability because for them this is just another fashion. Energy is "in" this year, with photovoltaics and triple glazing as the technical fix. Architects, as Tone Wheeler explained in the NZIA CPD programme, are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The 2007 contemporary problem is that the new corporate university does not attract people who are fully alive. Real research is dangerous and unpredictable. Pseudo research is not only safe, but also able to attract funding. Corporate structures support conformity rather than intellectual discourse. When the Planning Department was designed there was still a place for people with a passionate love of life.
Ivan Boileau
There are people who enjoy the doing, and there are people who enjoy telling other people what to do.
Ivan Boileau was a test pilot during the war. At that time designers did not have the luxury of ironing out all the problems before testing new planes so the survival rate for pilots was not good. Ivan was at the same time sensitive to beauty. Before he left for the Dordogne to spend his retirement restoring vernacular buildings he gave Tony the timber treasure trove he had gathered in his basement. Shee oak, tawa, rewarewa. Each piece waiting for a use worthy of its beauty. He loved timber. In France in loved working in stone, but in Aotearoa he loved working with timber.
Ivan had all the characteristics a good planner needs. Sensitivity, respect, impeccable ethics, a low tolerance for bureaucratic nonsense, and nerves of steel. He had always dealt with his university paperwork by ten in the morning through deciding that most of it did not need to be dealt with. This left him with time to wander around the Department, or the city, finding out what was really going on. His research was useful. He focused on the development of community.
The academic architects never understood how Planning ended up with the best spaces in the new building in the best part of the new building. They might have learned much from research into how they lost, but reacted instead with jealousy and resentment. The thirty year war had begun.
Only after Tony had retired from the ramparts would the Planners be over-run. Those who assassinated Caesar through jealousy imagined that they could be like him but they had destroyed themselves long before they lifted a dagger. After destroying the rich warmth and humanity of the architectural studios the academic architects set out to make the Planning Department into their own image. They did not understand the depth of sustainability.
Sustainability is concerned with diversity rather than conformity. The whole point of the design of the Planning Department was that it was different from the rest of the building. KRTA had proposed that the top two floors of the building should be exactly like all the concrete floors beneath. Ivan and Tony asked for a lightness of being. A hat to cap the building. The planners wanted to feel that they were indeed on top of the architects. Humour is critical for sustainability.
The planners also wanted a sense of place. At that time Tony was preparing an audio-visual presentation for the Ministry for the Environment to take this message to schools. It would be another twenty years before UNDP at Habitat II in Istanbul identified placelessness as the central problem facing the cities of the world. If you like New York then go to New York, but do not bring New York back home with you. Admire Oxford by all means, but remember that Rutherford came from Auckland, not Oxford. Those who no longer take pride in their whakapapa condemn themselves to endless wandering in the deserts of the world.
Knowing where you are within a building is also important. Ivan and Tony asked for the flat ceilings to be lifted up. The Design Studio became the Attic Studio. The bureaucrats never understood. Mike and Tony lifted up the "flat ceiling" lighting after the building was finished. The void above the sixth floor street brought the roof down to this level.
Unfortunately the KRTA draftsman who did the working drawings never understood that the skylights were designed to give a link back to the volcanic cone of Mt. Eden. The potential could have been realised when the leaky design was rectified, but the bureaucrats never understood the design. How could they know the correct questions to ask?
Planning is best seen as a sport
Edmund Hillary was given the task of setting up supply dumps to make it possible for the British explorer Vivian Fuchs to reach the South Pole. With his task done Ed thought he may as well go on to the Pole. He had to wait 17 days before Fuchs arrived. Fuchs was not amused.
The Planning Department had generous accommodation. We achieved this by creating a whole new Transport Planning Department, which occupied all of Level 7. The studio would become the Design Studio, the mythical professor's office became the Lippincott Room, Tony moved into the secretarial office, and there were three other spare offices. Small reminders of this political strategy remain. The glass panel in the door of Tony's office was to have made it possible to observe arriving visitors.
Only those who knew what had happened laughed quietly as they observed what others could not see. Architects and planners usually destroy not through malice, but rather because they have such a superficial understanding of the world around them.
The University Grants Committee could not think in three dimensions which opened up other possibilities. The east and west studios were designed so that mezzanine floors could be added at a later stage at minimal cost. This was never to be realised because although the word "studio" remains, the reality of studio teaching was allowed to die.
It was something of a revelation at that time to discover that some planners on the staff were no better at reading plans than the Grants Committee.
Architects believe that you first create spaces and then a community comes from somewhere to fill them up. Planners understand that if you first create communities you can let them get on and do their own building. Vernacular architecture is nothing more than unique communities realising their own identity.
While the academic architects were focused on design and appearance the planners developed visions of creating community. This resulted in two very different layouts of space. The two big planning traffic-generating studios were placed at the opposite ends of a connecting "street". This encouraged the greatest possible number of chance encounters between staff and students. In contrast the architects provided for the complete separation of staff and students with no possible chance encounters. They had not read Jane Jacobs. The architects understood nothing about urban design.
We also put kitchen facilities down on Level 2 to build community through chance encounter. Tony stayed up most of the night baking carrot cake for the opening but soon it was paying the fees of the students who were running it.
This concept of collegiality was finally killed off when the profit-making little Uniphoto business was closed down. This was where everyone from the Faculty met and mingled, staff and students alike. This was where gossip was exchanged and plots were hatched. It was about politics rather than business, and in that sense it was a dangerous threat to power structures.
Uniphoto became the entrance to the School. No stranger could ever find the Architecture Office. The architects envied the simple good design of the Planning Department. They might have learnt, but instead they sought to destroy. For a generation now the architects have been destroying the community of the city.
Functionally non-specific space.
In the sixties, before anyone had used the term sustainability we spoke about "long life, loose fit, low energy" buildings and this came to be championed by the RIBA. The idea of trashing architecture and sending it off to landfills in Jumbo Bins was clearly going to destroy the planet.
Because we learn so little about the history of design, as opposed to the history of fashion, most architects and planners presume that concepts such as "zero-waste" are new. In fact Stockholm was in 1972 and Habitat I was in 1976. New Zealand was ahead of the game as the environmental movement gained ground. All that idealism provided a foundation for the design of the new building for the Planning Department. Staff at that time were all involved in the real world and research was all action oriented.
The "long-life" approach to the design resulted in minimal maintenance, and even after the Architecture School had been completely refurbished the Planning Department still looked better, although it did of course belong to its time.
The "loose fit" approach led to the Planning Department being designed with a complex network of functionally non-specific spaces. Each space was also designed so that it could be used in diverse ways, The "lecture room" for example could be used in all four orientations, or diagonally. It could be hierarchical for lecturers who wanted to assert power, or free form and circular for lecturers who had a completely different approach to education.
This freedom presented a challenge to authoritarian personality types, and over the years they continued to assert that their way of seeing the world was the way that everyone else ought to see the world. When technology arrived it should have allowed for even greater freedom but instead it became a tyranny used to paralyse options.
In the university power point brought an end to oratory. The university had always been racist in recognising the written word but not the oral traditions of the Pacific, and this racism found its way into built form. The "loose fit" approach however created spaces appropriate to the oral tradition of Aotearoa.
Architects tend to be obsessed with function as they feel their existence is justified by their ability to satisfy functional needs, and after all, they say, this is what the client is paying them to do. One result of this is that architecture is constantly trashed because it cannot adapt. 40% of Auckland's waste stream is architecture on its way to landfills. Another result of functionally-specific architecture is that architects become poorly suited to urban design issues because cities are always multi-functional.
Over thirty years the functionally non-specific environment of the Planning Department has been teaching students about urban design.
The "low energy" approach gave Tony an opportunity to implement the lessons he had learned from living in a London attic flat. There was a gambling den in the basement of the buildings and the flat had to be one of the warmest in London. Back in New Zealand the planners could simply live on the architectural waste coming up from beneath them. The HVAC engineers never quite understood, and insisted on the conventional wisdom rather than the opportunities freely given by the natural world.
Diversity and complexity are essential foundations for sustainability.
Embodied energy
When the University threw out all its priceless Lippincott furniture it also threw out its stories and its traditions.
The concept of embodied energy has been slowly gaining traction in the architectural world, but only in a very limited way.
Glass and steel have high embodied energy. Timber has low embodied energy.
Timber can be grown sustainably. Timber minimises climate change.
Embodied energy goes beyond this simplistic view. The love of the designer or the love of the builder all become part of the energy embodied in the fabric of a building.
When buildings are destroyed their embodied energy is lost forever.
On time and under budget
The first question a sustainable architect asks is whether the building is really necessary.
Architects see sustainability as just another business opportunity. It costs a little more to make your building sustainable, whatever that means.
Much of the confusion has arisen from failing to make a distinction between autonomy and sustainability. An autonomous building is one which requires no external infrastructure to support it. A sustainable building in contrast actually produces a surplus. Autonomous buildings do not include the capital cost of creating the building in the equation. Sustainable buildings recover their capital cost over time.
Reducing the capital cost of the Planning Department was important in making sustainability possible, quite apart from any budget constraints. Sustainable architects do not constantly seek for a bigger budget.
The furniture design for the Planning Department brought howls of protest. It was considered to be of too high a quality for a university. There was indeed a sense of luxury about all the soft seating and the extensive use of kauri.
The problem for the critics was that the furniture came in under the budget provided for the cheaper alternative.
Thirty years later with almost no maintenance the furniture is still good.
Sustainable development
Over time the concept of sustainability has been captured and it  has metamorhosised into "sustainable development". At first this seemed to be an oxymoron, but only because "development" had come to mean "destruction". Sustainable development is nothing more than the art of protecting and enhancing our whakapapa so that what has been passed down to us might be enriched and passed on to others.
To understand the educational role of the design of the Department it is necessary to look beyond "architecture as materialistic consumer object".
The history of the design of Planning Department is the history of an idea. The idea of sustainability.
It is not difficult to see why architects would seek to destroy the building as they struggle to catch up. The theory books suggest that architects should be the innovators, not the planners.
The building embodied the ideas and the ideals of sustainabilty at a time when no one had heard of the concept. It was totally appropriate that the first draft of chapter 7 of Agenda 21 should have been written in the Attic Studio.
The idea of sustainability has triumphed and it has swept the world. The design of the Planning Department has done its job well. It has become a priceless relic not because of what it is, but rather because of what it has achieved.


Attic Design Studio