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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Negative into positive Print E-mail

ImageSuccessful people make a success of failure.

High achievers learn the art of turning negative energy into positive energy.

ImageIt is not a new idea. Ancient self defence techniques often used an enemy's energy to bring about their downfall. Confronting a punch with a punch means taking the full force of the blow. If, on the other hand, you catch the punch and take it further you carry the energy past you along with the protagonist as you move them off balance.

We have recently seen the technique used by significant players with spectacular success.

The building industry has been responsible for building a great number of leaky buildings. None of the leaky buildings were built by owner-builders. A naive person would have concluded that legislation should have been introduced to encourage more owner-building and to put the building industry out of business. The opposite has happened.

The negative energy of the leaky homes failure of the building industry has been very skilfully used  to strengthen the iron grip of the industry. The new knee-jerk reaction "Building Act 2004" has introduced draconian control over owner-builders who had nothing to do with the problem. Those who failed have emerged as champions. The innocent have carried the cost of the systemic failure.

Those not familiar with the techniques of turning failure into success must be wondering how it all happened. How did we end up with a Building Act which does not even mention of the art of building?

With similar skill both Auckland City Council and Manukau City Council have turned their systemic urban design failures into triumphs.

In Manukau the economic temptation presented by open space which had been set aside to protect the flight path to Mangere International Airport was too much.
The green space success of a past generation of far sighted designers was turned into a failure to make a profit. The city is unique in the world for having been built under the flight path of an international airport. However this astonishing urban design failure has now been skilfully turned into a success with planners working away beneath the roar of 747s to control the lives of people who would never have been so stupid.

In Auckland City the "Railway Land" presented the greatest urban design opportunity of the last hundred years. It was the perfect situation to show what could be achieved by contemporary urban design. Auckland City Council amalgamated the titles and there were no obstacles to what might have been achieved. Maori became part of the mix.

The result is a theme park which draws together in one shambolic place the most wonderful examples of urban mediocrity. It is all there. A car sales yard, a fried-chicken outlet, a video store, a burger-bar, mini-storage, petrol pumps, a car wash, some tacky suburban shops out of the sixties, and even some badly oriented slum dwellings. A railway line weaves a drunken path through the middle of it all. With no planning whatsoever it could not have been worse.

A naive observer might conclude that after an urban design failure of this magnitude the Auckland City Council might hang its head in shame and let someone else have a go. Even the casual observer knows that beautiful cities are the result of a very different planning process.

Not so. The negative energy of urban design failure has been skilfully used to create the mirage that the Auckland City Council is the urban design champion to lead us out of the wilderness they have created. The recently announced rate increase is being used to pay for more controls over the people who have shown themselves, in contrast to the Council, to be very competent urban designers. Performance based funding would suggest a rate reduction as more appropriate.

The culture of negative bureaucratic control has triumphed over positive human creativity, while those who put performance ahead of promises must be left wondering where they went wrong.

The Auckland City Council may not know much about urban design but they certainly know how to turn failure into success.

Declaring 2005 to be the "Year of the Built Environment" has provided yet another opportunity to turn failure into success. Soul-less cities and soul-less architecture are the inevitable result of a cult of materialism which sees cities and buildings as objects. There is a difference between a house and a home. There is a very big difference between a city to look at and a city to live in.

The failure of materialism is all around us, but so are the temptations. Architectural magazines are crowded with beautiful objects while there is seldom a person to be seen. Materialistic urban design assumes that the objects come first and the people come later. Materialists want more roads while only those who realise there is more to life than restlessness ask about the joy of the journey.

Using the "Year of the Built Environment 2005" to celebrate the object misses the point that the object is the problem not the solution. When architects design better objects they are imprisoning people, not setting them free. The process of making architecture is more important than the resulting product. That process is too important to be left to architects.

When architecture becomes a process of producing ever better objects people become disempowered. Cities will only become friendly places once again, and places where we feel we belong, when we begin empowering people rather than asking them to answer surveys.

Meanwhile successful architects are busy turning our built environment failure into a business success. Protocols and task forces are little more than avoidance techniques. The architectural failure of the material object has been turned into a triumphant success for materialism.

Those who reap the rewards and go to Italy to enjoy their holidays in the wonderful vernacular hill towns must weep at what we are doing to ourselves. Once we all knew how to build. The recently passed "Architects Act 2005" makes architecture a business, not a profession.

As a nation which is obsessed with success rather than happiness it is important to recognise that failure is not a problem for successful people. On the contrary it can become a valuable source of energy.

We are fortunate to live in times when there is a great deal of negative energy just waiting to be turned into positive energy. When times were tough and there really were problems everyone was so busy doing something about them that no one had time to complain. As our society has become more affluent, and people have become disempowered, everyone has begun to complain about everything. Particularly urban design.

Individuals and institutions have shown us the way. We now only need to become successful communities. It may not be as difficult as everyone imagines.

Problem solving is an inefficient and very expensive waste of resources. A change of attitude offers a cheap alternative.

Tony Watkins

Tony Watkins is a Co-Director of the International Union of Architects Sustainability Work Programme.
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