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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

The new curriculum Print E-mail

ImageIn 1993 attempts to have the built environment included in the school curriculum were defeated. It has however been worth the wait. In the old curriculum students would have simply learned "about" the built environment, and this would have served only to reinforce an existing order which has brought the world close to ecological collapse.




The new curriculum is very different. It invites students to not only take control of their destiny, but also to take responsibility for the outcome of their actions. The "skills pupils will now learn" are those which they will need for realising a built environment democracy. 

The emphasis on "self management" in the new curriculum means that pupils will learn how to manage their own affairs rather than having developers and bureaucrats do this for them. This means that they will be able to take control of their built environment, developing a sense of place and a sense of belonging through participating in the creative process. At last they will be freed from the public relations spin of land agents and council planners. 

Learning about "relating to others" implies an equality in the relationship. The built environment dictatorship we have grown used to is a direct reflection of power structures in our society. Our cities glorify wealth rather than life. Rather than learning how to fill in survey forms and attend council hearings, where even if their opinions were listened to they would be ignored, pupils will now learn about shared decision making.
True "participation" means learning about taking risks in a risk-averse society. It means having the courage to be different in a society obsessed with conformity. Building your own house requires few technical skills, but it does demand a deep understanding of stories, culture, and place. Building your own house is a spiritual journey.
Learning about "contribution" in the new curriculum means having respect for those who have gone ahead of us as well as those who will follow. Rather than beginning with the destructiveness of a bulldozer pupils will come to understand how much they might learn from the built environment, just as they might learn from the wisdom enshrined in their libraries, or from the way in which a tree has responded to wind.
"Thinking" is dangerous, because when you see clearly it is difficult to avoid taking action. The greatest tragedy of the built environment is that almost no one thinks about it. Planners certainly do not. They sprawl leaky homes over the hillsides, condemning future generations to being endlessly satisfied with their hybrid car alternative to community. Pupils who know how to think will understand the meaning of enough and may even be able to explain the term to councils. Pupils who think about counter-productivity will be able to take global warming in their stride instead of wasting their lives changing light bulbs.
Learning about "using language, symbols and texts" will make it instantly clear to pupils that the built environment is a language. Buildings speak to us, even though so many of them have nothing to say. Cities are symbolic. The text which is written in the built environment is not only powerful but also impossible to escape from. The built environment of schools begins teaching long before anyone walks into the classroom.
The "values at the centre of lessons" in the new curriculum suggest what a built environment democracy might be like.
"Ecological sustainabilty" means more than adding on a few gimmicks like composting toilets or triple glazing. Only when buildings and cities are seen as living entities totally interconnected with the living natural world will good health for us all be possible. Fatty food is not as dangerous as fatty architecture.
"Excellence" in the built environment means doing less, but doing it better. Excellence of course is more than awards and photographs in the magazines. Throughout history those who seek for perfection have taken a different path from those who seek to escape from their insecurities through materialism. Pupils will learn how love can transform not only lives but also the built environment.
Learning about "innovation" will give students a chance to break free from the bondage of controls, performance standards and codes of compliance. We know that all these have resulted only in permits for leaky buildings and built form mediocrity, and yet vain hope remains undinted by failed performance.
"Curiosity" is not possible in a disempowering built environment. Even a great architect like Alvar Aalto had a hideaway lost in the forest where he experimented with new architectural ideas. The micro-management of both architectural staff and architectural students at the University of Auckland has destroyed curiosity. The very possibility of real research has been destroyed. No ideas will ever come from left field because no one is ever allowed to go out there. Now freedom is fortunately to be restored in both primary and secondary education.
"Diversity" is of course the key to sustainability. Monoculture means certain death. Teaching enforces conformity while in contrast education draws out the uniqueness of the individual. Built environment democracies are notable for their complexity and intricacy. In the new curriculum students will learn how to be enriched by diversity, rather than just being taught to tolerate architectural difference.
All this of course leads to "community". The greatest problem facing local government is facelessness and this is perfectly reflected in the built environment. The person who built what we are expected to live in dissolved the company and disappeared with the loot last week. Community begins when you know who everyone is. Peter Salmon may be pondering whether to opt for "big-facelessness" or "not-quite-so-big-facelessness", while the power brokers complain about apathy, but at least the students in our schools will now begin learning why there is violence in cities. The built environment is violent long before the people arrive.
The new curriculum dares to look at many of the questions which have been carefully ignored by the architectural profession. Ten years ago who would have dreamed that our children would be asked to guide us towards built environment democracy.
If climate change has achieved all this then perhaps it has been a good thing after all.

Tony Watkins

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