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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Slow architecture Print E-mail

ImageFast architecture, like fast food, leaves much to be desired. The level of convenience goes up but sadly the quality goes down. Neither building nor cooking should be rushed.




Slow down, smell the roses, and be more fully alive.
The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance was all over before it began suggests Tony Watkins.

Slow architecture is about growth, discovery and adventure in the same way that slow food is about conviviality, conversation and friendship. It is a mistake to assume that architecture is about nothing more than shelter. Slow architecture gives form to culture, to place, and to stories. It is responsive to what UNESCO calls “intangible heritage”. This is not only a way of doing but also a way of thinking and an attitude towards life. With vernacular architecture you know where you are because the built environment is local in the same way that landscape, flora, fauna, and of course food, are local.
It is a mistake to assume that food is about nothing more than avoiding starvation. Every region has unique food and local delicacies and every chef adds that special personal touch. Globalised food may feed the body but it does not nourish the soul.
Fast food is not just slow food speeded up. The process is fundamentally different. Slow food begins at the fish market or the vegetable garden and is always responsive to season. It draws upon traditions such as grandmother’s recipe for soup or the skill needed to make the local cheese. Fast food begins with battery hens and it is the same in Istanbul as it is in New York. Fast food, like fast architecture, gives expression to carefully controlled and regulated uniform mediocrity.
Fast architecture is not just slow architecture speeded up. Fast architecture begins with the mind while slow architecture begins with heart and hand. The Cistercian monks who built Le Thoronet did not erect a building which would enable them to find God. They rather set out to find God and their search found expression in their monastery. Architects go to admire the built form but sadly come away convinced that they can design such a building. How you go about building is all important in slow architecture.
Architecture today is all over in the grand intellectual design gesture. Everything from that point on is concerned with tightening it up. The architect, the Council, and the building bureaucrats are all concerned with control. For them a house is seen as nothing more than a materialistic object and the people who will live in it, as best they can, are seen as consumers. The Building Act is concerned with consumer protection, not building. Our society’s deep religious commitment to fundamentalist materialism has reduced building to a rather boring, repetitive, technical process.
Slow architecture is very different. When a house is seen as a journey rather than a conclusion the process of building becomes an exploration of life itself. Every day there are discoveries. Sometimes they are about the place where the house is being built, or perhaps about the local community. Often they are discoveries made by the person doing the building about themselves. The material object becomes an excuse for exploring the meaning of life.
With cities a choice also needs to be made between “fast urban design” and “slow urban design”. Planners love rolling out their potato chip suburbs across the green fields of Albany, Botany Downs or Flat Bush. All the decisions, such as the need for everyone to own a car, are made in the minds of planners long before the irrelevant occupiers arrive. In contrast environments such as Westbourne Road in Remuera, which are admired for their excellence, grew slowly.
Our endless planning debates are irrelevant. The real decision, that planning is an intellectual activity, is never questioned. The heart and hand of heritage, for example, are beyond the understanding of legal debate. Love cannot be defined because it is so illogical.
Urban design and urban governance are inextricably linked. We might thus talk of “fast governance” and “slow governance”.
Traditional Devonport would be an example of slow governance. The island landscape form determined the extent of the community. The focus of the community became the wharf. The shops, the banks, the galleries and the Council all jostled together at the point where the wharf linked the island to the outside world. It was possible to know and meet all those who were making decisions affecting your life. It was all very logical because it had grown slowly over time.
Amalgamation in contrast would be an example of fast governance. It began with an intellectual idea which sounded appealing enough, as they always do, but lacked credibility. There were supposed to be economies of scale but the rates never went down. Communities however were destroyed by the new design idea. No one could find anything without a map because the urban logic was only in someone’s head and they had gone away long ago.
The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance was all over long before the first submission was made. The Terms of Reference for the Commission had already made a commitment to fast governance. The solution was destined to be sourced in head rather than heart or hand. The search was looking in the wrong place.
Since then we have seen one intellectual idea challenging another but they have all ended up looking the same. Making a choice between a hamburger and fish and chips is not really making a choice at all. One fast food is just like another fast food, in the same way that one potato chip suburb is just like any other fried chicken suburb.
Fast food, like fast architecture, fast urban design, or fast governance is not good value. It neither lingers in our memories nor is a wise use of resources. In contrast slow food, like slow architecture, slow urban design and slow governance, brings together head, heart and hand. It strengthens relationships among ourselves and also our relationship to the world around us, while reaffirming our identity. The process and the journey give us the chance to be alive and to have fun along the way.
Tony Watkins is an architect and an urban designer but he also enjoys good food. He has built several houses and along the way discovered a great deal about himself and the world around him.
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