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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Panache 6 Print E-mail

ImageThe Institute of Architects recognizes St Heliers.






It should have come as no surprise that a St Heliers house featured among the winners in the recently announced NZIA Architectural Awards. Within a stones throw of the winning house are a dozen other houses of architectural significance.

They are very different from each other and in their own ways all slightly eccentric. They step outside the notion of formulaic “guidelines” for local character or even the expectations of what makes a winner. What sets St Heliers architecture apart is an extra ingredient. Words like style, flair, or delight come to mind. If you had to choose a single word it would of course be “panache”.

People who are confident and self-assured take themselves for granted, and this freedom makes it possible for them to step outside the envelope rather than just pushing the edges. To belong in St Heliers means, for example, having a dash of informality to play against formality. The throw-away tousle of hair which is exactly right, and the perfect foil to what otherwise might be dull perfection. The unlikely colour combination which breaks all the rules and makes heads turn. Not for show but rather for the sheer love of life. The confidence to carry off the unexpected.

The problem the Council has had trying to define the character of the area or the village is that St Heliers people have always lived outside the definitions. They are spontaneous and unpredictable. Surprise comes easily to them, and they live in a realm which is beyond the dull hand of bureaucratic power.

When Doug Armstrong noted in Panache 4 that “the Council sometimes gets it right” he left unanswered the question as to why the Council normally gets it wrong. It is a cultural question. Control leads to conformity. Applying uniform standards will lead to nowhere-in-particular rather than a super-city. Those who want a city with style might learn from St Heliers.

At one level we admire those who dare to be different. At a deeper level we need to recognize that our very survival depends on them. Diversity and complexity are the very foundations on which sustainability is built. These are more important than insulation or energy-saving. The enquiring mind does not ask why, but rather why not.

Developer building does exist in St Heliers but it can be quickly recognized by all the usual clichés. People who are uncertain about who they are buy a façade. Democracy is something different. Democracy empowers people. The architecture of democracy begins with people taking control of their own lives.

It is eccentricity which catches the eye of architectural judges. They are not just looking for good-quality architecture. They are looking for buildings which will set the human spirit free.

It is possible to live a whole life and yet not ever be alive. That is not the St Heliers way. Winning is just a bonus in St Heliers, and not of great moment in a much wider scheme of things. St Heliers makes its own rules and breaks its own rules. Nothing in life ever turns out to be quite as you expected. Fortunately. Tony Watkins

“The Human House”, the latest book by award-winning author Tony Watkins, is available in our local St Heliers Public Library.





First published in Panache 6, November 2009 

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