Fifty years ago I wrote a thesis on “Architecture as liturgy”, as
opposed to architecture for liturgy. The book developed the idea that
the act of building was itself spiritual, rather than simply a
technical process which eventually resulted in a materialistic object,
which only then might be used for spiritual purposes. My thesis was
that a church was more than a place for worship. It was itself an act
This concept went much further than simply saying that building was a verb rather than a noun. In those pre-Vatican II days, before liturgy was the catalyst which changed the whole way of thinking of the Catholic Church, it suggested that how a building was built was all-important.
In vernacular architecture this idea had always been well understood, although usually not articulated, because there was no need for that. Vernacular cultures were kept alive as much through embracing building creativity, which in turn led to reflection and understanding, as through the retelling of stories. In the same way harmony with the natural world was also achieved through acts of involvement such as growing gardens, gathering fruit or meditating on a sunset. Building once changed our way of seeing, and resulted in personal growth.
Building once provided a context within which each individual could explore eternal questions. “Who am I?” for example, or “What is the meaning of life?”
The Midas touch changed all that. Economics consumed and finally destroyed the very purpose of building. The idea that buildings, like banknotes, represented money, sucked the lifeblood out of buildings. You only needed a printing press to make money, and you only needed a building industry to make buildings. The real global collapse occurred when people began making money out of money, and it was all over when buildings were built just to make money.
Today we usually build to protect ourselves from experience and truth. Our buildings shelter us from what we do not want to see or feel. Today through built-environment denial and escapism we avoid meaning. Once individuals embraced life in all its fullness and buildings strengthened relationships. Triple glazing now keeps out much more than the cold.
Within this degradation of the very purpose of building architecture has become a profession devoid of meaning. Once architects were philosophers and dreamers, pushing the edges of envelopes and exploring unknown territory, so that others might follow. Today architects are mere slaves of an economic system which if left unchecked will destroy the planet, our civilisation, and ultimately ourselves.
The final absurdity has been developing a whole culture which is built on denial of reality. New Zealand is well on the way. The fishing fleet and the shipyards have gone from the Wynyard Quarter, to be replaced by synthetic experiences. People are becoming so inadequate that they now need to prop up their own image with image architecture. They need to be constantly proving something to either themselves or everyone else.
Licensed building practitioners who know nothing at all about building, and even less about philosophy or culture, are the only people allowed to perform what should be a sacred act. Planners in Auckland or Christchurch who know nothing about planning, but a great deal about power and control, are just dictators. We have ended up with the ridiculousness of whole cities reduced to nothing more than materialistic objects. The debate about compact cities is not just bizarre. It is pitiful.
We should not be concerned about the collapse of the economic system. Collapse is our only hope. The real need in our time is for an orderly transition to a world free of economics, rather than financial chaos going nowhere. Some real planning is required. That will mean stepping outside the economic paradigm.
Recognising that how you go about building is all-important is an essential first step. This means going far beyond what John Goldwater used to call “builderliness”. We need to be concerned not only just with how a building gets put together, or taken apart, but also with how that process impacts on the lives of the people who do it. The process of building is too important to be left to a building industry.
New Zealand needs to decide what kind of people we want to be and how we are going to get there. Once of course this was a question which did not need to be asked. Our culture understood what it meant to be a kiwi. Everyone knew how to swing a hammer, fix a fence, or build a house. Now everyone sits around drinking lattes while sharing opinions about what other people ought to do. Activism means getting involved in consultation processes where everyone talks but no one can hear what anyone else is saying. No need to worry, while money can be made out of exploitation, if the future can only be postponed. The cargo-cult economy will deliver. Just a pity that our built environment is so abysmal. That is however only to be expected when it is the expression of an economic system which is even more abysmal.
Making a first step is a better strategy for bringing about the necessary change than developing a grand vision. To make that move forward you need to look back, as Maori would say. We could look back to Medieval building to ask how such perfection was achieved. It is however perhaps more fruitful, and much closer to home, to look at the kiwi bach.
The bach can only be understood as a spiritual process. It presents a total challenge to our current way of thinking, and also to our current way of practicing architecture. The bach does not fit any of the boxes. It threatens the whole economic system in every way, and is thus seen as something to be eliminated. Bach romanticism remains in the psyche of architects, but the image has been captured, distorted and finally used to support everything which it opposed.
A beach house, in contrast to a bach, is a materialist object which fits comfortably within our economic system. Our building industry, propped up by an oppressive local government regime and a supporting police state, is well suited to building beach houses. The people move in after it is all over. It is nice, respectable, and worth a lot of money when traded in the market place. A love affair for land agents.
It is the real bach rather than the fashionable image which suggests what our building future might be. With a beach house you take it all with you. With a bach you leave it all behind.
A bach begins with love of place rather than any desire to dominate or control. It begins with salt, sand, or perhaps the smell of the bush. There is no rush to get started because everything was there before we arrived. Permanence is not an issue when you are not obsessed with making money, so a bach touches the earth lightly. Probably it was all illegal and on someone else’s land, just like all our building, although we never admit that as we set up a whole system of denial. We do not own land. A bach is a recycling centre. The lumpy mattress and the old dresser got taken out on the weekend on a trailer. It cost nothing and was worth nothing.
Beyond all this it is the way in which a bach is built which really sets it apart from materialistic building. A bach builder sets out on a personal voyage of discovery. That discovery was more concerned with understanding the meaning of life than acquiring any mere technical skills. Growth means change so that a bach can never fit either the local government approval process which presumes you know who you are and where you are going, or the architectural idea of designing for the client. When a true bach was all over you could walk away because the building was not really important.
A bach was not only a means of embracing nature and wilderness, but also a way of falling in love with life. If all our building was like this most of our environmental problems would be over, and future generations would thank us for the world we have passed on to them, while admiring the beauty of what we achieved.
Looking at Medieval cathedrals or baches and admiring them is not enough. We need to learn from them.
A bach is a spiritual jouney, not a building.
Baches have more in common with medieval cathedrals than most people realise.