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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

SOS Heritage 2012 Print E-mail

ImageOur living heritage makes us who we are.









The UN Charter begins “We the people…” not “we the corporations…” or even “we the governments…”

To understand what is happening at a local level it is sometimes important to see local issues in a global context. Similar patterns and similar problems are to be found everywhere. A feeling of helplessness is not a local issue. All over the world human beings are being reduced to human resources serving corporate machines. Rio+20, in June 2012, witnessed an even more alarming trend which we find everywhere. The rise of the multinationals and the decline of governments. Selling our New Zealand assets is about losing control of our lives. The Trans Pacific Trade Partnership is about losing our identity. We will be remembered as a stolen generation. Our lives have been taken away by a small group of people driven by greed and the lust for power.

Globalisation is however not a given. It is happening only because we are embracing it. Localisation begins with supporting your local butchery. Villages exist only when everyone plays their part. If we want strong communities we need to begin by looking at both who we are and who we want to be.

The first move is to set about being fully alive within the situation in which we find ourselves. In our world we may have crossed the last frontiers but that only means that we cannot escape because there is nowhere to escape to. When there is no wilderness over the hill you need to protect the wilderness you have. The gondola in Fiordland should not be built simply because it will normalise wilderness into mediocrity. It is the journey to Milford Sound which makes it the place it is. If you take away the journey you take away the place.



Every individual is unique

We easily recognise any one of six billion people. My friend Brian Hunt died on 13 July 2012. There will never be another Brian Hunt. Ralph Hotere inspires us with his art. No one else is even remotely like Ralph. Networks of people form our whanau. All our networks are different.

Life becomes even more complex when we acknowledge that over time all our brains become hard-wired in different ways. When I speak every person hears different things. This is important in political structures because at a council hearing no one can actually hear what anyone else is saying. The very idea of consultation is fundamentally flawed. People are quite correct when they say that councillors cannot hear what they are saying.

This has implications in all aspects of our lives. In medicine, for example, Cathy Stinear, a neurosurgeon friend of mine, wonders how the medical profession can move from the “herd mentality” of treating each generic disease with a generic antibiotic to recognising that every unique person has a particular and distinctive response to every drug.


ImageAll landscapes are unique.

The isthmus location of Auckland is unique in the world, but you will not find a reference to that in the Auckland plan, except perhaps to say that it is a problem. Our volcanoes truly are of world heritage value, yet the protection I put in place has been eroded by the planners. I took the Council to court for not protecting Mount Eden, and won the case. Then the developers convinced the planners to introduce viewshafts, and they just go on being eroded.

The sharp light in New Zealand is very special. This means that some universal principles like the effect of north light take on a special significance.  A ship seems closer to Devonport than it does to Tamaki Drive. It is the same with Immediate Visual Juxtaposition, which means we need to be cautious about the location of moorings.





ImageEvery culture is unique.

We all have a unique way of doing things. It is the same with cultures. A tangi is a particular way of dying. There is laughter and there also can be sharp words. Cultures have different ways of introducing themselves. Our mihi tells us about our whakapapa. There have been cultural differences in Christchurch, for example, where we have seen that the people were resilient when confronted with disaster, while the United Nations rated the response of local government as the worst in the world.

Cultures have different ways of building. A bach is a way of life not a building. Sometimes the culture of local government is so completely different from the culture of the people that even a discussion about building is impossible. Getting a permit is a cultural act.


ImageVernacular architecture is unique.

When buildings respond to local traditions, local skills, and local knowledge they all end up being different. Identity matters.

In changes made during the last year to stop people building their own houses our government has virtually destroyed identity in the built environment. Our time will be remembered for the break-down of relationships. Our planners and our architects chop our lives into pieces. Then we introduce an adversarial way of thinking so that there is conflict between all the pieces. Heritage has to contest for a place in the sun.

Vernacular architecture is notable for the integrity of relationships. In this tradition heritage cannot be separated from anything else, and nothing conflicts with heritage.


Image At Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996 UNDP concluded that placelessness was the greatest problem of our time.

Our planet is awash with refugees.

Beyond the obviously displaced people, for the first time many people have become refugees in their own lands. A city for cars becomes a city for people who have cars. Those who do not have a car are marginalised.

In the same way many people are marginalised because they do not have the same values as council bureaucrats. The victims of architecture are everywhere. Our prisons are full of people who have no place, and they are told that they are to blame for that.

How can people belong if their heritage is forgotten and not taken into account by their planners? Our cities are full of people who do not know who they are. It is not their fault.

We have localised the global. Coca Cola is as ubiquitous as council bureaucracies. What we need to do is to globalise the local. We need to emphasise points of difference. We need to recognise that every person has a unique heritage.




ImageArchitects, developers, and bureaucrats have one thing in common.

They are all outsiders. 


People who live inside a community or a place have a different world-view from those who live outside.

Insiders say hello to Xena. Outsiders talk about height controls and set-backs. Insiders still see the house where George lived even though the house and George have been gone for twenty years. Outsiders imagine what they would like the place to be with bothering to fall in love with the way it is. Insiders love their quirky eccentricities. Outsiders are irritated by them.

The gap between the rich and the poor is not just a gap in wealth but also a gap in attitudes and values. In general terms architects share the values of the wealthy. They drink the same wine and read the same books. Architects come from outside and destroy memories, traditions and a sense of place, without even noticing. Then architects get very upset with people who want to stamp their own personalities on architecture. Battle lines, about who calls the shots, are drawn, but no one acknowledges that they exist.

Respect for heritage demands a different way of practicing architecture. A co-operative model rather than an adversarial one.




ImageAll concentrations of power result in fundamentalism.

Both local government and central government need to simplify and to have standard solutions. Local government destroys heritage because it hates difference.

The game of life is over long before it even begins. We are born free and then it is all downhill from there as our lives get tangled in a web of rules, regulations, generalisations and statistics.

Architecture serves fundamentalist power and so we get fundamentalist architecture. All modern architecture ends up looking the same. Architects conform when they should protest.






ImageImageAll concentrations of power result in corruption.

The credits for the Korean film “Taste of Money”, which screened at the 2012 Film Festival, had a very long list of companies involved in product placement. At least they were honest.

Our leading companies are not that honest. Rather than marketing insulation as a good idea, for example, they get the government to tell everyone they must have it. An idea which fractures the relationship between the natural environment and the built environment produces enormous profits.

This soft corruption is everywhere.










ImageLife is dynamic. A city is a living entity.

We watch in wonder as a fern frond uncurls. They are always as beautiful as they are unexpected. We know that spring is coming and yet it catches us by surprise. All around us the world throbs with life.

How strange it is then to also be surrounded with dead planning and dead architecture. We take it for granted that the built environment will begin dying on the day it is born, without ever touching life. A certificate of compliance is a death warrant.

Having an Auckland Plan to tell us what the city will look like in thirty years is a bizarre idea, and really just an excuse for not making the right decisions now. Most of us cannot even predict what we will be doing tomorrow. Every cell in our body is constantly being replaced. A unitary plan is a really stupid idea. Cities which stop growing are dead.

Part of the problem is that we need to redefine “development”. Development is continuous and begins with what you have. It does not begin by destroying everything which has gone before.






ImageHeritage is our inheritance. This is everything which has been passed down to us.

Let us now move from the global context to specific examples of how an attitude to heritage can suggest appropriate action.

Rather than focusing on what is wrong I want to focus on the positive through presenting a number of examples. Each has something to teach us.

One of the significant problems in our society it that those with power do not care about heritage, while those who care passionately about it have no power. Saving heritage for me therefore means ensuring that the powerful do not win. Thus in almost all the following examples of heritage protection I take it for granted the need to be subversive. Subversive options are both diverse and complex. Subversives work outside the rules and confuse the enemy. They win because they are not playing the game.




Image The homestead built for Richard James Taylor in 1849.

I fought to save this building. As a last desperate move I put in a tender to demolish the building, and won. Then they realised I had no intention of demolishing it. I bought enough time to arrange for the house to be moved to Port Waikato. This was not ideal, but much better than complete destruction. As the very beginning of pakeha Glendowie the house should have remained as a mark on the land. The problem which beat me was a series of subdivision decisions which assumed demolition. To win you need to be a player very early in the game. 











The old Auckland Railway Station

We almost ended up buying this building too. “We” in this case was a group of students who were learning about heritage. We put together a $3 million package, but a developer put up $4 million.







Image When we were broke our next move was unclear.










Image However we saved the building by convincing the developer and the University to take on board our idea. Unfortunately bad architects produced a bad result, but meanwhile the heritage we wanted saved is still there waiting for a new life.







Image Pah Farm stables

The lesson to learn from the Pah Farm stables is to never give up. While there is life there is hope. The building is also a reminder that humble buildings are just as important a part of our heritage as the edifices of the wealthy. It took a long time to convince the Historic Places Trust about this.

By chance I was walking past the stables just as a demolition contractor began swinging a sledgehammer to demolish the slate roof. I was horrified and called out in protest. He replied that he had a demolition permit. “What about the Historic Places Trust?” I responded, hoping to find an ally. He rummaged in his pocket to find a letter from them saying that, as they could not afford to buy it, they could only accept its demolition.

When everything else had failed I finally convinced him to take a break so that I could shout him a beer. He came down. That gained me ten minutes. I raced for a phone, rang the owner, and convinced him to save the building. The demolition permit was cancelled and the damage already done was repaired.


ImageThe building is now more important than ever. It is the classic north-facing U-form of an English farm building. Warmth builds up in the courtyard with the paving and brick walls acting as heat-sinks. In the summer a deciduous tree provides shade. It can be a waste of time talking about passive solar to non-believers. However all you need to do is to take them out to the stables to let them sit in the courtyard. They cannot believe how pleasant it is. This building has the potential to transform New Zealand architecture.

Another lesson to learn from this debacle is to never rely on the Historic Places Trust, or for that matter, anyone else. If you want to save a building do it yourself. If you are on the spot you need to know what to do and to act really fast. Loss of time would have meant the loss of this building.


Image“Appropriate” uses are also critical in saving heritage. Last week I was out at the stables and there was talk of using the building as a library. This would be a disaster. It is a working building and the environmental standards demanded by a library would result in some architect who does not understand the building putting in ceilings or insulation. The wonderful timber trusses could be lost. Vigilance means you can never assume that any building is “safe”.







Image St Mary’s Convent chapel, Ponsonby

This is a good example of being in early and ahead of the game.

The client wanted the chapel demolished. I convinced them about the advantage of being able to continue using the old chapel until the new one was completed.

That gave me three years to get the St Mary’s Old Girls involved and they saved the chapel.








ImageImage Tahuna Torea

Turning negative energy into positive energy can provide just what is needed to save heritage.

The sandy spit at Glendowie was a neglected, tangled mess of weeds until the council decided to turn it into a rubbish tip. At a meeting of residents I proposed setting up a bird sanctuary, not aware that Ron Lockley was sitting almost beside me. Twenty-five years later I discovered the thought was already in his head.

Thirty years later this nature reserve is an Auckland haven.

Every few years there is another battle to be fought and won,but tenacity is critcal is saving heritage.







ImageImage Trees have a longer life span than people….
….if only we would give them a chance.

Most people assume the first move to make is cut down any trees. A person bought down at Karaka Bay and then told the council that she did not feel safe walking home under trees. The first I knew was when around twenty people with chain saws turned up. A desperate call to Mayor Cath Tizard saved the 400-year-old pohutukawa.

To my mind if you do not like trees then do not buy a place with trees. At least 70% of the pohutukawa along the Glendowie foreshore have now been cut down. One time I had to go to Wellington to get the government to stop the council from cutting down a pohutukawa at Karaka Bay.

Trees are a significant part of our heirtage. 











ImageImage Laingholm big muddy creek

Saving this land resulted from the goodwill of everyone involved. It began with a subdivision proposal. The Waitakere Ranges Protection Society asked Harry Turbott and me to propose a scheme which would save the ridges and place development in the valley.

For me the breakthrough came when quite by chance I was at the Aritaki lookout when the Minister drove in beside me. I convinced her that the government should come to the party and eventually enough funding was cobbled together to buy the land.

Manchester Unity were wonderful.




Image Musick Point

Protest is a last resort, but it saved Musick Point when Telecom proposed a housing subdivision to take advantage of an underlying zoning. Councils become worried about votes when the numbers are big enough.











The world is not given by our fathers…
…it is borrowed from our children.




With heritage it is important to be resolute and to stand your ground. People with power tend to be bullies. When they are not sure of their ground they resort to pushing other people around. Never give in to bullies, governments or bureaucrats. If you do they will continue pushing you around. If you stand firm others will be inspired.



ImageBefore Eva Rickard won back the Raglan golf course the case which began it all was the Rangi Point School. This school had been established in 1872. After a hundred years, a road was finally built to Rangi Point. This made it possible to bus out the children, and in 1972 the government sadly decided to close the school down, ignoring the fact that small local schools nurture the heritage of small local communities. The government began developing proposals about how they would use the land. However the locals said they had given the land for education and if it was not going to be used for that they would like it back. It took tenacity and courage but they won. This changed the game for the rest of New Zealand as others were inspired. The Raglan golf course had been taken for defence purposes, not golf.



ImageThe old Rangi Point school is now a community centre, but that means it is also used for education. The best lecture I have ever given was when I took a class from Auckland University up to the cemetery above the Matihetihe Marae, Mitimiti. We sat for an hour and watched the sun sink into the ocean. I never said a single word. In silence and darkness we made our way back to Rangi Point. What else was there to teach them beyond the fact that their heritage had been passed down by those who had gone before.



ImageAs we drove north on that same trip we filled our minibuses with food. Then at Rangi Point I banished all the kiwis from the kitchen and left the Asian students to cook. The food was simply astonishing. After that the Asians, who had previously felt marginalised, were invited to every student party, and of course did the cooking. The way we cook, along with aroma, taste and texture, are part of our heritage. You celebrate heritage by living it. This is not only fun. You can give a lecture without saying a word and eat the outcomes. Everyone understands.





ImageThe essence of the Waitemata Harbour Maritime Plan was simply to “Protect the natural character of the Waitemata Harbour”.



One of the lessons I learnt when working on the Waitemata Harbour Maritime Plan was to keep the message simple. If the essence is clear the detail will look after itself. Planners and lawyers love to argue about detail but by the time they have finished everybody loses, and frequently no one can even remember what the argument was about.

My colleague on the Waitemata Harbour Plan was a wonderful lawyer called Brad Giles. After a great deal of careful work I went to Brad with a document which was some hundreds of pages long. He looked me straight in the eye “Tony, eight pages would be plenty”. I was really angry. Everything was important and nothing could be left out. I needed to head off to Wellington for the weekend and spent all of it fuming. However I relented. I went back to Brad with eight pages and he looked me straight in the eye. “Tony, two pages would be plenty.” I understood. I went back to Brad with a single line. “Protect the natural character of the Waitemata Harbour.” In ten years I never lost a case. There was nothing for the lawyers to argue about. The only question for any development was did it or didn’t it?

It was of course a little more complicated because we were dealing with the port and other complex issues, but we need to understand that heritage is concerned with seeing clearly rather than worrying about the detail.

For example the Auckland isthmus is one of the most beautiful pieces of landscape in the world. If you are going to put a city on it then the first move is to protect the natural character of the isthmus. That means no buildings higher than three stories so that the entire city will be dominated by trees and volcanoes. The role of architects and planners is to sort out the details. The heritage essence is non-negotiable

ImageThe bay form of St Heliers, for example, was acknowledged in my work on that first Maritime Plan in New Zealand. This was when we stopped the developments along Kohimaramara even though they had already begun. This was also when the green headlands were protected. Motukorea became sacrosanct. Unfortunately the new generation of planners understood none of this and when the government disempowered the old Maritime Planning Authority the new Auckland Regional Authority introduced a 500 page maritime plan. Since then the planners have never won a case. The lawyers are still arguing.

The need to be clear reminds me of one of my most memorable cases. I set out as an individual to protect one of our volcanic cones from development. The chance of succeeding looked very slim indeed. I presented my passionate evidence and sat down feeling it had been a valiant attempt, but was a lost cause. A voice from the public gallery asked “Can I say something?”. The judge pointed out that this was a formal hearing and only parties to the case could speak. Then he thought for a moment and asked “Who are you?”. “I am the person putting forward this proposal.” The judge invited him to go on. “I have listened to Tony’s evidence and I do not wish to become known as a person who failed to respect our volcanoes. I feel I have been badly advised by my architects and I would like to fire them. I will be looking for a new firm of architects next week. As far as I can see there is no point in this case proceeding and I think we may as well all go home.” We did.



Image ASB funding has been used to strengthen communities
Defining heritage was an important first move for the ASB Community Trusts. Over the years ASB funding has strengthened communities so that they could find their own identity.







Image Kohukohu Heritage Precinct

This was all too radical for both the council and the Historic Places Trust, but the locals loved it. The book was concerned with building a strong community. It sold out at the book launch.

The role of local government is to support local initiatives. If the locals set up an Art Gallery then take the rates off to help make a marginal enterprise more viable.



















Kilitbahir fort

One overseas example.



ImageI was given a five-minute audience with the President of Turkey, and advised not to bring up any contentious issues. However I could see no point in wasting five minutes.








ImageWe shook hands and I told him to stop the bridge and motorway which would have destroyed the Kilitbahir fort. He asked why and the challenge was on. As our interview ended he wrote a note asking for an investigation and handed it to a five star general. Another five star general told me I would never get out of the country alive.




ImageThe bridge and the motorway never went ahead and the fort was saved.












How do we realise this living heritage which is the life force of who we are?













We need to move beyond seeing buildings as consumer objects.
(This is a problem with the Historic Places Trust.)

We need to move beyond throw-away consumerism.
(Bill English said last weekend we would need a generation to solve the global economic problem. He should have said it is insoluble.)

We need to become kaitiaki of our whakapapa.
(I introduced the concept of Kaitiaki into the RMA.)

We need to constantly tell our stories.
(I have spent most of the night telling stories.)

We need to celebrate community. (Leave behind selfishness and the current focus on self.)
We need to realise that the human species is on the path to extinction.
(Bryson’s “History of almost everything” is worth reading.)


My thanks to the library. Gathering together to tell stories, as we are doing tonight, is more important than anything I might say. Integrity is critical. Live what you believe.

A presentation to SOS in the St Heliers library at 7pm on Thursday 26 July 2012.


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