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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Mapping vernacular Print E-mail

We live in a world where the common man or woman is not as common as he or she used to be. Fundamentalism has become the curse of our time.






All our buildings end up looking like all our other buildings. All our cities are so like each other that it does not matter where you live. Fashion trends massage people into spending their time trying to look like other people. Tourism massages the exotic into packaged familiarity. Apples, like people, are not allowed to have blemishes. Advertisements not only encourage us to buy. They also tell us what to buy. Our sense of place has been transformed into nowhere in particular. Everywhere has become like everywhere else and everyone has become like everyone else.

In contrast to all this is the vernacular. Vernacular architecture is specific to place, culture and occasion. It reflects the uniqueness of climate, topography and traditions. Vernacular language can be specific not only to a country but even to a village. Vernacular people have a personality which is all their own. In an ideal world everyone would be a “local personality” not only leading a life which mattered but also making a contribution to society which no one else could make. We could say that vernacular rises above mediocrity, giving meaning to life itself. In an ideal world there would be no mediocrity.

In the world of the vernacular you know who you are and where you are. It is a warts and all world. Westies, for example, are not like other people, but then again no Westie is quite like any other Westie. If you are not unique then you are not a Westie. Every Westie story is different and every life tells another story. The complex network of human relationships becomes a map of the West. Street maps assume that streets are important. Vernacular maps assume that people, cultures and places are important.

A book such as Bob Harvey’s “Westies” is really about urban design. It assumes that people, stories and traditions come first, and then architecture comes later. Anyone who assumes that architecture and all the trappings or sewers of cities come first, and the people come later, forgets the source of the built environment. Planners should never be allowed to plan anything except their own lives. We could then laugh quietly at their mistakes instead of having to live in them. Planners are faceless and nameless bureaucrats because they do not have a face or a name. Their lives are of no significance. No one even knows who they are. In contrast everyone knows those locals who make up vernacular communities.

None of our friends are quite like any of our other friends. They are all eccentric, a little odd, and very special. They all enrich our lives in the most unusual ways. When we map our friendships the complexity and the intricacy of the map is so astonishing that it catches us by surprise. We could of course prepare dozens of different maps. Our friends, for example, all read different books and through them we discover books we really should have known about. Our friends go to different films. They have different philosophies and different perceptions. They also belong in very different places.

Culture is normally passed on through stories. Local people not only know local stories but they also live out those stories, weaving the magic of the past into the mystery of the future. A vernacular map allows us to find our way about in a confusing world.

Our stories may be oral and they may be written. Artists too are really storytellers. They give form to our perceptions. A vernacular map draws together a great many different stories so that we can begin to see a bigger picture. At first glance some parts of the map may seem to be more significant, but in a vernacular map every part has significance.

Power is the problem of our time. We have empowered institutions and disempowered people. Vernacular people do not set out to be subversive, but it works out that way. Anyone who is different becomes a challenge to those in authority. Vernacular people do not need a uniform to give them an identity. They are who they are.

Without a vernacular map the risk is that we will forget who we are. New Zealand is not like anywhere else in the world. Coromandel is very different from Cosy Nook.

The New Zealand vernacular means everything to me. It is my identity. It is who I am. It is the sweet sound of rain on a corrugated iron roof or the call of a tui. It is articulated in everything I do. It is how I speak on a marae or why I choose to build my own house. It is distinctive because I respect and love the New Zealand way of seeing and doing. When I am leading a tour group of kiwis I feel confident and at ease. I know I can take risks. I do not want anyone to be like me. I am intolerant of those who are not true to themselves.

The concept of being your own person can become a national characteristic. This is the myth of the larrikin. The person you would choose to go to the ends of the earth with, but whom you would never want to control. New Zealanders embrace the unexpected. They want to know what is around the corner. They are self-sufficient and resourceful. They will take a stand and hold to their beliefs.

These are the generalisations. When you come to specifics you need to look at particular individuals because every one is different. This is why the Vernacular Lounge is so important. We can begin finding our own place in the world.

In 2012 New Zealand is locked into a desperate struggle between the real vernacular people and the bland planners, bland bureaucrats, bland economists and bland politicians, who want us to sell our souls and plunge headlong into international mediocrity. Fundamentalist thinking destroys individuality.

In the past we have had that subtle mix between pride and humility. It is now more important than ever. If we do not know who we are then we are nothing.
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