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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Backcountry huts Print E-mail

Photograph by John Johns
A review of "Shelter from the storm - The story of New Zealand's backcountry huts" by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown and Geoff Spearponit, published by Craig Potton, 2012.













The great built-environment mistake is the presumption that it is all over before it begins. If our permit-issuing bureaucrats had been in control of the Renaissance it would never have happened. Discovery, interaction, and responsiveness would not have been on the agenda. Architects get caught in this trap too. They admire buildings which end up looking like their drawings. Beautifully photographed corpses, frozen in their potential. We now live in still-born cities, bombarded with promises about how life will be breathed into them. If we lived our lives the way we design our buildings we might as well give up before getting started.

This great architectural mistake sadly flows through into architectural literature, reducing almost all books about the built-environment to forensic palaeontology. These books become almost unreadable because real people, apart from the architect, get left out of the building process, just as they are left out of the images.

How refreshing then to find a book which recognises that true architecture is a drama of heroic proportions, constantly unfolding, with the story going on rather than reaching a conclusion. The authors of “Shelter from the storm” set out to write about New Zealand back country huts, but quickly discovered that the huts were much more than just buildings. They were living stories, memories and associations.

The story of Aspiring hut, for example, is as heroic as Homer’s Odyssey, and yet it is our own, reminding us about who we are and how we came to be. Friendships among southern climbers were first forged when the Otago Section of the New Zealand Alpine Club was formed in 1931. When the Aspinall family made packhorses available for carrying in materials for the Cameron hut a new chapter began, developing a deep friendship with the locals, which has continued until today. At this Cascade Camp, in 1939, a new hut was proposed, but the Second World War intervened scattering club members far and wide, some never to return. The idea was discussed again at a leave camp in the Dolomites. Back in New Zealand moving 150 ton of rocks, gravel and sand seemed impossible until a ten-wheeled GMC truck came to the rescue. That was a time when bren-gun carriers were another post-war transport option. A road was built for the GMC, which included four crossings of the West Matukituki River, but washouts needed to be restored. Rock from Cascade Creek was sledged up to the hut site by a team of three horses bought by the club. NZAC members would drive all the way from Dunedin whenever they could. It became easier when petrol rationing was abolished. Of course this odyssey did not end with the opening of the hut. In 1953 two climbers went missing. A Royal New Zealand Air Force Harvard began searching, but crashed and Chris Johnson, who had survived as an RAF pilot in the Western Desert and Europe was killed. In the flickering light of a fire there is much to remember.

Every hut has another unique story to tell and readers will have a few of their own. “Shelter from the storm” is our own odyssey about buildings which belong, people who belong, and a culture which belongs. Belonging is what vernacular architecture has always been all about.

For those who, when reading Homer, really want to know more about the design of Ulysses’ boat, the book has all the footnotes and references anyone could need. The excellent photographs are perfect for any architect who prefers dreaming to reading.

Tony Watkins



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