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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Adversarial thinking Print E-mail

Image"As architects we are all asked the media question 'Do you favour sprawl or high-rise?' Reporters do not want to be told that it is a really stupid question."




On the afternoon of 13 March 2013 Perween Rahman, an architect, was assassinated. On returning from her office in Karachi a gunman intercepted her car and shot her in the neck and chest. Her driver rushed her to a hospital but her injuries were too severe.

She died because she realised that architects should be more than just the servants of the wealthy. She was the director of OPP (Orangi Pilot Project), which provided technical solutions for the poor in slums. Maps and other work done by the community often revealed the exploitation of land and water. Perween had expressed her concern about threats and intimidation to the authorities but they had failed to respond.

Auckland’s proposed Unitary Plan, and the new idea of turning even our water into gold, make Auckland seem very close to Karachi. Architects love designing cities. They think they are good at it. Planners love designing cities. It gives them a chance to tell others how to live their lives. Councils love designing cities because they need something to do, now that the government has said they no longer need to be concerned about the common good. Everyone is so busy having fun that there is not time ask any real questions. The universities do not seem to realise that there are questions.

The Vancouver Declaration, one of the outcomes of the first UN Habitat Conference in Vancouver in 1976, outlined the right of ordinary people to participate in the development of the built environment. This was a right for citizens to participate, not just architects and developers. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is concerned not only with political and civil rights but also with economic, social and cultural rights. The Unitary Plan fails to meet the requirements of UDHR. The silence of the NZIA has been deafening. It is more than 40 years since delegates in Vancouver spoke about the use of architectural skills in the pursuit of social justice. In Vancouver Ian Athfield gained respect for both his get-on-with-it building skills and his cheerful attitude to building a better world.

Perween paid the ultimate price. We cannot let her down. The Unitary Plan is just a recipe for developers to make money. An 18-storey block at Sylvia Park when the surrounding roading infrastructure is already at gridlock? Ratepayers left to pick up all the social costs by a Council that prevents individuals from building themselves a house? The corruption is as clear as any in Karachi.

As architects we see connections. That is why we signed up to the “Declaration of interdependence” at the UIA Congress in Chicago in 1993. Architecture is not just a design issue, in the same way that the housing situation in Auckland has very little to do with the design of houses or apartments.

Everyone invests in housing in Auckland because the value, like Edmunds Baking Powder, is sure to rise. Why take a chance on the stock market when you can have a tax-free return guaranteed. Only one thing is better than owning a house in Auckland. Owning four or five houses in Auckland. The only problem is that housing is not the same as the housing market. If values began going down the market would go elsewhere. The market is interested in profit, not housing. Almost overnight Auckland could find itself with a glut of housing similar to that found in Ireland when the EU roaring tiger burst. No one would want to buy at mortgagee sales in a falling market. Our banking system would be in tatters along with the Unitary Plan. Architects would be out of work. Again.

Perween died because she challenged the power structures. All we need to do is to ask the questions. Unfortunately our brains are hard-wired, from years of litigation and conflict, to feel satisfied when every problem is reduced to a duality. “Up versus out” is as fashionable as it is incorrect. Good for selling newspapers, but just a fundamentalist misrepresentation of a myriad array of possibilities. As architects we all get asked the media question “Do you favour sprawl or high-rise”. Reporters do not want to be told that it is a really stupid question.

If by sprawl you mean having a ten-acre life-style block with pseudo sheep and horses, but a real helicopter to fly to the airport to catch your 380 to Paris for a coffee, then every architect would have to think it’s a good idea because it means money in the bank. If you mean an 18-storey block at Sylvia Park then every architect would have to think that is a good idea too, because it also means money in the bank.

Ethics however makes everything much more complicated. Should we grow our own vegetables? Should our buildings gather our own water? Should urban design support our local communities? UNHR suggests the possibility of a chat with local politicians after meeting them by chance down at the library. Any plan needs to ask why we have cities, so that the built environment might deliver what we expect it to. PR spin is not helpful. Individuals run the risk of being called a nimby if they put social and environmental responsibility ahead of grand schemes for tunnels and railways.

The first question we need to ask of all architecture, or for that matter the Unitary Plan, is simple. Does it empower or disempower those who will create it, use it, and experience it? The right to participate in political processes which will determine our destiny is something we take for granted, even if the super-city has taken that right away and everyone has given up trying because it is not worth the effort. The right to participate in the creation of our own built-environment may be something we do not care about but in other parts of the world people are willing to die for that freedom. We consider we are fortunate that the government still permits us to cook our own meals. Little wonder that the local bookstore has a hundred recipe books for every one on architecture. Nothing is more boring than watching other people having fun.

Other people might be able to fix the plumbing, but they cannot make ethical decisions for us. We need to do that ourselves, and in a global context those ethical decisions need to be made. We all know the facts. Sea temperatures, throughout the world, have gone up three degrees in the last thirty years. That is a lot of water and a lot of heat. The change in Ph levels has been just as dramatic. We are close to the total collapse of the marine environment, without needing to argue about predictions, because those changes have already happened. It is irresponsible to just be thankful that oceanic changes have postponed the need to worry about the impact of the way we build.

The built-environment has been the major cause of all these changes in the last thirty years, so we might expect the Unitary Plan to have something to say about the next thirty years. Nothing. Business as usual. Auckland ratepayers paid to send three people to Rio+20. They arrived home with nothing to say. Not even a report. Their contribution to the Unitary Plan has been zero. Meanwhile New Zealand architects have been at the forefront of the global debate.

The first lesson is that we cannot go on as we have been. We can no longer afford to trash our built environment and send it off to landfill. The way we demolish buildings is criminal. We need to be equally careful to not trash our inheritance. It might be better to get our “garden city” working instead of imposing a new architectural form over an old subdivisional pattern. The only reason the density in a suburb like Glen Innes is not five times greater is that planners and bureaucrats have stopped people from building for themselves. We need to empower people and disempower “developers”, not the other way around. The obsession with endless economic growth in a finite universe should be suggesting a closer look at how natural growth occurs.

An affordable house will always be one you build yourself. Anyone who thinks restaurants should provide affordable meals has lost the plot. The question for the wealthy is whether their houses are environmentally affordable, so the debate has nothing to do with the poor. Living within your means is an environmental question. The only truly sustainable building is the one you do not build. Sheds are the next best thing.

Never listen to planners. In the past they have always been wrong, so we must assume that in the future they will always be wrong too. It is rather quaint to watch planners declaring that their “garden city” is wrong, when at the time it was heralded as the healthy alternative to the industrial revolution.

Returning power to the people is not such a bright idea unless there is a corresponding responsibility for the result of all our actions. Good architecture everywhere rather than dismal mediocrity dumped onto the top of a garden city. Endless work for architects. Communities working together rather than individuals fighting with each other. The end of adversarial politics. Councils would become irrelevant, just as they always have been.

Perween had a dream of a better world and the courage to be socially and environmentally responsible. If we make her dream possible her sacrifice will not have been in vain.


First published in Architecture NZ 5.2013 

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