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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Films tell our stories Print E-mail

ImageWhen Gaylene Preston was invited to speak in Arizona she took along videos of her five most recent films. She was astonished on arrival to find that not a single film had been produced in the whole of Arizona in the last ten years. They, in their turn, simply could not believe that a small country like New Zealand could be so prolific in producing films of international acclaim.



The making of films in USA has been "industrialised". No one in Arizona needs to produce a film any more because Hollywood does it for them.

It is more efficient to have major studios in one location, where convenient sets of New England villages or Pueblos can minimise the problems of shooting on location. Actors, directors and technical staff are able to interact and develop ideas for the next project while editing the last one. Everyone knows that Woody Allen will be producing a film in the Autumn. He always does. Continuity of work is important.

Arizona provides the market. Supporting one film makes the next one possible. From time to time a film will be made about Arizona.

When films are seen only as providing entertainment no one could complain. Hollywood produces. Arizona consumes. The demand supply cycle is both created and satisfied.

However when films are seen as giving artistic form to a culture, and that artistic expression is seen as reinforcing and confirming the culture, alarm bells begin to ring. The culture of Hollywood is not the culture of Arizona.

No one else can write your poetry or sing your songs. No one else can tell your stories or act out the drama of your life. You must do this yourself.

Gaylene Preston's "War Stories" is concerned with "our" stories and "our" war. It reveals our fears, our insecurities, our hope, our laughter, and our own unique responses. Others may not understand but we instinctively and immediately recognise her films as springing from our place. Gaylene Preston's "Titless Women" is concerned with our response to breast cancer. The wind chimes or the dream catcher on the back porch of Shirley's cottage are as familiar to us as our many friends with cancer. The rain drops off the edge of the corrugated iron. Some make it through. Some do not. Life is rough at the edges. Our lives are, of course, enriched by the poems and stories of other places. We are inspired. We are challenged. The observations of outsiders are often acute and full of insight. The voyeur however is always remote from the action.  Leading someone else's life is not the same as being alive.

In marijuana country you keep your photovoltaic panels inside. It is a hot tip you will never find in a book on the joys of self sufficiency. Locals laugh and understand. In any culture you can pick the new chums, the planners and the academics. They know all the theories about what ought to happen because they have never put photovoltaic panels outside.

If a house is nothing more than shelter it can be built somewhere else, by someone else, and delivered to our site. The catalogues tell us the range of available bathroom fittings and kitchen appliances. We choose. They turn up, along with the bill. It is all as predictable as a Hollywood film. The air conditioning roars into life and protects us from the Arizona sun.

If however a house is going to give form to our culture we need to build it ourselves. Industrialised building sustains industry. Only vernacular architecture sustains local culture.  

A culture which no longer builds for itself will die.

This article was first published in The Owner Builder magazine.
From the back porch.
in August 2001
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