More than bricks and mortar

by John Walsh / 11 April, 2013
The writings of an anarchic presence in the world of architecture.
Tony Watkins
Tony Watkins: social conscience. Photo/Phil Crawford/NZWW

Every institution needs its turbulent priests, and New Zealand architecture has long benefited from the persistently inconvenient Tony Watkins. Architect, academic and activist, Watkins has been tugging on the sleeve of the profession for decades, reminding it of its responsibilities to communities3 and the environment.

Unusually for a New Zealand architect, Watkins has taken his proselytisation public; in the 1970s he had a column in the Auckland Star and in the 1990s he wrote regular articles in Urbis, self-consciously a design magazine with, these days, a weka-like fascination for bright and shiny things. Thinking it Through is an anthology of those Urbis pieces, illustrated, as were the original essays, by the photographs of Haruhiko Sameshima.

Watkins’s world view, which is framed by his social conscience, has remained essentially the same over the past 40 years. The unpalatable truth that informs his writing is that architecture is inextricably linked to power. It takes power and money to realise buildings and shape cities.

Watkins recognises this, but he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like the way architecture is imposed on people and places. Undemocratic development, he believes, alienates people from places. This is another of his precepts: the further people are removed from building their own dwelling, the more remote their chances of happy habitation.

Watkins certainly walks this talk; his self-built house, hidden in pohutukawa above one of Auckland’s smaller eastern bays, is so involved with its surrounds it’s impossible to distinguish structure from site.

An architect’s championing of “architecture without architects” would seem an exercise in professional self-loathing. But Watkins isn’t apostate or naive. For decades, he taught architecture and town planning at the University of Auckland – such an anarchic presence would not be tolerated now – and his book is studded with telling observations. For example, he insightfully contrasts the typical European urban space, which is the plaza dedicated to gatherings, with the characteristic New Zealand space, which is the intersection encouraging of mobility. We don’t do squares, we do corners. Where the road along the coast met a road heading inland, a community grew, anchored at the crossroads by the corner store, the corner garage, the corner pub.

Watkins is New Zealand architecture’s corner boy, a Diogenes of the diagonal, smiling happily as he tells his professional peers where they should go.

THINKING IT THROUGH, by Tony Watkins, with photographs by Haruhiko Sameshima (Karaka Bay Press/Rim, $30).

John Walsh’s latest book on New Zealand architecture is Big House, Small House: New Homes by New Zealand Architects.



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