Bach and Crib Building

Whananaki estuary, Northland, 2010.
Otaki Beach, 1966
Oakura Beach, 1966
Urenui Beach, 1966
Opunake Domain, 1967
North Makara, 1971
Western Lake, 1971
Waipapakauri, 1966
Orua Bay, 1970
Long Bay Camp, 1971
Ngamotu Beach, 1967
Lower Selwyn Huts, 1969
Whananaki Estuary, 1994
Waimakariri R., Kairaki.
Birdlings Flat, 1969
Orua Bay, 1970
Makara South, 1966
Upper Selwyn Huts, 1969
Long Bay Camp, 1971
Clarkes Beach, 1967

Vernacular building is ‘of the people and place’, the natural, direct, intuitive way of doing things. It’s as old as life, and worldwide. By spending time in and around them it was impressed on me that in the Middle Ages even the cathedrals were essentially vernacular works rather than learned and monumental. Our own vernacular building is throughout New Zealand in, cities, towns, countryside and coast.

Baches and cribs were the particular subject of my Masters thesis in the 1960s. The phenomenon received little attention in the past, but now traditional baches are described as ‘iconic’. However, a vernacular does not want too much attention, which skews things. In appraising it, this needs to be understood. Official investigation or control cannot understand it. Materialism spells the end of it. The conditions for it to survive, let alone thrive, are disappearing rapidly. Does it matter? The nature of the subject makes active, concerted, strategies for perpetuating existing bach communities very difficult.

This is not just a visual subject or planning matter, but is tied to culture and ethics. Many aspects of the other GAPS strands are relevant. Impetus to think about the future is given by the counter-productive forces of a materialistic, and increasingly self-centred society.

A love affair

This is a big topic, and the visual survey and appreciation of it is endless. The phenomenon itself, its evolution, and the present pressures, all reflect a century of distinctive New Zealand culture and values.

My personal experience of it started in the 1940’s with summer holiday camping behind the sand dunes at Waikanae Beach, Manawatu; my parents even bought a flat sandy section with the notion of building a bach. That never happened, but we sometimes visited other people’s baches. As a teenager I knew the Taranaki coast—staying in the bunkroom of a friend’s cottage at Oakura Beach, camping beside the community of tiny baches on the Urenui spit, hanging out at Opunake Beach among campers and bach-dwellers. There was a casual orderliness, with few defined boundaries, or properly formed roads.

As a student becoming engaged with the world of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning, in the 1960’s, I found that baches and bach communities were apparently universally despised as dishevelled, unplanned, illegal often, visually disruptive, sub-standard; as eyesores. When I proposed my M.Arch thesis I believed that all baches marred the beauty of coastal landscapes. But first-hand observations on my own long coastal forays persuaded me otherwise. I saw distinctive differences between places, and began to discriminate between the good, the mediocre, and the bad. I became an ardent advocate for the good, and that their visual qualities were tied up with the manner of their making—by people themselves, not for material value, not selfishly, hugely enjoyed and loved. There was much more to it. At that time the phenomenon wasn’t recognized (except by a very few) by the term ‘vernacular building.’

To make a selection of photographs for the web is hard, so I’ve restricted it in several ways. I haven’t included black & white photos from my early record because it’s a big job to sort them. I have chosen subjects photographed between 1966 and 1971 being now of some historical interest. Of course the buildings are considerably older, and a few are the earliest examples I know, even from the 1890’s.

The land tenure arrangements of many of the older bach and crib settlements have been quite insecure, and this has enabled local and regional government bodies to have a good number removed. Instances that come to mind are, around Auckland: Rangitoto Island, Long Bay, Cornwallis, Whatipu, and Wattle Bay (Lynfield). In New Plymouth: Ngamotu Beach was overtaken by port expansion. In Wairarapa: Western Lake, and Near Christchurch, Taylor’s Mistake, have been under threat. It is decades since I visited some other places to see whether they are so far surviving. The argument usually used to justify their removal is the greater public good, which seems incontrovertible; but the contrary case has hardly ever been articulated and assiduously presented.

In the last couple of decades there has been a surge of popular appreciation of baches. It has been fuelled to a large degree by their being photographed for their picturesque character, and as epitomising Kiwi culture. That, and their qualities congenial to the ideal of living at the beach (or other prized place), are now much promoted in books and magazines. But a new and all-powerful pressure is overtaking the traditional conditions under which baches were built—land and property values. Thus ordinary, humble baches and cribs are now prime real estate beyond the dreams of anybody not having a historical connection. And options for doing anything like the bach-building of the past are almost wholly removed by the monopolies of land developers and speculators, and controls of governing authorities.

Thus true baches have given way to houses built on suburban models. More independent people may employ an architect who can design a really iconic super-bach. This completely subverts the word ‘bach’, and spoils its meaning. ‘Bach’ and ‘crib’ must be reserved for small, unsophisticated, and largely owner-built places.

There needs to be a moritorium on land subdivision and coastal development until some sound values and principles are understood. This should extend to a prevention of removal of existing baches and cribs by controlling bodies. It is not the little baches and huts of the past that despoil the beauty of the natural world, and deprive ordinary people of its enjoyment, but the big grand vacation mansions now proliferating.

The photos do not include examples of the big luxury coastal houses for the main reason that I have not been photographing them. They evoke no good responses in me, so out of place and assertive that I want to get away from their presence.

  • A recent book surveying many of the issues is Raewyn Peart’s Castles in the Sand: What’s Happening to the New Zealand Coast? (Nelson: Craig Potton, 2009).


  • Reproduced below is a leader article which the New Zealand Herald published 40 years ago.

New Zealand Herald, 22.9.71.

Bach Well Worth Rescuing

By J. A. H. LEWIS, M.Arch, ANZIA

It is in the nature of the best baches not to draw attention to themselves. Yet, as they are meeting their doom here and there and their merit is denied, they cannot escape notice completely.

Something extraordinarily valuable, however strange, may be slipping out of existence. As with many excellent causes, those of conservation and planning, as they gather momentum, may in some unsuspected place fall from a clear understanding of the real issues and lapse into insensitivity.

At issue is an understanding of the most suitable and satisfying forms of places for leisure in New Zealand. What has grown up out of genuine leisure in the past and has been well proven by use is a sound starting point.


Merit and goodness in baches, transcending legal status or substandard appearance, are rarely admitted. But such an attitude arises from a misunderstanding of the messages about leisure, stories of paradise, which the true bach carries. Perhaps our generation is becoming educated in recreation while it is a cripple in leisure.

So huddles of baches and cribs, with all their possible associations between man and nature, are set for extinction, while brash recreation facilities and vacation houses proliferate.

There is a whole extensive philosophy behind baches—and it is definitive because it takes into account the need for places in which leisure can alight before paradise can enter man’s experience.

The parents of love, that mediator between heaven and earth, Plato called poverty and contrivance. The parents of the bach are likewise poverty and contrivance. “He is always poor . . . he is hard and weatherbeaten . . . But he schemes to get for himself whatever is beautiful and good.”

A bach of great value has cost little in material liability, but much in resource; it has engendered nothing of covetousness, but has suffered the labours of creation.


But, in both cases, where the siting is sure and the concept uncompromising, the bach becomes a symbol which will make up for many deficiencies in design and construction.


A bach community at Makara, near Wellington—anathema to many planners, but serving a useful purpose and blending into a windswept coast.

In contrast to the isolated bach and the close settlement are the compromising horde who, seeking the country, have built only fugitive suburbs. These, with few exceptions, cannot be praised.

The compact, humble settlements had their origins in real usages and community of interests, establishing themselves with a certain rightness in the landscape, rather than with legality and artificial standards.

Perhaps only by evading these idolatries could their goodness result at that time.

The source of their integrity as places is now brought in evidence against them while the real culprits – the sprawling legal subdivisions with mounting material standards – escape. The planners offer no substitute for the baches. The forces lined up against the bach to prove its guilt appear formidable and their arguments plausible.

The poor and middle-class have had places of leisure. And a whole vernacular has been invented under the hand of nature.


To many New Zealanders, to whom they minister permanent succour, explanation of the merits of the humble bach and holiday settlement is unnecessary.

But it must be admitted that there are good and bad baches, a distinction which should be drawn by those in authority.

If there are marvellously good places according to our philosophy, we may expect that they will have some special characteristics. In fact, the physical characteristics of excellence can cover a wide field.

There are those baches which, independent of anything else, have their bearing only to the natura surroundings. At the other extreme are those which depend greatly

upon one another in a close knit group.


Challenges can be lodged based solidly on the law of ownership. But for the State or local authorities always to invoke the law on lands under their care may be an error. Can these bodies not continue to be wise landlords?

There is a myth, made respectable by sociology, that individual things must give way everywhere to public use and public interest. But every real use and need is, in essence, individual and personal. The true bach provides opportunities for man to nurture both solitude and society.

It is a favourite charge against baches to label them selfish. But consider how much they are shared, how they can be used in all seasons, and how they occupy a minimum of space. These are real uses.

In the promotion of elaborate recreation, in the banishing of the countryside to a distance of some days’ journey on foot, in the speculation in seaside subdivision and house building, the poor are being excluded from a stake in nature, such as a hut or humble cottage supplies.

What do the politicians or planners offer in place of these existing debt-free assets?

In the elimination of the bach, there is also planning error. Instead of compact settlements with minimum roading and formality, we have had suburban standards applied to the countryside to its great harm.

Fashionable overseas trends in recreation housing can so easily be irrelevant and suicidal for our country. Many of the strange clusters of baches have all the positive lessons and the pure forms of a New Zealand vernacular.

The good baches, huts and cribs, comprise a vernacular and a tradition. But the planners and authorities have not admitted that they are a vernacular which is self-justifying.

These dwellings are our lesson books if we are going to find the way of providing leisure housing from now on. Let us not throw away the lesson books at least until we have learned competence.

The philosopher Santayana said: “Everything in nature is lyrical in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence.” That seems a most accurate description of the New Zealand bach.

GAPS ARTS Lectures


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 10 June, 2012


The small, humble baches, often in little clusters, have been a special part of N.Z. culture for over 100 years. Their value is misconstrued by simply labelling them ‘iconic’. Many have disappeared; many survive so far. But this kind of vernacular building is militated against, making its general demise seem inevitable. Severe increasing pressures come from legislation and regulation, from property speculation, and materialistic values.

‘Thursday 1 March 2012 will be remembered by history as the day on which our culture died.’—Tony Watkins, on the Building Act.

Houses on a hill

In this session (last of a series on the topic of baches) we will make a brief study of the history of changes, assess the present prevailing conditions, and try to imagine future possibilities—of a survival or revival of the bach and crib tradition.

It is to consider how we might advocate for the future of bach-building. We would like people with links to architecture, law, planning, and politics—and all with a love of baches—to discuss crucial issues, and maybe interest those who exercise power.

Baches shouldn’t have to be talked about—nor become just nostalgic history.

  • John Lewis, M.Arch, PhD, ANZIA, was for 30 years a practising architect in Auckland. The Masters thesis (‘Leisure Housing in New Zealand’), done in the 1960s, was on baches.


Tony Watkins  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 22 April, 2012

Resilience is the new buzz word. It means, among many other things, the ability of people to not just bounce back from a disaster, but to actually turn that disaster to advantage. Resilience is the opposite of closure. Resilient people integrate the past into their lives, taking a positive approach to what might be. After the Christchurch earthquake, on a United Nations scale, the resilience of the people rated highly, but the resilience of both local and central government was rated as the worst ever recorded. Worse than Haiti. Worse than Indonesia. Worse than Sri Lanka. To ponder why, we need to look at our culture, our architecture, and our urban design. There are inevitable consequences to having slowly allowed an industry, concerned only with profit and power, to take over our built environment.

Baches were more concerned with culture than architecture.

The best preparation for both a fruitful life and a creative response to natural disasters is to have a community which builds baches. Baches are concerned with autonomy, self-sufficiency, the heart rather than the mind, a distribution of power, an open-ended world view, appropriate technology, waste reduction, and much, much more. Baches have made us the nation we are. We forget that to our peril. In a crisis bureaucracy fails. People in baches make a cup of tea. — Tony Watkins

  • Tony Watkins, M.Arch, Dip.TP, FNZIA, RIBA, was Senior Lecturer in Town Planning, School of Architecture, University of Auckland. He is a well-known teacher and author. His website is


Tony Watkins  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 25 March, 2012


Once people built for themselves. Along the way they explored the meaning of life, and every move was an invitation to reflection, meditation and discovery. The process of building was more important than the resulting building. Put another way a medieval cathedral was more than a place for worship. It was itself an act of worship. Or put yet another way the process of building has always been important in keeping vernacular cultures alive.

A Medieval cathedral has a great deal in common with a Kiwi bach.

Building once changed our way of seeing, and resulted in personal growth. Now our materialistic government, obsessed with economics, has reduced buildings to nothing more than mere objects, and the act of building to nothing more than a technical skill. Building has become a noun rather than a verb. Earlier this month the government took away our right to build. This will destroy what is left of both our built environment and our culture. All this is far more important than asset sales. Owner-building is one of the most important means of sustaining our kiwi culture. — Tony Watkins

  • Tony Watkins, M.Arch, Dip.TP, FNZIA, RIBA, was Senior Lecturer in Town Planning, School of Architecture, University of Auckland. He is a well-known teacher and author. His website is


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 4 March, 2012

If there is a beauty in baches and cribs (to generalise) it surely isn’t in any classical mode of formal beauty, and it often hardly seems to be in a purely romantic sense. If you want to say that it’s ‘in the eye of the beholder’ (which can be a cop-out) then come and do some armchair looking – and thinking about what this free-spirit phenomenon is, and how it might be courteously regarded.


As for beatitude (‘supreme blessedness or happiness’) if it’s anywhere in the built environment it is surely in the hearts and minds of the makers and users of a bach. The vision of Paradise is elusive, and maybe the bach or crib is just escapism – but come and consider if it connects in some special way with reality.

This is the first of a series on New Zealand vernacular building – there will be more on the matter of baches and cribs. Here is an interesting counterpoise to the series at the end of 2011 CONCERNING THE CITY