By the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain, the innovations of architecture since the Renaissance had run their course, and there was an urge to revive the medieval Gothic mode of building churches (and other things, such as the great London Houses of Parliament). Somebody may have consciously recognized the extraordinary enduring qualities and integrity of the medieval work. But the architects of the Gothic Revival couldn’t capture the genius of the age when people built in love of their work and of God. They could only try to copy. It doesn’t work.
Gothic was the style the European settlers brought with them to New Zealand. In Britain every church was of stone, though many medieval churches had marvellous timber roof structures. In the new land of forests and no stone quarries, they tried building whole structures in timber. (Stone was nevertheless a preference, producing many good stone churches.) Were they inspired by a fresh love? For those early churches have the essential qualities of the medieval models, rather than the dullness of the artificially revived style.
Love in the vernacular
Fortunately many of our early timber churches survive. Most are cared for; quite a few are deteriorating. Many are seldom used or converted to serve other uses – which immediately changes everything and inevitably precludes a real appreciation of their qualities. A recent visit to Southland showed one now part of the local museum, another being restored but as an arts centre, and another which has a commercial use.
However, look at what there is and learn from it. We find the same essential ingredients in the making of them as we see in the churches of the Middle Ages, and the real baches and cribs of New Zealand. It is vernacular building.
The Hokianga has a great deal to teach us about priorities, values and life. In taking us on a journey through the North Hokianga, visiting churches and communities along the way, Tony Watkins not only remembers where our architecture has come from, but also ponders where it might be heading to.
The Hokianga has always been a place of returning. A place where people find their roots to ask who they really are. Architectural fast foods are tempting but never nourish our souls. Real architectural food, in contrast, is deeply satisfying.
. . . health, fitness and well-being
Architectural obesity is the curse of our time. We are literally eating ourselves to death. A recent survey found that our architecture contains 45% sugar, about the same as condensed milk. There is nothing wrong with some chocolate now and then, but you cannot live on chocolate. Nor can you live on packaged and processed food. A leading nutritionist put it simply - "If it has a label on it don't eat it." Neither diets nor gyms offer the solution to architectural obesity. We need to change our neo-liberal way of life.
Tony Watkins, M.Arch, Dip TP (Hons), FNZIA, RIBA, is an architect, author, owner-builder, servant of Piglet, and opponent of TPPA. For twenty years he lectured in Vernacular Architecture at the University of Auckland. His books include Thinking it Through, The Human House and Piglet the Great of Karaka Bay.