A slippery slope.

Rather than being a metaphor for the foolhardiness of embarking upon book projects, the title above describes the kind of mudstone foreshore along which many of us have skittered at one stage or another.

On the northern Taranaki coastline (at Tongaporutu) the passage of both human and hound has been made a little safer by the small interventions that have been carved out of the intertidal mudstone leading to the Three Sisters. 

A step too far … The Cairnmuir Landslide

Part of the purpose of these notes is to reflect on various things that we encountered along the way, including notable buildings, small cars in large landscapes and penguins.

 One of the strangest, and most impressive, landscape features that we encountered on our journeys is the Cairnmuir Landslide; New Zealand’s unintended tribute to the Aztec civilisation. This incredible, ziggurat-like structure was unsuitable for inclusion in the book, due to the fact that it belongs more to the realm of epic civil infrastructure than the kinds of features we were exploring.

 However, despite its brutal beauty, it was also undesirable as a subject for the book on account of the story of its genesis - as perhaps New Zealand’s most expensive and remarkable folly. When the nearby Lake Dunstan was dammed, as part of the legacy of Robert Muldoon’s ‘Think Big’ scheme, serious geological issues necessitated reinforcement of the adjoining hills, lest they suffer catastrophic failure. Hundreds of millions of dollars were pumped into an engineered solution to mitigate this risk, and the result is the massive, tiered structure that sits quietly on the hill overlooking the main road to Clyde.

Many hands (and feet)

Whilst many of the things that we searched out or came across for the book are the products of single, deliberate acts of construction, some have just evolved through the gradual influence of many people.

Stone cairns are one example that one sees in areas outside the usual daily life of most of us. We had hoped to encounter some good examples of cairns throughout the process of preparing the book, but (despite going into many wild places) we weren’t quite in the right places to get suitable subjects. Cairns are, however, very common throughout New Zealand, as signals between trampers or to mark significant points, such as the marble cairn that I saw late last year (post-Vernacular) at the top of a marble dome in Kahurangi National Park, with the splendid name of Hoary Head.

In a way, goat tracks perform a similar role to cairns, in that they indicate a preferred route more and more clearly as more people make a mark on it. However, in the case of the goat track, such routes generally indicate natural ‘desire lines’ (such as the shortcut shown below at Canterbury University) that demonstrate the difference between design and how people actually use a space (in contrast to how cairns help one to discern less perceptible routes in remote areas).

The Demio Shot

A side-effect of funding a book oneself is that it is necessary to be relatively frugal (although parsimony admittedly went out the window when it came to eating our way around New Zealand). Accordingly, when presented with the options for rental cars on our first research trip to Canterbury, we decided that a comically small hatchback (entitled Demio) would suffice.

 Thus began the tradition of the Demio Shot; wherein David would record the increasingly out-of the-way locations that our procession of preposterously tiny cars took us to.

 The covering of long distances in such hatchbacks reminded me of the annual journey of 2 of my co-workers at the large German nursery where I worked for several months in my early 20s. These burly Polish gentleman (resplendent with moustaches that wouldn’t be out of place in the pages of Asterix) traversed almost the entire length of Germany in a Fiat Bambina to work on a seasonal basis, before returning home for the remainder of the year.

New Zealand Photo Book of the Year Awards

Vernacular was a finalist in the inaugural New Zealand Photo Book of the Year Awards - Trade Published. 

We were awarded a highly commended. Here is what the judges said:

'Vernacular - The Everyday Landscape of New Zealand is a singular, intriguing and highly readable book. It presents details of everyday life and tells us how to notice things around us. The photos are strong, and the pared back design doesn't shout at you - it creates a harmonious balance between the text and the images. This collaboration between photographer and landscape designer has resulted in a book with great depth that has all the ingredients to attract broad public appeal.'


We might have liked to claim this term as our own neologism, but alas we cannot. Although it means something different within that context, it has been used by skateboarders for a period of time – unsurprising considering that some skateboarders are veritable connoisseurs of concrete (and all its possible permutations).

For our own purposes, ‘shittycrete’ is an affectionately-applied misnomer, for the textured faces of so many concrete walls around the country possess an organic beauty and level of detail that is missing in perfectly formed concrete. From Bluff to Wellington and the Auckland coastline, we were always on the lookout for variations that displayed the character of a place’s geology.

One particularly fine example of this finish (from Bluff) was selected as one of the image choices for the limited edition of the book. To get the full effect of this photograph, I find it best to bear in mind the associated image of a man standing on a streetfront lawn, directing his camera lens closely at the middle of a largely anonymous wall.

A thing well made.

By Grant Smithies.  Sunday Star Times - 24.01.15

I leafed through the first hundred pages while lounging on a Nelson river bank where a precarious rope swing dangled from the willows. I knocked off another few chapters at the beach, a stone's throw away from a sea wall built from massive granite boulders. I read the rest on the deck in our garden, surrounded by wonky bamboo structures I'd cobbled together for beans and tomatoes to cling to while they grew towards the sun.

All these locations seemed fitting, as this was a book about those useful - and often casually beautiful - examples of "authorless design" that sit in our landscape, reflecting who we are back to us with a minimum of flash and fuss.

Strapped together with an appropriate sense of understated craftsmanship by landscape designer Philip Smith and photographer David Straight, the book is called Vernacular (Potton and Burton, RRP $69.99), and it was my favourite incoming Christmas present this year.

In many ways, I was the perfect person to receive such a book, as I have always noticed these things: a well-made fence, a graceful swing-bridge in the bush, an elegantly simple bench some old-timer has made in his shed so he can park his arse outside in the afternoon and watch the world hurry on by.

Even so, Vernacular made me look at the world anew. For the past few weeks, every trip outdoors has seemed deeper, richer, more satisfying as I take time to notice the unsung creativity of my tribe.  

Certainly, such evidence is everywhere, as this book points out. We are invited to admire projects both grand in scale (the network of water races criss-crossing Central Otago; the stone pathways of Coromandel's Kauaerenga Valley) and decidedly modest (improvised farm drains; home-built letterboxes and clotheslines; a lovely little hand-forged gate latch.)

Often designed on the fly by some unknown maker, these everyday objects and forms are an oft-overlooked part of our cultural legacy, yet they are often quietly innovative and have great aesthetic appeal.

The point is made that we have left traces on the land wherever we have lived, and most of these traces are neither huge engineering projects nor imposing public buildings with a famous architect's name attached. In our rush to celebrate the "iconic", we look right past a host of everyday marvels, so this book instead celebrates more humble expressions of human ingenuity within our shared environment.

Stone and steel, wood and wire, rough-as-guts home-poured "shittycrete", cast iron, brick. Each chapter considers practical objects built to solve everyday problems using whatever materials were cheap and close to hand: some steps to get up a steep hill; a channel to divert excess rainwater; a wall to prevent the sea chomping big bites out of the beach; a manhole cover that looks good, gives traction to cars and stops you breaking your ankle crossing the road.

We're invited to contemplate the eccentric geometry of public bike racks where some unknown welder has employed considerable flair in piecing together a parking place for our push-bikes. We are encouraged to take a closer look at sinuous metal hand-rails burnished to a bronzy sheen by the passage of thousands of hands, or ancient basalt kerbstones outlining the margins of recently laid pavement.

Concise, poetic, sometimes very funny, Philip Smith's text is a delight.  "With the exception of punk gigs and other sanctioned scenes of social entropy, it is generally considered desireable that people should be civil to one another" runs the opening line of his chapter on public benches. And then he's off, riffing on form, function, materials, the many and varied ways our shared spaces might encourage lingering and interaction "rather than merely providing a handy conduit as we scurry between destinations."

It's a book that invites us to pause and appreciate simple craftsmanship, and for me, it has done just that. Outside the window of my little home office is a long concrete retaining wall built in the 1930s. I've looked right past it for years, to the vege garden and fruit trees above. But now, my gaze stops earlier.

Over a metre high and six metres long, this wall is a minor marvel, carefully angled to optimise structural strength, with inlaid drainage channels directing run-off into a hand-formed gutter. The face of the wall still carries the horizontal indents of the rough-sawn timbers used as boxing eighty years ago, and the surface has weathered to reveal a wild geology of grey-blue, brown and green aggregate dug from some local river bank, studded with the occassional stray seashell.

Best of all, there are steps built into it directly opposite the kitchen door, the treads perfectly spaced and carefully constructed. This is not just a builder's bodgie job holding back a hillside, a functional eyesore supporting a lovely garden above. This humble concrete wall is a beautiful object in its own right, rich with the history of the people who worked out how it might look, gathered the materials, then set about building the bugger.

A fine stair ...... and another fine stair

We suspect that there are few ventures that have looked at the same range and number of stairs within this country as we observed for ‘Vernacular’. This statement could equally apply to several other artefacts of everyday life that also feature in the book. However, David Straight reserves particular enthusiasm for the discovery of a fine stair.

One of the five images selected as an option to accompany the limited edition of ‘Vernacular’ is a particularly elegant set of stairs on Kaikoura’s shoreline. The powerful aesthetic of these beautiful concrete steps is generated by the combination of the substantial concrete ‘groyne’/wall that backs the stairs, the angled face of loose stone (or rip-rap) that helps keep the road in place, and the natural profile of Kaikoura’s rocky shoreline. This beautifully-composed assemblage of stone and concrete is an especially direct example of the way in which vernacular landscape features can inform design solutions for landscape architecture.

Marlborough also yielded an excellent set of stairs on a much smaller scale that was one of many fine objects precluded from the book on account of space limitations. Leading up to a woolshed near Ward Beach, the dimensions of the steps themselves (which have been cast as an extremely thin ‘stringer’) give them a refined character. The upper platform, galvanised steel handrail and substantial square post (upon which the platform rests) complete a dynamic composition that has been put together with considerable skill.


Another of the photographs that we selected as an option to accompany the limited edition of ‘Vernacular’ is an image of a fence on top of Castlepoint’s windblown cliffs, built from a minimal combination of metal poles and wire.

In truth, the discovery of this simple barrier was all down to David, as I was lost in the charms of the Castlepoint daisy (Brachyglottis compacta) at the time – a golden-flowered native shrub that is only found in this small area. The fence’s appeal is largely down to the contrast between its pared-back, linear form and the organic character of the headland on which the Castlepoint lighthouse stands. The vantage point from which the photograph has been taken presents this place in an unusual manner, in which the various parts of the scene (sea, rock and fence) are compressed on to what looks like a single plane.

As we prepared the book, we often discussed how people use the various places that we explored, sometimes musing that it would be good if some people recognised these places and gave us insights into them. This has happened with respect to many objects and landscapes from the book, as in the case of the Castlepoint clifftop, which an architect friend, Sam Donald, informed us was precisely the point where his father and grandfather have laid craypots into the ocean for decades.


David Herkt on Vernacular

Most often we don’t really see the things in front of us. They are too familiar. They’re the ordinary landscapes that don’t have a tourism tick: the fences, front-gates, culverts, walls, paths, stairs, and letterboxes of our daily life. Yet they create the New Zealand that we hold in our minds and rediscover with pleasure after we’ve been away. 

Landscape designer Philip Smith and documentary photographer David Straight’s Vernacular has the uncanny quality of making us look at our world differently. It is an elegantly-produced book and fully-illustrated with colour photographs that are unexpected as well as revelatory.

From the lichened intricacies of drystone walls on the Otago Peninsular to the weathered battens of marae fences in the Bay of Plenty and the shapes of Haitaitai mailboxes, Vernacular is a journey through a New Zealand that most of us take for granted. Smith’s text frames the images informatively, but more importantly it provides an illuminating perspective.

Smith mixes background, history, and aesthetics while explaining the logic of utilitarianism. He focuses on the things we use. Bike-racks, hand-rails, and bushwalk steps are all purposive, but the ways New Zealanders construct them are often vastly different. Triangular manhole covers in Lower Hutt differ from the round covers of Nelson. Water-races in Central Otago are unique. The wrought-iron gates of Coromandel township have their own particular local character.

Straight’s fine photographs show us just how the remains of Maori garden walls have sunk back into the Cape Palliser landscape and the trenches of the war-pa at Te Pōrere have preserved their essential structure. Equal emphasis is placed on Mt Eden suburban clotheslines and home-made street numbering in Nelson and Bluff.

Vernacular is a long way from the standard package of tourism imagery. It is a beautiful book that gives the everyday constructions of New Zealand a long-awaited reassessment – and, in doing so, shows us just how extraordinary they really are. DAVID HERKT


For the limited edition of ‘Vernacular’, 5 photographs were selected as the options for the print that accompanies each limited edition. These images come from various parts of the country, including the scene shown below (of roadside signals against an impressive sky at Mahia Peninsula).

One chapter of the book that was of particular interest to us was ‘Signals’; in which we looked at the myriad of signs and defining markers that direct how we move through society. Many of these exhibit striking splashes of colour (such as aviation safety poles and marker posts), whilst others (like this reflective shield) are much more subtle in character.

As we drove along the northern shore of Mahia Peninsula, David thought that this was the best time to take an image of the simple aesthetic motif of one of these shields, reflecting against the car lights in the fading light. In this case, I was the accomplice; instructed to inch the car forwards and back and adjust the lights, so that the shield projected forth from the surrounding context (and somehow seeming to become disconnected in the process).

East Coast Mannerism

As we made a late afternoon detour southwards to Mahia Peninsula (during our trip to Gisborne), our eyes just about popped out of our heads when we saw an unusual channel of water slicing through the pasture on a hillside beneath the main highway. This narrow incision of concrete receives its flow from a watercourse running beneath the highway, and then directs the water through a long rill (complete with diagonal baffles to disrupt the flow) to the brow of a hill.

As it falls over the hillside, the water tumbles down a stepped cascade to then continue its path in a more natural, unformed manner. Our best guess for the purpose of this peculiar construction was to prevent the flow of water scouring out the hillside in this erosion-prone part of the country. However, an unintended side effect was the creation of a naïve version of the kind of fanciful, manmade watercourse that one might find in an Italian Mannerist garden.


It is impossible to include all the places and objects that we encountered within the confines of the book, and part of the process of putting ‘Vernacular’ together was to select final images. Consensus played a significant part in selection, as we had mildly differing viewpoints on the merit of various things. In other cases, there simply was not enough space for some interesting landscape features, as in the case of a seriously strange set of wide concrete stairs on the riverfront at Waitara. Through the combined effects of subsidence and their staged construction, these stairs (which are for lowering rowing boats into the river) have taken on a remarkable rippled appearance, like waves in concrete.

We were particularly watchful for the place of benches in a variety of contexts, including streets, walking tracks, urban parks and racecourses. One example that interested me for its modular construction was a set of 3 very long blue benches on stepped concrete bases that face into a Westport park. On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of its mass, was a small multi-coloured bench outside a dairy in Takaka. The yellow rail that has been placed on the side of the metal supports appears to provide a perch for small legs to comfortably sit on this bench and eat an ice cream on a hot day (as attested to by the scuffing on the top of that rail).


“Oh no, he’s off again ….”

One of the few occupational hazards that David Straight faced during our travels for ‘Vernacular’ was the danger of interesting native plants sidetracking my attention from the main task at hand. In the case of our Otago and Southland trip, this kind of botanical distraction was part of the deal, as the trip served the dual purpose of research for the book as well as researching and gaining images for the regional planting guides that I wrote for Landscape Architecture NZ magazine. However, on other trips, excitement over rare plants occasionally needed to be tempered, so as not to wear on David’s patience.

The short walk into the magnificent Gridiron Rock Shelter (within Kahurangi National Park) provided me with the additional opportunity to view a plant that I have planted within gardens - a green-leaved (as opposed to orange), nonaploid form of Libertia peregrinans. On a more juvenile note, the shelter also bore a large rope swing that looked like too much fun to leave alone. Further north, the cliffs adjoining Wharariki Beach’s beautiful white sand dunes, are home to an interesting form of Coprosma, loosely referred to as Coprosma ‘Wharariki’, which I made a beeline for on our sojourn in Golden Bay. At the other end of the South Island, our visit to Slope Point (the southernmost point of New Zealand’s mainland) gave me the chance to see swards of a native herb that at one stage unilaterally decided to become a popular surface on bowling greens (Leptinella dioica), as well as an attractive pale, tawny-coloured ‘grass’ called Carex fretalis.

Our trip to Palliser Bay allowed me to see a coastal tussock only found in the lowermost parts of the North Island, Chionochloa beddiei, perching on the jagged rocky outcrops on which the lighthouse stands. Amongst the ancient stone walls of Māori gardens, low, sprawling shrubs of Melicytus crassifolius dot the paddocks in this area. This was a scene that I was particularly keen on experiencing, as it is the subject of a painting that my good friend, Michael Shepherd, gave me several years ago.

As David kept his eye on the job at hand at the base of Castlepoint’s lighthouse (where he recorded a beautifully simple steel post-and wire fence), I ‘added value’ to my trip by looking closely at plants of the Castelpoint groundsel (Brachyglottis compacta) and two interesting species of ‘native daphnes’, Pimelea carnosa and Pimelea villosa. At this stage, it occurs to me that it may well be advisable to cease listing the many plants that our project allowed me to see in person, lest anyone get the impression that ulterior motives played a part in the far-ranging travels that ‘Vernacular’ entailed.