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.