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