Book Review: Vernacular, by Philip Smith, photos by David Straight


cv_vernacularAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

How much notice do you take of the design of fences, gates and steps as you drive around your suburb? I can assure you when you read Vernacular you will look at some of these structures with renewed interest and fascination.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English gives the definition of ‘Vernacular’
(of language) of one’s own native country, not of foreign origin…
(of architecture) concerned with ordinary rather than monumental buildings”.

Philip Smith is an Auckland based landscape designer with a particular interest in advocating for New Zealand’s threatened plant species. He is also interested in the human imprint within New Zealand, particularly the forms and objects that arise from everyday lives.

David Straight’s interest in the built environment started in London and New York and he is now based in Auckland. His work includes photographing architecture for some leading New Zealand architects as well as an ongoing exploration of the transitional landscape of post-earthquake Christchurch.

The reader is taken on a journey through New Zealand as the author and photographer check out culverts, gates, fences, walls, pavements, stairs and even marker posts: fundamental elements of our built environment. No matter where you live, there is something of interest and you will have seen many of the structures which are photographed.

The book is divided into various chapters addressing different landscape types, as well as looking at other aspects such as nature of materials, as the author points out, “Many aspects of the vernacular landscape are built with materials close at hand.”

The author has dedicated one chapter to Māori structures, but there are numerous other references throughout the book and I was particularly interested in the discussion and photographs of the upper and lower redoubts at Te Pōrere Redoubt, the earthen structure erected for defense during The New Zealand Wars at the end of the 1860’s.

Water is of great significance and importance to New Zealand and wonderful photographs of coastal views and structures are dispersed throughout the book, and it includes a chapter on hidden waterways and manhole covers. With irrigation such a big part of the New Zealand farming scene the chapter entitled “Big Ditch, Little Ditch” is particularly interesting and illustrates how the water races first used for gold-mining can still be useful in the modern world of irrigation.

There is a lot in this book and a reader will not absorb it all in the first reading. It would sit nicely on the coffee table to be enjoyed and re-read a number of times, by anyone interested in the natural environment and the world around them. I enjoyed this book, and I am looking forward to having more time to pick it up and read it in more depth and study the excellent photos. I particularly liked the cover photos; the fence with the flat standard and the brown tussocks grasslands of the Mackenzie reflect the real New Zealand.

As the author says, “As a society, we should afford our landscapes much more than a cursory glance, for it is looking intently at them that we gain an appreciation of the depth and diversity of our culture”.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Vernacular – The Everyday Landscape of New Zealand
Written by Philip Smith, with photographs by David Straight
Published with the assistance of the Friedlander Foundation by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9781927213490