Creeping slowly down The Parade during the construction of the Island Bay cycleway, we passed a group of road workers who were about to finish up for the day. It was hot and sunny, and the men were leaning against the sides of trucks, on brooms and spades, surveying the day’s work. The road beneath their feet sparkled with green stones. White painted lines stretched taut across the hot asphalt, wrapping the sparkling emerald pathway, containing it perfectly. The new bike lane. It was beautiful. The guys in their high-vis and steel caps thought so too. As we picked up speed and left this scene behind I noticed several of them had their phones out, snapping pics.
This is the moment I thought of when I first opened Vernacular: An Everyday Landscape of New Zealand, a photographic anthology of the more modest and ordinary aspects of urban, suburban, and rural space. Landscape designer Phillip Smith and documentary photographer David Straight travelled the country focusing on the details of a landscape overlooked.
This book eschews the ‘memorable’ moments in civic design—the City to Sea Bridge, the Beehive, the Wellywood sign—focusing on the small parts of the world that we often don’t notice. Page after page of elegance and beauty found in the most modest of places, moving beyond the cliché Kiwi icons: the bach, the woolshed, number eight wire. The objects and places featured, as well as the writing and design of the book, project sensitivity and a quiet strength. Nothing overwhelms, and you find yourself very quickly making your way through the chapters, from urban benches, to suburban gates, a rugged rural fence, and the curve of an open road. The writing and images connect us with these places and objects, whilst celebrating the “aesthetic sensibility” of the people who make the places we live in.
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And this is what surprised me the most about Vernacular. For a series of photographs depicting lonely places, and an accompanying narrative about the history and specifics of these potentially dull spaces and things (chapters include Handrails, Local Materials and Skills, Walls), there is something intensely human and alive about the whole thing. Smith is constantly making reference to the authors of so called “authorless design” and the people who use these spaces. From the Oriental Parade bench and “the countless conversations that must have taken place,” to the individual hands that stretched the wire across the fence… this book is just as much about people as it is about landscape and architecture. Although the images are void of figures, their traces are everywhere. Reminding us of the unseen labour behind our environment, the layers of history and individuals behind a single handrail, the power of things and spaces to connect us with the people around us.
Vernacular: The Everyday Landscape of New Zealand, by Phillip Smith and David Straight, was awarded Highly Commended (Trade Published) at the inaugural New Zealand Photo Book of the Year Awards, 2016.
Te Whare Hēra Wellington International Artist Residency presents an exclusive screening of Tales of a Sea Cow (2012) by Etienne de France, and A Journey That Wasn’t (2005) by Pierre Huyghe.
April 6, The Pit, Te Ara Hihiko, Massey University.
Drinks provided, arrive at 5.30pm for 6.00pm screening.