The greater good

By - , Build 190

Professor Andrew Barrie from the University of Auckland says that developing people’s understanding – their literacy – about architecture can only lead to a better built environment. He’s part of a group encouraging this by producing maps and books that show what ‘good’ looks like.

I AM from the generation that has gone from attending BBQs where we watched our parents drink wine from a cardboard box to attending BBQs where we watch our children choose from three reds depending on the sausage they are eating.

There is a lot in that, from the transformation of the wine industry to the sophistication of consumer tastes, but the upshot is that Kiwis have become more discerning about what they drink at BBQs and much more literate about wine.

Slow transformation in construction

However, there are big chunks of our culture and industry that have not evolved with the same speed. Building design and construction is one of them.

Readers will be aware of the work done around the sector to promote development – from the advancement of prefabrication to research supporting the use of mass timber to the technical development and dissemination work advanced by BRANZ. Most of this focuses on ‘how’ issues – the way things get built, rooted in supply-related questions of techniques, processes and systems.

There is also work to be done on ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions – the demands driving what gets built and why it ends up the way it does. Economics and regulation play a role in shaping this, but it is also driven by the expectations of those who use and fund buildings. Here’s where the universities can help. We are thought of as primarily providing training to those inside the industry, but there is room to use our skills in education and communication to benefit those outside who set expectations for what we deliver.

Increasing architectural literacy

I’m in a group of historians at the University of Auckland School of Architecture and Planning called the History and Theory Hub. We do the typical scholarly work but have also taken on the optimistic mission of increasing New Zealand’s architectural literacy.

This has us creating accessible resources that all sorts of people can use to improve their understanding of both the history and the current state of play in architecture.

We have published maps of the architecture in cities and regions, as well as short guides that look at the work of a particular architect or the evolution of a particular building type or the architecture of a given city or town.

Our hope is that people might print these to carry as they wander, but they also include references and notes on sources so that anyone who is keen can head to the library and investigate more deeply. We are up to nearly a hundred of these publications, and they show up all over the place, from being quoted in academic research to being handed out by real estate agents at open homes.

Making good architecture possible

Coming back to literacy, this work is based on the premise that – as with wine – if people have a sense of what ‘good’ is, they will seek it out. They’ll also encourage the investment of money and care that make ‘good’ possible, whether personally or by the institutions that serve them.

Now, there aren’t many ways in which a building is like a bottle of wine and bashing out maps and illustrated guides might seem a trivial endeavour, particularly given the scale and urgency of challenges such as the climate emergency. But we see this work as a contribution to our architectural culture.

Any improvement here will aid our ability to communicate and, as a society, to work through the trickier questions surrounding our built environment. If we can boost literacy so that more people are saying ‘I’d like some of that good stuff too’, we can contribute to the wider effort towards the kind of change we need.

For more

To see the architectural maps, visit

Download the PDF

More articles about these topics

Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.