Campsite rules: What the humble campground tells us about how people want to live

January 14, 2021
When Kiwis go camping, leaving behind their unnecessary baggage, we might see a modern vernacular.

One of the things you learn, as an architect, is to make sense of how people live.

If you're designing homes for people, you need to anticipate how they'll be used and be aware of the things that people do, often subconsciously.

Vernacular architecture is a window into this sort of human nature. It's an understanding of how people make their homes using the materials available to them, for their immediate needs, without architects sticking their noses in. Vernacular architecture gives us an insight into how people choose to live if we strip away the unnecessary baggage.

It occurred to me recently, on a pre-Covid summer holiday, that when kiwis go camping, leaving behind their unnecessary baggage, we might see a modern vernacular. We might get to see how kiwis choose to live, when left to their own devices?

I'm now able to report that there's no better way to distract yourself from a summer holiday than trying to make sense of a camp site. The tools I learnt at architecture school; the tools that I use to find order amongst apparent chaos, proved useless, initially.

The campsites, side by side, not too dissimilar from your average street, meant that there was some sense of organisation. The tents, campervans and trailers were pitched and positioned, all becoming pieces of architecture in an experimental subdivision.

The result, it's fair to say, to an architect's eye, was a shambles. Things you might think were fundamental to how people choose to live, like privacy and shelter were often ignored. Prevailing winds, view, the effect of the sun throughout the day and how you entered a site were clearly distant considerations.

If I was looking for some sort of insight into what kiwis thought were important when organising themselves, there wasn't much to learn. What was needed, obviously, was a masterplan!

Of course, this would be to miss the point. What became clear, with some reflection (and perhaps less time in the sun), was that a kiwi campsite is a modern vernacular. It does tell us about how we like to live.

We live in the spaces between and at the edge of buildings. Our best buildings make places that harness just enough of our temperate climate, making it comfortable to be outside, in our fold out chairs.

​We're not self-conscious. We're not interested in rigidity and conformity. The idea that we should plan a campsite in accordance with some set of constraints simply doesn't occur to us. I'm beginning to understand why my wife used to shake her head as I went through my site planning ritual.

And finally, New Zealanders enjoy each other's company. Architecture can be used to build barriers between people and the lack of formality we find in our camp sites says a lot about our willingness to coexist with each other.

So, you must wonder what went wrong with the majority of our new recent housing? Where is the variety? Why do we fence ourselves in and why is it that we love indoor-outdoor flow, but fail to build homes that make it a reality?

With homes like those, it's little wonder we love going camping.

Mat Brown is a Principal at Warren and Mahoney with over 25 years' experience working across a range of projects in Auckland and London. Mat specialises in residential design; particularly in multi-residential projects. Mat has an interest in architecture's relationship with the public, and hopes to encourage a greater understanding within New Zealand. He is a co-presenter of 76 Small Rooms, a podcast about architecture in Aotearoa.