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The term vernacular architecture applies to structures built based on local traditions and skills passed down through generations, not on the designs of professional architects. Building techniques vary widely depending on function, location, and available materials. Although historians and educators have largely overlooked vernacular architecture, its practice today continues to shape most of the world’s built environment.
Vernacular architecture is the term now internationally applied to buildings that are constructed according to indigenous traditions rather than a professional design. Most of the world’s buildings fall into this category; people of innumerable cultures have built structures to meet their physical, social, economic, and spiritual needs. Because many cultures have not been literate, or literacy has been confined to the elites, vernacular traditions have often remained unrecorded and their history is difficult to ascertain. Archaeological excavations have frequently concentrated on religious, palatial, and military sites, but at Sumer for example, the ancient Mesopotamian region of southern Iraq, archaeologists have uncovered dwellings dating back to the fifth millennium BCE, revealing plans, structures, and spatial organization that are similar to settlements extant today.
Certain examples of early art, such as tomb paintings of Middle Egypt or Roman mosaics in Carthage, on the gulf of Tunis, depict the materials indigenous peoples used in their buildings, including reed thatch, earthen bricks, and clay tiles. Ancient artifacts may also illustrate vernacular building styles; a third-century-CE bronze mirror from Nara, Japan, bears images of house and granary types that are still built in Southeast Asia. Clay models of houses placed in graves in Greece, Mesopotamia, and China, some including figurines, show their structure and indicate how they were used. While unbroken sequences of the history of buildings have sometimes been hard to establish, dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) and carbon dating have been applied in European vernacular studies to give a record spanning two millennia. In some countries, wills, inventories, and other documents have disclosed details that relate to property. Inevitably however, the history of vernacular building in much of the world is undocumented, and there is much room for research in the field.
Built to Meet Needs
Building traditions differ widely across the globe, but some requirements are common, mainly the provision of shelter for families. It is not known how many dwellings currently exist in the world; estimates range between 800 million and 1 billion to accommodate the 2009 population of more than 6 billion people. Of these, over three-fourths are vernacular, built by the owners or by skilled members of their communities, whose traditions in building have been passed from generation to generation.
Caves may have provided the earliest dwellings; evidence of cave occupancy in Spain and France dates from Paleolithic times. (In 2009, some 50 million people live in caves, particularly in China, but also in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.) Other peoples who hunted game and gathered fruits lived in the forests where they made temporary shelters of branches and leaves, as the Orang Asli of Malaysia or the East African Hadza still do. Adapting to local conditions, peoples such as the Evenki of Siberia made their huts of wood from the taiga, or in the case of the seal-hunting Inuit of northern Canada, built domes of snow blocks.
Traveling in more arid regions, many tribes camped under tents made from strips of woven goat’s hair; such “black tents” are still used by the Bedouin of Arabia. Desert nomads move with flocks of camels or goats, often by prearranged routes so that the sparse vegetation is not overgrazed and may recover. In more fertile regions such as the grasslands of Central Asia, the Kyrgyz and Mongols live in the yurt or ger, a dome raised on a cylinder of lattices covered with large felts that are tied in place. After a stay of weeks they dismantle the domes and move to new pastures where the women, who make all the components, rapidly re-erect them. As the examples of nomads indicate, the kind of dwelling used by a culture is partly conditioned by the economy in which its makers subsist.
Mankind cannot survive without water, and many cultures live close to rivers, often in the valleys or near the sea. Fishing peoples may construct dwellings on stilts or piles over the water, enabling them to protect their fishing grounds. Some, like sea nomads of the Philippines, live on boats as much as on land. The majority of vernacular buildings, however, are built by sedentary peoples who live in one place and who may be engaged in agriculture, livestock-raising, and the marketing of produce, or in craft occupations such as pottery or weaving, that meet material needs.
Although some vernacular buildings, including farmhouses, are found in relative isolation, most are located in hamlets and villages or in small towns and urban neighborhoods. They may house nuclear families of parents and children, common in North America or Western Europe. In much of the world, however, extended families of three generations, or the spouses and children of siblings, all live together. Suitably large houses may be built for them, as in Kashmir or western Anatolia, or several single-cell huts may be enclosed in compounds, as is common in West Africa.
Within the farmyard or compound, economic functions are accommodated in special structures. Among the most frequent are granaries, raised above ground to repel damp and rodents. Stables for horses and barns for draft animals or for wintering cattle are customary, though recently many have been adapted to take mechanical equipment. Among vernacular buildings that functioned until the early twentieth century were blacksmith’s workshops and outdoor baking ovens, while watermills and windmills were widely used in Europe to provide the power for grinding corn or pigments, draining wetlands, and sawing timber. Many of these functional buildings were lost with industrialization, but others, such as potteries and carpenters’ workshops, continue to be productive in many parts of the world.
Numerous vernacular buildings are constructed for social functions that relate to status, power, or belief. A special residence may be constructed by some cultures in honor of a chief, a prince, or a spiritual leader, perhaps as a larger version of the customary dwelling. In some instances, such as the Dyak peoples of Borneo or the indigenous forest cultures of western Amazonia, whole villages are accommodated in single buildings, usually called longhouses, in which all the families occupy spaces beneath one roof. Often the families belong to one clan, and the spaces may be arranged in hierarchical order.
Some buildings may have a ceremonial function, and in settlements the world over prominence is given to buildings that relate to religious beliefs. Temples, mosques, and churches house worshippers, while shrines protect votive objects or mark sacred sites. Priests from such religions may officiate at the selection of a site, bless the stages in the building of a house, and preside at a ceremony to mark its completion. Often the dwelling is itself symbolic, being perceived as having cosmic or anthropomorphic associations, as is the case in Hindu tradition. This serves the important function of reaffirming for the occupants the spiritual values of the culture to which they belong.
The great variety in the size, forms, and construction of houses and related buildings throughout the world is largely due to the diverse nature of specific cultures. Some require communal rooms in which whole families live together, while others have separate entrances to distinct living areas for males and females. The differences are also attributable to respective economies: Chinese hill farmers require accommodation for their livestock and their families, and the structures they build are quite different from the narrow frontages of shophouses—usually two stories high, and built in rows connected by deep courtyards—that are typical of Chinese urban neighborhoods. But whatever the culture and its people’s needs, buildings are strongly conditioned by the environments in which they are situated.
Responding to the Environment
Vernacular buildings reflect the peculiarities of their locations, from grassland steppes, deserts, and plains to forests, valleys, lakesides, or mountains. Where land is freely available compounds may spread, but where sites are constricted houses of two or three stories may be constructed, some having stepped levels where gradients are steep. While the majority of circular-plan buildings have a conical roof of poles converging at the apex, the roofs of rectangular and square-plan buildings are pitched to a central ridge. With modifications in plan, such as a T, an L, a square, or a rectangle defining a courtyard, the majority of pitched-roof vernacular buildings take forms that are found with many variants worldwide. In tropical Sumatra (in Southeast Asia), for example, upswept roof ridges on the houses of the Minangkabau end in finials or small spires (a symbol of the horns of the sacred water buffalo). These roofs are effective in expelling warm air and keeping the interiors cool.
Climate is an important environmental factor in the design of vernacular buildings, but extremes of climate and natural hazards can do structural damage, with high winds lifting off roof cladding in the Caribbean and flood waters reducing clay walls in Bangladesh. Volcanic eruptions threaten Central America and earthquakes reduce literally thousands of buildings to rubble in Turkey and other seismic regions, though frequently it is the vernacular buildings rather than the concrete ones that enable people to survive a major disaster. In Kashmir and Peru, technologies have been developed that permit buildings to be flexible in earthquakes, but as natural disasters are unpredictable and may not recur, the main concern of most builders is to cope with the vagaries of the seasons and the weather.
In humid tropical climates, houses are constructed so as to encourage air circulation, while those in arid climates may be sited to reduce exposure to the sun; buildings placed around courtyards, for instance, offer continual shade during the day. In temperate and cold regions thick earth walls retain solar heat and warm the interiors; deep layers of insulating thatch are also used. Passive cooling devices such as wind scoops are used in the Middle East, while radiant stoves keep houses warm in the extreme winters of Central Europe. By such means builders have been able to create comfortable internal conditions. Even so, they are dependent on the material resources available to them, and these also exert their influence on the forms of the building.
Perhaps the most widely used material in vernacular building is earth. Whether it is molded to shape, rammed between wooden planked molds, mixed with straw and compressed in adobe blocks, or fired in kilns and made into bricks, earth is ubiquitous and employed in every continent. Factors such as particle size affect its suitability but in some regions, such as Yemen or southern Morocco, multistoried buildings of rammed earth have lasted centuries and are still being constructed. Clay is also used in combination with interwoven panels of willow or hazel wood in the technique, common in Britain, known as wattle-and-daub. Although techniques of molded mud can be used to make vaults, flat roofs on clay buildings are usually constructed with log poles, such as in the pueblos of the southwestern United States. In regions such as Tunisia or Egypt, where there is little wood, palm trunks are used.
Stone is strong and suitable for constructing walls when pieces of manageable size can be found, but it less widely employed than clay. Time-consuming to quarry and heavy to transport, stone has been principally used in elite architecture rather than in the vernacular. Brick is an economic alternative to stone, with standardized sizes and techniques for laying courses, and the use of mortar to ensure stability. Brick building came to England from the Netherlands, and later the British introduced the technique to Africa. Brick and tile traditions were developed independently in China, where the weight of roofs was often borne by internal wood frames rather than by brick walls.
Although a material may be accessible another may take preference over it for economic reasons, or on account of its relative suitability. Finland, for instance, has immense resources of granite but its vernacular buildings were built of wood from the vast forests. Japanese builders constructed their traditional minka houses in timber, even though stone was available; for adherents of the Japanese Shinto religion the choice of a living material was a spiritual matter.
Timber has been extensively used and is renewable over time, though the destruction of the forests makes building wood structures unfeasible in many countries. Log construction, with round or squared timber notched to provide secure and interlocking corner joints, is basic to the vernacular traditions of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and the Alps, from where it was brought by migrants to the United States. An alternative system is timber framing, in which a box-like skeleton is made of jointed wood, the panels being filled with wattle-and-daub, or with bricks laid in patterns as they are in northern Germany.
In some tropical regions timber is less readily obtainable, so bamboo, which is technically a grass, is grown and used for building. Fast growing and flexible, it is employed as a structural material in Southeast Asia and Indonesia, but it is also stripped and made into matting for lightweight walls and roof covering. Palm leaves are often used for wall cladding and for thatching roofs in the Pacific islands, but the principal thatching materials in much of the world are grass or reed. Bundled and secured in overlapping layers, thatch provides a water-resistant cover as effectively for a rectangular plan as for a circular one. Vernacular builders have employed natural materials for centuries, but by replanting and recycling them, and by passing on their practices to succeeding generations, they have been able to remain in the same locations without depleting the resources of their environments.
Vernacular architecture has shaped the buildings of the world’s peoples throughout history, but it has been largely overlooked by architectural historians and educators who may dismiss it as primitive. Though most traditions could benefit from improved servicing with electricity, piped water, and modern sanitation, vernacular architecture still has a major part to play in the development of a built environment that is both responsive and responsible in an era of rapid population growth.
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