On Show: Historical Architecture's Ingenuity

On Show: Historical Architecture's Ingenuity

I had been a magazine travel editor at a previous life, and among my favourite places to see was that the Caribbean. It was not until a couple of years back I finally decided of asking a local, “Why so many gabled roofs?” And I had been told, “They help stabilize the structure through high winds from hurricanes and tropical storms.” That might seem odd to many people who reside in new builds or at copycat house styles that we chose for no other reason than we ever enjoyed the way they looked.

But many cultures continue to build homes more intentionally. The houses are built to benefit from the power of the wind and sun, or to protect against a hostile atmosphere. For instance, the Moroccan dar house has a central courtyard that acts as an air shaft, the walls are built thick and the houses are low, to make the searing heat more bearable.

Some cultures will need to get creative with local materials, because that is what they have to work with. But that does not mean what they build isn’t pretty. In fact, some are rather magnificent. It’s what writer Bernard Rudofsky calls “architecture without architects.”

A current exhibit at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, shows approximately 40 houses from around the world in film, photographs and models, demonstrating the diversity and creativity of what’s created from mud, bamboo, straw, cow dung, macerated juices and palm stems.

The exhibit, Learning From Vernacular (during September 29, 2013), also shows new construction in modern cities which was motivated from these conventional practices. The exhibit itself is placed in one such case, made by architects Richard Buckminster Fuller and T.C. Howard.

The Buckminster Fuller trademark geodesic dome gained worldwide popularity during the postwar period and is founded on a tent cupola. The dome shown here was built in 1975 and put in its current spot in the museum in 2000.

Now on to some examples of structure built by communities of people, not 1 man or gal.

Indonesian dwelling. Groups of people such asthe Batak Toba and Toraja tribes, living on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi, after had a ritualistic society; the villages were composed of a lot of those boat-like houses, each serving a different function. This one rests on columns of wood which were selected according to the sound they emit. The pillars were slightly elevated to protect them from the damp land, where largely rice has been cultivated.

The steeply pitched thatched saddle roof protected living areas; the eaves were intricately carved with ritualistic symbols; and the entrance was a trapdoor at the peak of a stairway.

The distance beneath served as a stable. Though a number of these traditional homes are abandoned and in disrepair today they did withstand earthquakes.

Shell house. Inspired by termite hills, from which they take their shape, the shell houses of the Mousgoum inhabitants of Cameroon in West Africa illustrate the options of earth architecture. These beehive-like constructions are made of a combination of soil, straw and vegetable glue, all of which are dried in the sun.

And talk about creative use of a tool: The perpendicular markers were created with forearms to reinforce the exterior of the shell, so help water drain and work as a type of scaffolding.

Conventional Kassena house. If only we could cover the facade of our houses in this kind of expressive, beautiful way. This is the work of the Kassena people of Burkina Faso in West Africa. The building itself consists of sun-dried clay, dirt, gravel, maceration bark and liquid manure; the process is similar to that for producing pottery. The exteriors, drawn with chalk and colored mud, tell a story. And since it rains for 2 months of this calendar year, the roofs are slightly sloped; in addition, it can be warm during the day and warmer at night, therefore the entrances are low to the ground, and there aren’t any windows.

Tata. With just wood, hand-formed brick and straw used to build the tata, it seems fitting that the translation for “Tamberma” — the title of the builders, who reside in Togo, West Africa — is “real architects of the earth,” according to museum documents. The tatas seem like mini fortresses.

Really, there was just 1 door at the tata, therefore the Tamberma could snare enemies. There were also no windows, as protection against the heat, and there’s generally five buildings inside a tata, each with a different purpose (as you can see in the museum model). Dead spirits and ancestors occupied the first floor, while the family lived on the upper floor.

Hakka tulou. The circular hakka tulou subway dwellings at China’s Fujian province reflect an egalitarian society with a feng shui sensibility: All households were allocated an identical amount of distance, and each dwelling harmonizes with all the property. Every one of those small kingdoms, because the chemicals were called, housed up to 800 people, who chose communal living as a means of defense against bandits. The round shape also protected villagers in the end.

City of Shibam. Constructed in the 1500s, Shibam, Yemen, was nicknamed “the Manhattan of the Desert” for the courses it gives in vertical metropolitan planning, just it is not built from steel but sun-dried mud brick. Floods in the surrounding land were utilized for irrigation; they also provided mud for construction and rich soil for agriculture. A devastating flooding destroyed the very first city, built round A.D. 300, but some older buildings remain.

Architecture Today

Today some architects are using nature’s materials and conventional practices. Take, for example, the Pereira Cathedral (shown) at Colombia. It resembles that the Batak dwelling in Indonesia shown. And that isn’t a coincidence.

“My design is tropical design,” says Simón Vélez, who built the cathedral in 1999. “In a state where it rains a great deal, you have to build roofs with large overhangs, such as in Chinese or Indonesian architecture. Learning about black architecture was a radical improvement in my entire life — enormous bamboo roofs built without any restraint or book.” Vélez is widely regarded as a master of bamboo and considers timber bud to be better than steel. The world-renowned architect selects it for its mild footprint, low price and earthquake resistance.

“I always believed a roof or a room shouldn’t exceed a certain height,” he says. “But in Indonesia, bad folk build roofs with their own hands which are 30 or 45 ft high! It’s a cultural statement: to create something momentous, a type of exhibitionism without showing off.”

Architect Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai trained in the United States but has been constantly decided to return to India to create a clinic that utilized local construction techniques and materials. Jain notes that the carpenters of the Palmyra House (shown here) were created of seven generations of craftsmen. Surveying the state of structure, Jain says, “We have lost faith, given up that position of doing things with a certain discipline.” He adds, “That is probably why we are fascinated with the old, due to the intrinsic quality of what brought that about.”

For Your Palmyra House, the structural framing was built of a local hardwood. The extensive louvres were crafted from the outer area of the palmyra back (a local palm species). The exterior is detailed with hand-worked aluminum flashing and standing-seam aluminum roofs; the interior surfaces are finished with walnut and India Patent Stone, a refined pigmented plaster. Locally quarried black basalt has been utilized to construct the stone plinths, aqueduct walls and swimming plaza.

It’s an intriguing question: Can a village build a better house than 1 man or woman? What do you believe?

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Vernacular Design: Architecture’s Regional Voices

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