Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet, edited by Sandra Piesik, ( Thames & Hudson )
Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet, edited by Sandra Piesik This compelling survey of houses built in harmony with their natural surroundings is inspiring but doesn’t quite meet its lofty aims
The purpose of a house, to state the obvious, starts with protection against the worst of the climate, which depending where you are in the world might be heat, cold, wet or wind. It will also be built, in times and places with no industrial materials, with whatever is near to hand, which is in turn a reflection of its environment: turf, mud, straw, reeds, paper, stone, brick, timber, animal hides, tree bark, snow. So a house, whose basic idea is much the same everywhere, becomes in the infinite varieties of its construction an index of climate and geology.
The idea of Habitat, a hefty, handsome tome edited by Sandra Piesik, is that, as environmental issues get more pressing, we should learn from the ways in which builders all over the world “create architecture without jeopardising the equilibrium of the world’s ecosystems”. “If we are to navigate successfully our changing relationship with our planet in the present age”, the book says, then we “must fully take into account the entire multifaceted treasury of traditional wisdom”.
Turf-covered houses in Iceland are among the ‘beautiful and unexpected’ dwellings featured in Habitat.
It’s a lofty aim, expressed with pages and pages of compelling images of mostly everyday dwellings, supported by informative text and impressively complicated maps and diagrams. The book organises the world not by continents but five types of climate – tropical, dry, temperate, continental, polar – which makes for unexpected juxtapositions of distant but climatically similar places, such as eastern Russia and Tasmania. The book professes a desire not to romanticise the indigenous and anonymous people whose houses it describes, although its base assumption is that they know what they’re doing better than any externally imposed technology. It scrupulously avoids hierarchies of north and south and east and west: cob building in Devon (a mixture of mud and straw) is shown as the equal, no more and no less, of earth construction in Mali or bamboo houses in Vietnam.
A royal building in Nyanza, Rwanda.
The outcome is a catalogue of beautiful and unexpected structures created by addressing necessity with grace, with flourishes of ornament breaking out amid basically practical choices. There are, for example, the “beehive” houses of South Sudan and Rwanda, soft woven domes sometimes perched high on knobbly tree branches. Or the amazing tulou of coastal southern China, circular adobe enclosures that provide shelter from monsoons for large extended families. Or the turf-covered houses of Iceland. You can marvel at the ways in which Swedes make joints in wood, or the people of Papua New Guinea built houses in the tops of trees, or the Japanese different types of thatch.
It helps the book that it has a cause, which keeps it from being a National Geographic romp through the exotic, but it is less convincing when it tries too hard to make its points. There are appendices on such things as the modern updating of vernacular techniques that feel as if they should be separate books. The scope is also too vast to allow a structured argument. It works best as evidence and inspiration, as the laying out of the amazingly multifarious forms that human dwelling can take, from which it might still be possible to learn.