Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Triumph of the vernacular

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Photo by Yoshio Komatsu in Built by Hand

At the top of my reading list this week is the wonderful book Built by Hand, which, like so many other worthy titles, I first discovered through Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools. It’s a survey of vernacular buildings from throughout the world, as presented in more than four hundred pages of gorgeous color pictures by the photographer Yoshio Komatsu, who seems to have traveled to every corner of the globe in search of striking regional architecture. We see stone and adobe houses in Ollantaytambo, Peru; earthen roofs in Burkina Faso; bamboo and palm cottages in Myanmar; thatched granaries in Indonesia; and that’s only a sampling I found by flipping to random sections. As Kelly notes, the result is the fulfillment of what classic works like Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects promised with tantalizing hints, and it’s a true privilege to read. (The book is sadly out of print, and used copies run about $75 online, but I was able to get a copy through interlibrary loan. There’s also a Kindle version available that seems to have all of the photographs, although browsing through them appears to be an issue for some readers.)

And leafing through this book is an emotional experience in ways that have little to do with architecture itself. Moving from the image of a lime-plastered cottage in Ireland to palm houses at the edge of a river in Papua New Guinea, I’m constantly reminded of Christopher Alexander’s one overriding question: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly every house or structure here stands as a compelling picture of the human self, bursting with beauty, intelligence, and resourcefulness. Superficially, it might seem that it romanticizes the past, but really, it’s a celebration of the present, and of the immense diversity of building styles and modes of existence that exist on this planet right now. Each building serves as a window onto a human life, and one of the most compelling aspects of Built by Hand is the quiet revelation it provides, on page after page, of the men, women, and children who reside in these homes. It’s really a series of snapshots of lives picked up on the fly, and the result is more fascinating than most photojournalism designed to convey a particular message.

Photo by Yoshio Komatsu in Built by Hand

As a writer, I’ve been interested in vernacular architecture for a long time, for the same reasons I’m drawn to such extraliterary fields as art, music, and film. Unlike so much housing in the developed world, which is imposed uniformly on its surroundings without much thought for context, each house in Built by Hand represents a solution to a particular set of problems. Constraints are imposed by location, resources, and the materials at hand, so each building becomes an expression of the world that produced it. In places like the southern region of Chile, for instance, where wood is abundant, houses are covered in shingles; elsewhere, where nothing but earth is available, local builders do remarkable things with packed mud or adobe. As in most great works of art, utility and beauty go hand in hand; the shape and layout of each home is determined by climate, setting, and cultural needs, and the result feels all of a piece to an extent we rarely find in the products of mass production. Rarely have I seen choices in any medium depicted so vividly: each detail is the result of a conscious decision, shaped by cultural experience, and it sets a high bar for those of us who make an effort to create anything at all.

What vernacular architecture expresses, more than anything else, is the pragmatism of collective activity over time. Each house is rooted in generations of trial and error, as builders experimented with new techniques and gradually established what worked and what didn’t, and it stands as a reminder of how limited individual effort, even by architectural “visionaries,” can seem by comparison. It’s the visual analog of the oral tradition, in which stories are imperceptibly reshaped in the telling by countless performers until each element glows with rightness. When you read Built by Hand, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with other fields of activity, in which our obsession with the new and different, while sometimes worthwhile in itself, can lead to the neglect of crucial information that has been accumulated over time. The builders honored here are as anonymous as oral poets, and their anonymity ultimately serves the work: the ego is lost to the benefit of the building, which, paradoxically, results in a structure that expresses the self more fully than one in which the architect seems to scream for our attention. Is this an impossibly high standard to impose on ourselves? Maybe. But it happens across the world every day.

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2014 at 9:43 am

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