The big question: what shall we build next?
How, as a profession, do architects respond to current issues facing the world’s economy? Do we respond well at all? There are two big issues on the agenda that are here to stay: the depletion of the Earth’s resources that are finite and the world's rising population. Both are connected to building construction and housing people now and in the future.
Where are the challenges? In 1963 a French historian Fernand Braudel in his book A History of Civilizations wrote:
Industrial technology, invented in the West, is exported everywhere and eagerly adapted. Will it unify the world by making everywhere look alike - the same ferro-concrete, steel and glass buildings, the same airports, the same railways with their stations and loudspeakers, the same vast cities that gradually engulf so much of the population? (1)
If in 1963 Braudel asked that question, then 49 years later we can say that yes, exported technology invented in the West infected every continent and climate zone. There is a hope in Braudel's explanation of genesis of civilizations: although all cultures will be shaken by the impact of Western 'industrialized culture' adapted by all, civilizations will retain aspects of their identity.
How do we respond today as architects to Braude’s comment on exporting Western technology everywhere? Well - there are some problems. One of them relates to the fact that Western technologies have been developed for one climate zone only - that is a temperate climate. There are five major climate zones in the world and around 108°C difference in temperature of materials between temperate climate and a desert climate for example. There are different cultures and social customs in all five climate zones and what is even more important from the economic perspective: resources vary from stone and clay to palm leaves and reed and are different in all five continents. This is why exporting or importing Western technology is not working too well for every place on the Earth.
Looking at vernacular architecture from a perspective of an alternative resource that is available locally, with invented and tested technologies of use in building construction over thousands of years offers a tempting proposition. Well - if it worked for thousands of years can it work today? Yes - we need to work harder in re-inventing and re-introducing these ancient technologies in a contemporary way.
My research on palm leaf architecture in the United Arab Emirates demonstrated sophistication of architectural solutions and their adaptability to specific micro-climates and landscapes of the desert, mountains and coastal areas. With brilliant thermal properties and prefabrication methods there are solid foundations for technological adaptation of techniques that have been developed already and tested in the field. What today’s architects call a ‘site analysis’ absent from so many Middle Eastern projects - has been well respected by indigenous builders, who understood very well wind direction, natural shading and properties of materials.
Relevance of palm leaf architecture for this debate is that it uses available resource locally, which is recycled by default, as each date palm tree has around ten dry palm leaves that need to be cut annually offering billions of tonnes of material available in the world for building construction, which in some countries is currently disposed of as land fill.
Adapting vernacular technologies for everyday bread winning practice is not easy, because it requires time for research and development. ‘Copy’ and ‘paste’ strategies may not always work for each micro-climate and cultural zone. But we do not have much choice with the current race for ownership of finite commodities and predictions of feeding and housing 9 billion people by 2050.
There is a great need to introduce vernacular to architectural school’s curriculum, teach technology transfers, in depth research of indigenous materials and offer the architectural profession a platform for shared knowledge of our findings.
© Sandra Piesik
Chartered Architect RIBA FRSG Director of 3 ideas Limited
Author of Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture published by Thames & Hudson
(1) A History of Civlizations, Fernand Braudel, Peugin Books Ltd, Published from the original publication in 1995, p.8.