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time and space as process and product: an


interpretation of vernacular and traditional
architecture

Conference Paper · July 2010

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Vishwanath Kashikar
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Time and Space as process and product:
An interpretation of vernacular and traditional
architecture
Kashikar Vishwanath
Lecturer, Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India

1. Introduction

Both the vernacular and the traditional have been extensively studied in the field
of architecture. However, there is a dearth of comparative studies on the
differences between the two. Many researchers use these two terms
interchangeably to denote some form of user/community driven, sensitive, non-
professional designed and built architecture that looks towards the past and thus is
the opposite of contemporary or futuristic architecture.
This paper posits that vernacular architecture is a time and place specific response
to the local context, whereas traditional building is a continually modified process
that is place specific. In the first section, definitions and misconceptions of the
traditional and the vernacular are discussed. In the second section some instances
of the continuity of traditional and vernacular aspects of architecture in the house-
form of Ahmedabad are elaborated.

2. Tradition:

Tradition has many definitions. Indeed ‘the multiplicity of definitions of these


(traditions) and other mutually dependent terms make their study all the more
problematic.’ (Alsayyad, p. 6). Tradition is usually defined as the handing down
of customs, beliefs, and values from one generation to the other. The roots of the
word tradition come from the word tradere which implies trade or transmission. It
is interesting to note that the meaning of this word does not identify what is
transmitted; the act of transmission is more important than the object that is
transmitted.

Tradition and history


Any discussion of tradition brings up notions of the past. Tradition, then, tends to
get discusses as a historical entity. The difference between tradition and history is
succinctly articulated by Rauch (p. 23) -
Even if history and tradition both share a search for lost objects and for time past,
they are not interchangeable terms. History is generally understood as an account
of events that lie in the past- known only through the record they have left behind.
Such events have no meaning unless we give them significance by interpreting
the evidence. That is, without attaching significance to the event through narrative
or other forms of symbolization, we could not register the event as such, and
hence could not appropriate it into our repertoire of knowing the world. Indeed, it
is precisely this repertoire of knowledge that I will be calling tradition.
History, at its best, is a non-partisan study of the past. Tradition on the other hand
‘… involves, in the first place, the historical sense… and the historical sense
involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence…’
(Pallasma, p. 136). The key word here is that tradition is ever present. It is the act
of choosing from the past; and ‘traditions are not self-created: they are
consciously chosen, and the choice from the past is enormous. We tend, therefore,
to choose that which suits our present needs’ (Thapar, p. 275). The other aspect of
history is its notion of being factual and objective. Tradition is not a true account
of anything, but as many researchers suggest it is the selective transmission of
aspects of the past in the present. In many cases this selection defies all logical
and rational notions and hence we carry with us the baggage of myths and
legends. Therefore tradition is the presence of the past, whereas history is the past.
This understanding has far reaching implication on the meaning of traditional
architecture.

Tradition and nostalgia


There is a feeling of nostalgia at the very mention of tradition. Nostalgia
represents a distance from our presence. And ‘it is the interval that separates us
from it… that excites…’ (Junod, p. 53). This distance could be spatial- nostalgia
of faraway places or temporal- nostalgia of far away time. And ‘distance of time
has much the same effect as distance of place’ (Junod, p. 53). This
‘desire therefore refers to … a feeling of longing. “long-ing” addresses distance,
the far-away property of this state. Its distance pertains to a temporal distance
between the present and the past in which this blissful state was experienced, an
experience that is remembered in the feeling of longing’ (Rauch, p. 24).
Tradition, looked at in a different way is quite the opposite of nostalgia. Tradition
embodies those aspects of the past that we have carried with us in the present
because we consider them worth continuing. Nostalgia, on the other hand, denotes
objects that we cherish but are no longer with us in the present (space and/or
time). This distinction is very crucial for the vernacular studies as it distinguishes
between a love for an image that is no longer relevant from the love for processes
and systems that are relevant but not adequately studied. A better understanding
of this difference would let us focus on heritage conservation and contemporary
reinterpretation as two distinct fields of study.

3. Vernacular

The etymological root of the word vernacular- verna implies slave born of the
house. Vernacular, thus, stresses on the native or local aspect. This is markedly
different from tradition which is not location specific, but transmission or process
specific. Many definitions of vernacular architecture exist. Oliver defines it as-
Vernacular architecture comprises the dwellings and other buildings of the
people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources, they are
customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies. All
forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating
the values, economies and ways of living of the cultures that produce them.
(1997, p. xx111)
Vernacular architecture is then a result of an interpretation of local forces like
culture, climate, and technology. However, this interpretation of vernacular
architecture requires closer scrutiny. Some of the oft repeated yet contested claims
of vernacular architecture are discussed below.

Vernacular architecture is built without the help of professionals


Rudofsky (1964) in his seminal exhibition and later book titled ‘architecture
without architects’ first highlighted the concept of vernacular architecture as a
self-built endeavor without the intervention of professionals; he termed it as ‘non-
pedigree’ architecture. However, professionals in the field of building
construction have been in existence since many millennia. i The contribution of
such professionals is well documented in the iconic buildings of antiquity. What is
not so commonly known, though, is that skilled professionals had a significant
role to play in the building of houses in villages and towns. Undoubtedly large
sections of society did posses building skills in the past. These skills, in the form
of intricate paintings and patterns in mud plaster, construction of seats and
temporary sheds, and mud and cow dung walls and floors were handed down from
generation to generation. On the other hand, what is not discussed at length is that
in these very same houses, specialized construction like foundations and roof
trusses were usually carried out by skilled craftsmen.
Houses in the past were designed and built partially by skilled craftsmen, and
partially with the help of the community and the individual. The present day
situation is similar in many respects. Except for taking part in actual construction,
most users when given a chance participate in the design of their houses. Even in
the case of squatter settlements, new migrants take the help of the resident expert
who is a craftsman in his own right.

Vernacular architecture promotes the local over the global


The world has always been a global place! Travelers like Fa Hein, Huen Tsang,
Ibn Batuta, and Marco Polo to name a few have carried with them people, ideas
and merchandise from one part of the world to another. The speed of this global
exchange has dramatically increased in the last century, but the fact remains that
cultures have always been influenced by other cultures throughout history. The
reaction in the past, and probably even the present, has been to critically evaluate
the new and assimilate it within one’s own culture. Foreign ideas that do not find
favor are summarily discarded. The use of Chinese trusses in village houses in
Tamil Nadu in India, the borrowing of Mughal/West Asian elements in the house
form of North India, the use of similar spatial elements like the
Verandah/Baramda across Europe and Asia, and the use of Burmese teak wood in
houses in India are a few examples of the global in vernacular architecture.
What is local today? If vernacular architecture is a response to local forces, then
one needs to question the definition of local. In many parts of the world today,
material which was once locally sourced is now procured from far away countries,
whilst materials which were once considered foreign are now manufactured in the
back yard.

Vernacular architecture uses traditional materials and technology


There is a strong notion that vernacular architecture uses traditional building
materials and construction technology. Visions of mud walls and thatch roofs
come to mind when thinking of vernacular architecture. This thought is in
consonance with the idea of the local versus the global. New materials and
building technology have, however, always been incorporated in vernacular
architecture. In most cases, the first use of experimental materials and technology
is seen in major public buildings like churches, temples, and others, and once the
new material is tested and proven it is slowly incorporated into mainstream
building. One of the reasons for the slow ingress of new technology is the process
of learning craft skills through the apprenticeship method. This method of
learning stresses on limits of the methods used and hence builders trained in this
method fall back on tried and tested systems (Yeomans).
Materials, in themselves, cannot be modern or traditional. Materials like stone and
wood have been in use for building construction since many centuries. Yet, new
ways of using these materials are constantly being evolved, and such buildings
using these materials can rarely be termed as traditional or vernacular. Vernacular
architecture has never been averse to the introduction of new materials. This is
evident in rural areas of many parts of India where new materials are constantly
being incorporated into mainstream architectureii. The use of steel beams and
precast concrete columns in the vernacular architecture of Gujarat is just one such
case of the assimilation of ‘new’ materials in vernacular architecture. It would be
perhaps better to say that vernacular architecture promotes the use of appropriate
materials and technology.
What emerges from this discussion is that whereas tradition is the presence of the
past, vernacular embodies the influence of the immediate.

4. Continuity and change in the house form of Ahmedabad, India

The difference between the traditional and the vernacular is discussed in this
section in the context of house form in the city of Ahmedabad, India. Ahmedabad
was founded in 1411 A.D. and has since been continuously inhabited. This allows
us to study the evolution of house form over the centuries and the patterns
emerging therein. Ahmedabad has a distinct old city which has lived in houses
that are about 150 years old. These houses are called ‘pol’ houses. Culture,
climate, and technology and its manifestation in the pol houses as well as
contemporary apartments in multistory buildings are compared to bring about an
understanding of the traditional and the vernacular aspects of dwelling.
Culture
The relation between culture and house-form has been extensively studied
(Rapoport, Lawrence). However, culture being an abstract phenomenon, the
relation between culture and built-form cannot be simplistically established.
Culture itself cannot be observed or documented, what we see are activities and
behavior as influenced by culture. Environment behavior research (EBR)
(Rapoport, Barker, Lang) has since established the absence of a deterministic
relation between space and behavior. It therefore stresses on documenting
behavior patterns and drawing correlations with spatial properties only where
explicitly evident.
A study of space use patterns in the dwellings of Ahmedabad illuminates the
continuities and disjunctions in tradition and in specific instances, its
manifestation in built-form. The focus here is not on why certain activities take
place, but on how it occurs in relation to space.
The relation between function and space is, in this case, an important indicator of
the notion of a dwelling. Except for functions like the kitchen and the toilet which
have specific infrastructure needs, spaces were rarely given function specific
names in the pol houses. Spaces were rather named on the basis of their property
of enclosure- osri (verandah), ordo (enclosed space), and chowk (courtyard). This
non-function nomenclature is a direct result of the use of space. Many different
functions were accommodated in the osri and the ordo depending on the occasion
or season resulting in all spaces being multipurpose spaces. At the same time, an
activity like sleeping or entertaining occurred in any of these three spaces
depending on the people involved and the time of the day or year resulting in
multispatial activity (Kashikar, 2006). This trait has been the hallmark of
vernacular architecture in Ahmedabadiii. In comparison, apartments in multistory
blocks have function-specific room names like the dining, living and the bed
room. This change in nomenclature is also accompanied by a change in function
specific markers. Furniture elements like the diwan which was used both for
sitting/entertaining and sleeping have been largely replaced by the sofa and bed in
many houses. Changes in manner of conducting activities like the change form
sitting on the floor and eating to eating on a chair and table have transformed the
house. The documentation of space use patterns in these houses (Kashikar 2006),
however, reveals that multipurpose space and multispatial activity continue to
thrive in contemporary society. A large number of the respondents still preferred
sitting on the floor both in the living room while resting and in the living room for
eating, preferred to use their bedroom to entertain friends, used the living room as
a guest bedroom etc. These can be considered as traditional ways of living that
continue in contemporary society. The study of space use patterns in the area of
vernacular studies is fairly new (Asquith 2006) and are extremely important to
understand the distinction between the product (vernacular architecture) and the
process (tradition).

Climate
The climate of a place changes at a relatively slower pace. Ahmedabad is
classified as a hot semi-arid zone. This requires compact massing with minimal
exposure to the sun, minimal ventilation due to hot winds and low humidity, and
mild exposure to the sun during winter mornings. The human comfort
requirements for the city can be best stated as the need to mimic outdoor
conditions during summer nights and winter days, and the need for protection
during summer days and winter nights. These conflicting requirements are
difficult to achieve using building design. The pol house responds to this with
shared long walls, small and deep courtyards, thick walls with high thermal mass,
and a light weight roof. The house works well as a protective shelter, only the
topmost floor performs reasonably well in mimicking the outdoor conditions
which is understandable given that the harsh conditions predominate over the mild
conditions. People respond to these conditions by having a diurnal and annual
cycle of varying space use patterns. Summer sleeping is usually on the upper floor
or a terrace, whereas summer daytime is spent on the ground or intermediate
floor. This pattern reverses in winter where daytime is spent in the courtyard or
upper floors and sleeping occurs in the intermediate floors. The opening and
closing of windows also follows a daily pattern which is different in summer and
winter. Contemporary multistory housing, unfortunately, is not specifically
designed for the local climate. Yet, in multistory housing, the tradition of sleeping
on the terrace in summer and in the room in winter continues to date. One of the
primary reasons for this is the increasing reliance on active systems of thermal
modification to achieve human comfort. The need for human comfort has not
changed over the centuries; the change if any, is an increasing intolerance towards
extreme temperatures. Comfort therefore continues to occupy a prominent
position in housing. It is the means of achieving this comfort that has changed
over the years. One can only conjecture the impact of the air-conditioner on
housing design were it invented a few centuries ago.

Materials and technology


Brick is locally made in the region of Ahmedabad and has been used as the
primary walling material for many centuries. Brick continues to be the primary
walling material even in modern construction. The nearest stone quarry is a
couple of hundred kilometers away though most of the stone comes from the
neighboring state of Rajasthan from areas roughly 500 kilometers afar. Wood
used to be procured primarily from South Gujarat which is again within a few
hundred kilometers. There is also a history of maritime import of wood in Gujarat
which goes back many centuries. However, wood is no longer available locally
and is now procured from Africa and Indonesia. Cement is also manufactured
locally due to the presence of limestone mines in the state. The pol houses are
constructed of brick load bearing walls and wooden joist-stone slab floors. Roofs
used to be made of mud tiles. Steel joists have long since replaced the wooden
joists, and clay tiles have been replaced by galvanized iron sheets. The users
themselves and the local builders have had no qualms with the ingress of these
new materials because they consider them better in some sense.iv Elsewhere in
Gujarat, wooden columns have been replaced by pre-cast concrete columns which
are decorated to look like wooden columnsv. All this clearly suggests that building
materials and technology are not necessarily tied to a particular era; it is the
appropriateness of the material that governs its usage in building construction.

5. Discussion

The instances of traditional ways of building and inhabiting space do not form a
grand narrative. The careful observation of the present condition however, shows
that, though there has been a steady assimilation of new ideas and methods, many
aspects of tradition continue to exist in society today. The following diagram
encapsulates the ideas put forth in this paper.
The diagram is specific to a place. Depending on the similarity of influencing
factors- culture, climate, and technology to name a few, different places could
share the same outcome. It becomes clear, therefore, that the vernacular is a time
and place specific response to both traditional and modern forces. At the same
time, tradition by itself continues to exist as a contemporary force. It is interesting
to note that traditions, though presumed to maintain continuity with the past,
might change slowly over a period of time. This gradual change over many
centuries might render the present tradition as completely different from the
tradition of the past. What is considered as modern during a particular time might
itself become tradition in the future.
The attempt here is not the formulation of a complex understanding of tradition
and the vernacular through a play of words. It is felt that the understanding gained
could help in clearly articulating instances of vernacular architecture of our times.
It also clarifies misconceptions of the vernacular with respect to history and
nostalgia; a misconception that leads to a mere visual copying of past built forms,
and a misconception that leads to the positing of modernity and the global as
antithetical to the vernacular and the traditional.

i
In the Indian tradition, commentaries on Vastu shastra, Vishwakarma- the God of the craftsmen
find mention in the Puranas and other canonical texts. Vitruvius, in the era before Christ, has
written about architecture in great detail. This tradition of skilled builders existed in the form of
craft guilds in almost all parts of the world.
ii
This became apparent in the post earthquake reconstruction in Gujarat, India. Many of the
professionals (Architects) preferred to use ‘local’ materials like mud and thatch to rebuild, whereas
the local people preferred the use of concrete.
iii
This phenomenon is not exclusive to Ahmedabad or for that matter India. Evidence of
multipurpose space and multispatial activity is found in many parts of the world and is especially
common in vernacular architecture.
iv
Of course this can be debated from an ecological point of view but the fact remains that metal
sheet roofs require less maintenance as compared to clay tiles.
v
Given that wood comes from a few thousand kilometers away and that cement is manufactured
hundred kilometers away, it comes as no surprise that cement is used more extensively as
compared to wood.

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