Techniques > Architecture > Rapoport

House Form and Culture

Rapoport, Amos. House Form and Culture, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, Chapter 1: The Nature and Definition of the Field, pp.1-3. Out of print.

"...the work of the designer, let alone of the designer of genius, has represented a small, often insignificant, portion of the building activity at any given period."

Architectural theory and history have traditionally been concerned with the study of monuments. They have emphasized the work of men of genius, the unusual, the rare. Although this is only right, it has meant that we have tended to forget that the work of the designer, let alone of the designer of genius, has represented a small, often insignificant, portion of the building activity at any given period. The physical environment of man, especially the built environment, had not been, and still is not, controlled by the designer. This environment is the result of vernacular (or folk, or popular) architecture, and it has been largely ignored in architectural history and theory. Yet it has been the environment of the Athens of the Acropolis, of the Maya cities and the towns next to Egyptian temples and tombs or around Gothic cathedrals — as it has been of remote villages and islands, whether of Greece or the South Seas. In addition, the high style buildings usually must be seen in reaction to, and in the context of, the vernacular matrix, and are in fact incomprehensible outside that context, especially as it existed at the time they were designed and built.

This neglect of the bulk of the built environment, the tendency to see mud hovels or insignificant grass shacks where there are, in fact, buildings of great quality with much to teach us, has given rise to two standards — one for "important" buildings, especially those of the past, and another for "unimportant" buildings and the environment, which they compose. This approach suggests that architecture is to be found only in the monuments and that there is a difference in the way one judges a masterpiece, whether of the past or of today, as compared to the house in which one lives, or in which peasants lived; the Royal plaza and the street which led to it, or of one's own street. Yet we must look at the whole environment in order to understand it, and it is in this sense that we must study history of built form. If we look at only the smallest part of the work, that part tends to assume undue importance; if we look at in in isolation, we cannot grasp its complex and subtle relation to the vernacular matrix with which it forms a total spatial and hierarchic system. Neglect of the vernacular buildings which form the environment has had the effect of making the latter seem unimportant; it is consequently neglected physically and constantly deteriorates.

What then do we mean by folk architecture and by the terms primitive and vernacular as they apply to building forms?

It is possible, first of all, to distinguish between buildings belonging to the grand design tradition and those of the folk tradition. [1]

"...The folk tradition, on the other hand, is the direct and unselfconscious translation into physical form of a culture, its needs and values — as well as the desires, dreams, and passions of a people."

We may say that monuments — buildings of the grand tradition — are built to impress either the populace with the power of the patron, or the peer group of designers and cognoscenti with the cleverness of the designer and good taste of the patron. The folk tradition, on the other hand, is the direct and unselfconscious translation into physical form of a culture, its needs and values — as well as the desires, dreams, and passions of a people. It is the world view writ small, the "ideal" environment of a people expressed in buildings and settlements, with no designer, artist, or architect, with an axe to grind (although to what extent the designer is really is a form giver is a moot point). The folk tradition is much more closely related to the culture of the majority and life as it is really lived than is the grand design tradition, which represents the culture of the elite.The folk tradition also represents the bulk of the built environment . [2]

Within this folk tradition, we may distinguish between primitive and vernacular buildings, with the latter comprising preindustrial vernacular and modern vernacular. Present- day design, while part if the grand design tradition, is characterized by a greater degree of institutionalization and specialization.

Primitive is much easier to define than vernacular. Neither vernacular nor anonymous is a very satisfactory term for identifying this form of architecture. The French architecture populaire may be the most satisfactory. [3]

"Primitive building... refers largely to certain technological as well as economic levels of development, but also includes aspects of social organization."

Primitive building, most simply, refers to that produced by societies defined as primitive by anthropologists. It refers largely to certain technological as well as economic levels of development, but also includes aspects of social organization. [4] While the dwellings produced in such a culture may, at first glance and by our technological standards, appear elementary, they are, in fact, built by people using their intelligence, ability — no different from ours — and resources to their fullest extent. The term primitive, therefore, does not refer to the builders' intentions or abilities, but rather to the society in which they build. It is of course a relative term; to future societies we will undoubtedly appear rather primitive.

Redfield points out that in primitive societies there is a diffuse knowledge of everything by all, and every aspect of tribal life is everybody's business. [5] There is no technical vocabulary, because there is little specialization beyond age and sex — although some specialization in religious knowledge is occasionally found. This is, of course, linked to Redfield's definition of primitive as preliterate [6], and in terms of building this implies that everyone is capable of building his own dwelling — and usually does. Trades are hardly differentiated, and the average family has all the available technical knowledge. Any member of the group can build the buildings which the group needs, although in many cases, for social as well as technical reasons, this is done cooperatively by a larger group. [7]

Since the average member of the group builds his own house, he understands his needs and requirements perfectly; any problems that arise will affect him personally and be dealt with. There are, of course, prescribed ways of doing and not doing things. Certain forms are taken for granted and strongly resist change, since societies like these tend do be very tradition oriented. This explains the close relation between the forms and the culture in which they are embedded, and also the fact that some of these forms persist for very long periods of time. With this persistence the model is finally adjusted until it satisfies most of the cultural, physical, and maintenance requirements. This model is fully uniform, and in a primitive society all the dwellings are basically identical.

"At the moment, the most successful way of describing it [vernacular] seems to be in terms of process — how it is "designed" and built."

As I have suggested, a satisfactory definition of vernacular is more difficult. At the moment, the most successful way of describing it seems to be in terms of process — how it is "designed" and built.

When building tradesmen are used for construction of most dwellings, we may arbitrarily say that primitive building gives way to preindustrial vernacular. [8] Even in this case, however, everyone in the society knows the building types and even how to build them, the expertise of the tradesmen be in a matter of degree. The peasant owner is still very much a participant in the design process, not merely a consumer; this applies to the townsman of a preindustrial culture to a greater extent than it does to the townsman of today, since participation tends to decrease with urbanization and greater specialization. This change to the use of tradesmen marks the beginning of the process of increasing specialization of trades, although at the outset of this process the tradesman is such only part-time, and is still also a peasant. The two methods of building may, in fact, coexist as they do in the primitive context. In preindustrial vernacular the accepted form still exists, thus offering a way of arriving at a definition of vernacular by looking at the "design process."

The vernacular design process is one of models and adjustments or variations, and there is more individual variability and differentiation than in primitive buildings; it is the individual specimens that are modified, not the type. When a tradesman builds a farmhouse for a peasant, they both know the type in question, the form or model, and even the materials. What remains to be determined are the specifics — family requirements (although this is also less variable than is true today), size (depending on wealth), and relation to the site and micro-climate. [9]Since both tradesman and peasant agree on what is wanted, there is, in effect, a model which is adjusted and adapted as one proceeds; this is as true of the Danish Farmer as of the French or Yugoslav peasant . . .

1. This basic distinction relates to a number of studies. For example, see Dwight Macdonald, "Masscult and Midcult," in Against the American Grain (New York: Random House, Inc., 1962); Robert Redfield, The Primitive World and its Transformations (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1953) and Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965). In the latter, pp.70ff., the distinction is made between the great tradition (high culture and low culture; classic culture and folk culture; the learned and popular traditions; hierarchic and lay culture). This applies to many fields -- music, religion, medicine, literature, and others -- but has not been applied to architecture to any other extent. [back to text]

2. Even today the figure for architecture-designed buildings worldwide is reliably estimated at five per cent. See Constantinos A. Doxiadis, Architecture in Transition (London: Hutchinson, Ltd., 1964), pp. 71-75. The maximum, he estimates, is reached in England where architects may be responsible for 40 per cent of the buildings. In most of the world their influence is "precisely nil" (p. 71), five per cent of all buildings being designed by architects. Most buildings are built by the people or by tradesmen. [back to text]

3. The dictionary defines popular as being of, pertaining to, or originating from the common people as distinguished from a select portion. Vernacular is defined as indigenous, used by the people; anonymous as of unknown authorship; folk as masses of the people in the lower culture, and originated or widely used among common people. In the latter case the use of folk culture in a different sense by Gideon Sjoberg (The Preindustrial City -- Past and Present, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1960) and Redfield (The Primitive World and Its Transformations) is a problem. The division into primitive, vernacular, and grand design tradition may, indeed, correspond to Redfield's and Sjoberg's division into three types of societies -- folk, peasant or traditional, and civilized. There may also be a possible relation to David Riesman's tradition oriented, inner directed, and outer directed societies (The Lonely Crowd, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950). [back to text]

4. For a summary of the definition of primitive, see J. Gould and W.L. Kolb, eds., A Dictionary of the Social Sciences (UNESCO) (New York: The Free Press, 1964). [back to text]

5. Robert Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture, pp. 72-73. [back to text]

6. Redfield, The Primitive World and its Transformations, p. xi. [back to text]

7. In some primitive societies, such as those of Polynesia , the ordinary dwelling is built by its inhabitants, and the chief's house or communal house by professional carpenters. In Melanesia, houses are built individually while the chiefs' houses and sacred canoe houses are built by the village as a whole and are the concern of the village. In general, however, it has been suggested that primitive societies despise specialized labor and that this, rather than lack of economic initiative, explains the absence of specialization. See Lewis Mumford, The City in History (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961), p. 102. [back to text]

8. An alternative way of drawing a distinction between primitive and vernacular is suggested by an analogy with Redfield's Peasant Society and Culture, pp. 68-69, 71, where primitive is defined as isolated and self-contained -- if not in terms of other primitive cultures then in terms of some high culture -- while peasant cultures (i.e., vernacular) must be seen in the context of the coexisting high cultures. They are replenished and influenced by the high culture because they are aware of it, and the high and low cultures are interdependent and affect each other. An example would be the influence of the Baroque on the wooden farmhouses of Switzerland and Austria. There is a connection between vernacular and high-style building (although causal connections are difficult to establish), while this connection does not exist in primitive cultures which have no knowledge of an outside high culture. [back to text]

9. See J.A. Bundgaard, Mnesicles (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1957), in which he suggests that Greek temples are vernacular forms in this sense. [back to text]