Architecture has been treating diversity with its evolving course of action. Seven continents slit through by vast oceans, ridges, and valleys to make space for basins, seas, and lakes. When strategically bordered, they form one hundred and ninety-five countries. The physical map of the world highlights the diversities of the topography that exist on multiple stretches of the landmass. Heated highlands, cool grasslands, mountains channeling winds in and out, tropical peninsular regions and dry plateaus -all populated, some prone to natural disasters and some man-man calamities.
Previously prominent, vernacular architecture has been tailored time and again to suit not just the climatic and geographical conditions of specific places but cultures too. What distinguishes vernacular architecture is the use of local materials, process of construction and techniques incorporated specific to that time, context and place which cannot be replicated from elsewhere. Hence, unlike recent times where places solely are defined by differently-abled steel, concrete and glass facades or structural systems, vernacular architecture addresses the needs of the site.
Not too long ago a new term called ‘Extreme architecture’ was coined and it immediately came into play. This concept appears to be a newer fangled, close cousin of vernacular architecture. Extreme architecture responds to ultimate challenges, predicting and examining, both deteriorating present-day conditions as well as future needs. It takes into consideration, scenarios such as floods, extreme desert heat or arctic winters. These examples may hint at why it was previously stated that vernacular and extreme architecture were peas of the same pod. The same ideology, but with different eras of innovation.
To explain further, let us consider Japanese vernacular architecture. Wood dominates because the country is prone to earthquakes. Wood, as a construction material, tends to make buildings less vulnerable to damages triggered by earthquakes. Traditional Japanese buildings have raised floors to avoid moisture from the ground. Resting ten centimeters above the ground, the elevated floor also prevents the house from flooding during severe rains.
Now, comparing this with Japan-based extreme architecture, we can conclude that, while it is still site-specific and emerges from social, political, cultural, environmental and other needs, the difference is that it introduces technologically advanced materials brought in from laboratories. Post-1993, Japan faced a tremendous amount of economic loss – nearly $500bn. Earthquakes were a major cause of these losses.
Example of Fa-Bo
In 2017, an article by Chrissie Giles in the Guardian showcased an extraordinary building called Fa-Bo owned by a Japanese textile company known as Komatsu Seiren. The article reports that Fa-bo, designed by acclaimed architect Kengo Kuma, is made using special retrofits called Cabkoma strand rods, which are essentially thermoplastic carbon fiber composite designed for seismic reinforcement. Its outer layer is covered with synthetic and inorganic fiber, finished with impregnation of thermoplastic resin. This makes the 9 mm rods, five times lighter but high in strength. After the reveal of this technique, it was also suggested that these fibers should be added to an old, historically significant building near the Zenkō-ji temple, a 7th-century Buddhist temple in Nagano.
There are many more examples that turn up while assessing vernacular against extreme. For instance, we have igloos in Antarctica versus several contemporary research stations within the continent-all strategically designed to withstand the extreme climatic conditions. There are also the traditional stilt houses of Brazil in areas prone to high rainfall versus the KADK masters project proposal of the floor proof bus and ferry terminal of which engineering could be borrowed to implement on residential design.
Just as characteristics of vernacular architecture are divided into four, extreme architecture is segregated into four plus one – hot, cold, high, wet and space. Ruth Slavid, in his book, states 45 examples of recent buildings designed for challenging environments to sort them into the prior mentioned categories. With Elon Musk stretching bounds to make space travel commercial and accessible and SICSA, the University of Houston is promoting its space architecture masters degree; one great concept to examine would be the one by XARC. They claim to provide expertise on space architecture and have projects designed for Earth, Moon, and Mars! Obviously, we do not have an equivalent to compare this against, as we do not have ‘traditional’ architecture on Mars. Well, not yet!)
Other than volumes of research, parametric design tools are being used to design according to existing climatic conditions, optimizing their use while avoiding the calamity causing distress it may cause. To conclude, we can see that both ideologies of architecture are inspired by the study of climatology and geography with the site-specificity being the core of their synthesis
Although we might say that one may be a more sophisticated way of designing than the other, it is up to you to decide which one of the two!
Currently a student of Architecture at the University of Sydney, Shristi Sainani is an artist and a certified interior designer. She is an absolute enthusiast for learning – an avid traveler, reader of anything non-fiction, a lifter! Yes, she could be your typical gym bro or even your local potter. But her all-time favorite job is the one she’s doing now, for RTF— writing about architecture!