‘Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.’ A sensible description of our planet by renowned watercolourist John Ruskin that would stick with us today had human intervention wreaked a lesser impact. Evolution, however, is theorised to be inevitable. So the emergence of culture and its byproducts are inherent in history, suggesting an increase in human activity and, thus, an impact on the environment. Humans are intelligent creatures, and beyond changes in the environment, we are also conditioned to react accordingly in dire situations, seeking shelter for survival in cases of natural hazards or conflict, a basic need that regulates the limits of our physical bodies and psyche. It could be argued that architecture is inevitable, so how would human existence evolve in an architecture-less world? Would cave-dwelling and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle pertain? Would global warming have existed?

The Origins of Architecture

Having established seeking shelter as a basic human need, the history of architecture is about as long as the history of humanity as one might expect, and the origins of the discipline can be traced back to the Neolithic period, about 10,000 BC when humans stopped living in caves (BGW Architects, n.d). Though an exact date does not exist, remnants of prehistoric structures and ancient civilisations like Stonehenge or Machu Picchu are tools of time determination.

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Stonehenge, Salisbury_©Matt Cardy

Despite the lack of evidence as to when architecture became common practice before recorded history, one recognises elements of “design” in such built forms when examined in-depth, borne of locality in terms of culture and environment, an observation that has proven architecture is what defines us. This is particularly true in the case of vernacular architecture, whose buildings or structures’ design aligns with a specific region or period, is constructed using local materials and resources and is typically realised without the supervision of a professional architect (Thomann, 2023). The true question then becomes, what is architecture?

What is Architecture?

On a surface level, architecture is commonly known as the process of planning, designing and constructing buildings or structures, perhaps the most universally understood preconception of the discipline. The truth, however, is that architecture stretches beyond the built environment, it’s a part of our culture and stands as a representation of our societal values, a phenomenon tailored for people, by people. Without ideas from the human mind, visions of today’s modern world could not exist. Such thoughts are only conceived due to a pure passion for designing. 

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Tata Somba house of the Batammariba tribe of Togo and Benin_©Philippe Roy

The Tata Somba: Vernacular Exemplar

Take the Tata Somba house of Togo and Benin, for example, a typical dwelling of the Batammariba tribe, an agricultural society whose religious lifestyle plays a key role in everyday life and being at one with their land, an important belief that makes up their identity.

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Batammariba compound_©Banléman Kombaté

Surrounded by farmland, families typically live in compounds with a series of interconnected tata sambas situated far away from each other to increase the village’s spatial distribution. This feature, in the past, would aggravate slave traders due to the inconvenience it caused to their activity (Alatalo, 2020). Additionally, the tata sambas would only have a single entrance, a defensive feature to provide protection from attacks by slave traders and neighbouring tribes.

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Tata somba interior_©Philippe Roy

Design Features

Standing two storeys high, the ground floor is primarily used as a stable and features a small entrance to create difficulty in maneuvering in the case of an enemy invasion. Conversely, the upper floor is where the kitchen and access to the roof are located. The roof is where one discovers the bedroom, accessed through a crawlspace opening and simultaneously serves as a granary, which effectively meant that families can remain in their tata sombas for extended periods of time during attacks. As with other traditional houses in the region, tata sombas are constructed using local materials, with their walls composed of earth, straw and cow dung composite. Intentionally made thick, they provide excellent insulation against the hot climate while small openings protect against the dusty seasonal harmattan wind. To top it off, a special finish, drawn from the contents of the néré fruit, is applied to create a waterproof layer, a common feature also found in the dwellings of the Kassena people of Burkina Faso.

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Tata somba entrance_©Philippe Roy

Cultural Significance

In addition to the cleverly thought-out design features, tata sambas also convey religious significance. The dwelling itself represents the spiritual unity of gods, humans and ancestors, with the roof symbolising the sky, the upper floor, the earth, and the ground, the underworld. Much like humans, the Batammariba acknowledge that houses are not built to last an eternity. Most fascinatingly, they are almost treated like humans, some with scars on their facades that resemble those found on the very faces of some of them, the tribe’s members. They die with their owner, making the very land they are built on, sacred. As such, the next generation builds new houses using old foundations.

Architecture Today

Long have humans evolved since the mere need for shelter in the name of survival, and the architecture we see today is very much evident. Primarily assessed through visual means and constantly subject to scrutiny, the emergence of modern architecture has, over time, shown that defining it is a rather complex affair. Rejecting historical precedents and traditional construction techniques, modern architecture shows a preference for simple yet visually expressive forms, and it was through the modernist movement that the appreciation of architecture was completely redefined to gravitate towards minimalist approaches. This is where the phrase, ‘less is more’ stems from.

Despite being the polar opposite of vernacularism, early 20th century pioneers had demonstrated a fondness for nature, environmentally-centred design and material integrity, characteristics commonly found across the vernacular. Frank Lloyd-Wright proposed the idea of “organic architecture” in 1908, stating that buildings should be extensions of the environment, Fallingwater being the very manifestation of his design ethos.

Fallingwater, Pennsylvania_© Walter Bibikow

Would Humanity Evolve?

If the aforementioned information proved anything, envisioning human existence in an architecture-less world is a nigh-on impossible task. Without architecture, there would be nowhere to display the finest artworks, nothing to house libraries and the countless volumes of documented ideas that shape mankind, and no structures to worship a higher power. What was considered modern at the time will remain modern, totally negating any concept of primitivity and leaving humanity at an impasse.

References:

Architects, B.G.W. (n.d) When did architecture start?, BGW Architects. Available at: https://www.bgwarchitects.com/when-did-architecture-start/ [Accessed 30 March, 2023].

Alatalo, E. (2020) Defensive and spiritual tata sombas of the batammariba, Field Study of the World. Available at: https://www.fieldstudyoftheworld.com/defensive-and-spiritual-tata-sombas-of-the-batammariba/ [Accessed: April 1, 2023].

Thomann, L. (2023) “What Is Vernacular Architecture?,” The Spruce, 16 February. Available at: https://www.thespruce.com/vernacular-architecture-4801653 [Accessed: March 31, 2023]. 

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