“House, Form and Culture essentially said that we cannot just look at what architects do, we must look, for instance, at vernacular design, spontaneous settlements and so on.”
— Amos Rapoport
Amos Rapoport authored the book House, Form and Culture in 1969. The Polish-American architect had a keen interest in Environment Behavioral Studies and tried to highlight certain aspects of the same through the 162-page read, divided into six chapters.
He begins the book by stating that the study of house and form is multi-disciplinary and involves fields of architecture, culture, geography, history, city planning, anthropology, ethnography, cross-cultural studies, and behavioural sciences.
Contents of the Book
In the first chapter, he segregates buildings as ‘important’ like monuments or ‘unimportant’ like houses and streets. He then goes on to define a building as ‘primitive’, ‘vernacular’ or ‘traditional’. The second chapter discusses in detail the influence of climate, materials and technology available. It also takes into consideration the aspects of economics, religion, site and defence.
The third chapter focuses on establishing a relationship between the factors: house, form, and culture. A house is seen in the light of choice of site, relation to its settlement, and socio-cultural forces while ensuring that basic needs are met. Climate is discussed as a major modifying factor in the fourth chapter. Various instances, from extreme hot to cold environments, are given for a better understanding of the climatic variables. This is followed by suitable responses to the same suggested by the author. Rapoport explains that how a house is built depends on the way of life, shared group values and ideal environmental conditions in the fifth chapter.
The main focus lies on the process of construction, the choice of materials and technology involved. Having discussed in-depth primitive and vernacular buildings, in the last chapter, Rapoport talks about the decreasing popularity of the same due to industrialisation and the specialisation of modern life. He concludes by discussing the scenario in the light of developing countries and the changes in our own culture.
A primitive building is one that anyone can build based on their requirements and the problems that are to be dealt with. Vernacular is an extension to primitive, describing how a building is designed and built. It talks about models and adjustments with more individual variability than primitive. A traditional model is a result of the collaboration between people over generations and between the designer and the user of the building. However, a loss of tradition has been observed in recent times owing to the difference in opinion of the designers and users.
Vernacular architecture does not involve specialised people for building houses. However, the layman manages to build not only a shelter through basic knowledge and problem-solving skills. While introducing this concept to the reader, Rapoport builds upon the same through various examples and believes that the key to modern design lies in the successful solutions from vernacular architecture.
The very first factor in the discussion is climate. He quotes the example of the Seminole House of Florida which is built on supports to protect it from moisture, insects and animals and the absence of walls is for ventilation. Stilt houses are prominent even today in flood plains such as in North East India along the Brahmaputra. In dry areas like Rajasthan, there are courtyards and jaalis for enhanced ventilation. The material used for construction in the case of vernacular architecture was the one locally available and suited the climate.
In tropical and subtropical areas, brick masonry is common, and in temperate zones, glass buildings are popular. Choice of the site largely depends on socio-cultural values which explains why the Meo in South East Asia pick hills for their houses, while men with similar economies pick plains, with greater employment opportunities and preferably an urban locality. In Cameroon, houses were constructed depending on the type of family. It is relevant in the form of the family structure today- nuclear or joint, accordingly, the number of bedrooms required.
With a shift in the idea of privacy, the number of bathrooms in a house is an important factor. In the USA, advertising agencies report more bathrooms than bedrooms. Fencing around the house is the modern idea of defence, hinting at privacy at the same time. A change in eating habits has paved the way for the need for a formal dining table or a backyard for barbeque. What remains unchanged is the religious influence and orientation with concepts like Feng Shui and Vaastu Kala predominant today.
An example of a vernacular structure that remains unchanged even today is an Inuit’s winter dwelling—the Igloo. The hemispherical form not only occupies minimum area while providing maximum volume, but also deflects the cold winds along the surface to keep the structure warm. Thick snow walls provide insulation. Sometimes, a short tunnel is constructed at the entrance, to reduce wind and heat loss when the door is opened.
House form is not simply the result of physical forces or any single causal factor but is the consequence of a whole range of socio-cultural factors. Apart from the provision of shelter, the function of the house is to create an environment best suited to the way of life of the people, a social unit of space. Today, even though people do not build their homes on their own, their homes are a reflection of their ideas, beliefs and culture.