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African Vernacular Architecture Database (2015) (notechmagazine.com)
115 points by Red_Tarsius 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

I didn't know what "Vernacular architecture" meant, so for everyone else who doesn't know either and is waiting for the page to load here's the first sentence in its Wikipedia entry:

Vernacular architecture is architecture characterised by the use of local materials and knowledge, usually without the supervision of professional architects. Vernacular buildings are typically simple and practical, whether residential houses or built for other purposes.


In Ukraine vernacular architecture represented by "khata" (ukr. "хата", eng. "house").[0]

"Ukrains'ka khata" (ukr. "Українська хата"; eng. "Ukrainian house") is some sort of house-building art objects and in our days is like cultural heritage of Ukraine.[1]

Many examples of Ukrainian vernacular architecture you could see now in open-air Musem of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine aka «Pyrohiv» (ukr. Пирогів - village near Kyiv city).[2]

[0] https://uk.wikipedia.org/wiki/Хата

[1] https://uk.wikipedia.org/wiki/Українська_хата

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrohiv

I'd dispute the "simple" aspect. You can find examples of modern vernacular architecture that for example uses local passive cooling techniques to keep a clinic cool in the sub-Sahara.

I did know what vernacular architecture meant, but from the headline, I thought it was going to be a novel database architecture, catering in some way to particularly African needs, thought 'that sounds interesting!'.

I lived in Botswana for almost two years, in the late 1980s. In my village there was a noticeable shift in housing style over time, as manufactured materials (cinder block, sheet metal roofs, chain link fence) replaced their traditional counterparts (mud/dung walls, thatch roof, piled-up bushes).

This shift in building style also brought about a shift in usage.

At the most visible level, round, amorphous shapes gave way to rectilinear layouts.

The organization of family compounds also changed. Traditionally, one would see 2-4 rondavels (round, single-room structures), all linked by a low wall (lolwapa) into an inward-oriented cluster. That got replaced by a single, larger house, presumably with multiple rooms inside.

In terms of usage, you could see the difference best in the middle of the day. This is a desert country, and the modern materials and constructions are a thermal disaster. Thick walls with a lot of thermal mass got replaced by low-mass walls. Uninsulated tin roofs collect solar gains (and radiate heat, becoming uncomfortably cold at night). Thatch roofs also tend to have wide overhangs, providing shade at the side of houses.

As a result, people living in new houses tended to be outside, squeezed under the shade of whatever scraggly trees there were. Those with traditional houses tended to be inside, or sitting in the shade on the kind of built-up seat that runs around many rondavels.

I never priced things out, but the only way to understand this shift had to be as a function of cost. Thatch had to be imported, and I think doesn't last beyond a decade at most. And the traditional walls required a lot more seasonal maintenance.

If I go to the database/South Africa I can recognise many of these structures (all are different types of huts), but without any notes or annotations.

What's interesting is that most houses being built in rural areas in SA (as e.g. opposed to Botswana) are not true vernacular but cross over buildings. In the process a lot of traditional architechture are being replaced; in this regard I think what would be cool is to find talented architects to "preserve" some of this in new commercial buildings.

Rural building are now much more Western (with huts having rooms are not possible, you sort of can have "graphs" though). The budget constraints also mean that houses may be built room by room over many years. One interesting "vernacular" developments I would say is pillars. Rural villages love them! It would be interesting to see how this evolves into a 21st century vernacular.

An interesting side topic on Ndebele art and BMW: https://www.bmwblog.com/2016/09/05/bmw-individual-7-series-e....

> Rural building are now much more Western (with huts having rooms are not possible, you sort of can have "graphs" though).

Are you referring to the fractal structures found in many traditional African building plans?



I watched the Ted video, it's interesting! And yes, it does talk about what I had in mind, but of course with much more research and rigour. It would be nice to get a copy of that book that the author wrote.

In any case, the fractal properties of African villages and other cultural artifacts is an excellent topic for education in Africa in the future.

No, I don't think so, not specifically, but it could be casually possible. I just mean for example: the standard 3-hut configuration triangle with a central open air common area (the triangle).

You can have much bigger graphs too, it is common traditionally to have the chief in the middle and the tribe living around him, but I can imagine that there could be fractals.

Since the article is down, maybe change the URL to the page it describes? http://www.africavernaculararchitecture.com

Thanks for archiving it!

I always make backups of interesting sites using Archive.org, but, think, African Vernacular Architecture Database should be printed by someone as a book too ;-)

There are some interesting, award winning projects happening in Port Elizabeth, South Africa that are incorporating recycled materials into the vernacular.

These projects are to address the poor condition of schools, where children are typically taught in overcrowded shacks.


It's nice to see projects of passion like this contribute to the global knowledge base

This reminds me of some of the work Google is doing to build more representative image datasets for machine learning model development [0]. What a great resource!

[0] https://ai.googleblog.com/2018/09/introducing-inclusive-imag...

Does the U.S. have any "vernacular architecture"?

Yes, like most countries it varies by region mostly because of the history of the area. I’m from the Deep South and grew up in a ‘shotgun’ styled house built in the early 30s. You see this style most famously in cities like New Orleans. Many of the original homes of this style are sometimes remodeled to a certain degree with new siding and a metal roof although some still retain their original asphalt shingle siding, which I love. My town, which is very small (pop. >300) and economically depressed, is full of them and on the rare occasion that a modern home is built here it stands out like a sore thumb. The ‘nicer’ houses built around the same time period, if they’ve survived, have basements or very high crawl spaces as this is a flood plain of the Mississippi River, and the 1927 Flood devastated the area. This style is less common but there are a few examples here and many more in other towns nearby.

I looked up shotgun house. Interesting.

Sidenote: you said your town is about 300 people? What do you do for work there? Or do you work remote?

In my city there are a couple notable examples: the four square house, the bungalow, the craftsman, the row house, and older victorian houses. They were extremely popular because you could order the entire house from sears mail order (for ~$2000 back then, equivalent to only around $50k today!). The victorian houses were more custom crafted and ornate, although a lot of the others are dressed up with victorian trimmings and multiple different paints.

see, eg, Wikipedia entry for Robert Venturi

His architecture is postmodern, inspired by vernacular perhaps, but not vernacular itself.

I think the #1 spot on HackerNews is bringing so much load to the site that it is taking too long to respond :P

URL does not work.

EDIT: Now it does

keep refreshing :P


Mud hut is an awesome building. It's easily constructed from easily available resources, it's systems are easy to reason out, it's easy to build by yourself and it's easy to repair yourself.

"Notes on the synthesis of form" by Christopher Alexander is a wonderfull book, and including several Marvin Minsky quotes it can be read as an introduction to the philosophy of vernacular technology - and how tradition based design work differs from expert, intent and theory driven design. Vernacular technology has it's problems, but as long as the problem constraints are not changed, it works wonderfully in the environment that gave birth to it.

For more northernly latitudes, there's the sod roofs, sod houses (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sod_house) and icelandic turf houses (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_turf_house).

I have heard about this book "Notes on the synthesis of form", will check it out.

There is profound depth in African culture, including the craft and symbology in the architecture.

May I recommend the beautiful series The Tribal Eye, BBC, 1975, presented by a strapping young David Attenborough in his 50s?


See also African Twilight, a book/documentary/exhibit bu two collaborators who’ve been traveling in Africa for decades. They are documenting the traditional ceremonies which are disappearing in modernity.


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