Dwellings: The Vernacular House Worldwide

Article excerpt

Dwellings: The Vernacular House Worldwide. By Paul Oliver. Revised edition. (London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2003. Pp. 288. introduction, photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $59.95 cloth.)

Vernacular architecture studies is a meeting-ground for many disciplines, combining the ethnological and cultural spirit of folklorists, anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, and historians with the technical and aesthetic inquiry of architects, engineers, and artists. After three decades, studies in this vigorous and eclectic field can now claim more than a shelf-it can boast scholarly landmarks, and the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (1997), a comprehensive and detailed reference for the world's building traditions edited in three thick volumes by Paul Oliver. Published in his seventieth year, the Encyclopedia could easily have been the culminating project of a long, illustrious career. Yet now, six years later, Oliver has produced a significant updated, revised and expanded edition of his ambitious and provocative 1987 work, Dwellings. In it, Oliver reasserts the value of the term vernacular as socially relevant for modern study and extends the Encyclopedia's description for vernacular houses: "Related to their environmental contexts and available resources, they are owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies . . . , built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them" (14).

Dwellings is today our most sweeping synthesis of vernacular architecture studies. It is also surely the most accessible, providing lucid explanation of the meaning of traditional buildings that folklorists might wish Henry Glassie's meditative but sometimes inscrutable Vernacular Architecture (2000) had achieved. The greater reach of Oliver's Dwellings is all the more remarkable when one realizes how high the author has raised the ethnographic and scholarly bar: his treatment of global traditions is all drawn from his own field research, from the iglu on the Arctic coast of Alaska to the ahemfie in West Africa, from the arid environs of cave dwellings in northeast China to the watery surround of houses built on piles in Borneo. For Oliver, the dwelling is both artifact and action, and his ethnographic approach is to capture not only the forms of houses in their cultural context, as has been the norm, but also their performance: "The dwelling is more than the site it occupies, the materials of which it is made, the know-how of its construction, the labour that has gone into building, the cost in time and money that has been expended upon it. The dwelling is the theatre of our lives, where the major dramas of birth and death, of procreation and recreation are played out, and in which the succession of scenes of daily living are enacted, and re-enacted in the processes of dwelling" (17-18).

Aware of the threat to vernacular dwellings in the midst of calls for modernization worldwide, Oliver offers an applied as well as a theoretical message. …


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