American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
“Modifying factors” in Native American architecture

Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton

It is impossible to single out why any Indian dwelling looked and worked the way it did. To be sure, Indians were responding to the climate around them and making the most of natural building materials at hand. But the evolution of a particular habitation also was affected by social organization, patterns of gathering food, religious life, and history. To understand the factors that form Indian architecture, one must look for what environment and culture made possible, not inevitable. Before proposing a major determinant for the design of a tribal building, one must undertake the “long and painstaking accumulation of recalcitrant detail,” in the words of architectural scholar P.G. Anson, to clarify how the structure functioned in every aspect of life.

Amos Rapoport, the leading proponent of a multidisciplinary analysis of vernacular architecture, writes in House Form and Culture: “Materials, construction and technology are best treated as modifying factors, rather than form determinants, because they decide neither what is to be built nor its form.” Our chapters interweave these “modifying factors” into a full-bodied narrative, but we consider six of them paramount: technology, climate, economics, social organization, religion, and history. Moreover, we are interested as much in how these factors help to interpret an Indian dwelling as in what the dwelling can tell us about Indian life. For one tribe, social factors may play a major role in determining building size; for another, the demands of gathering food might have a greater impact. For a third, the importance of a structure to religious beliefs might have the strongest consequences, and a fourth might manifest a struggle for dominance between Indian and non-Indian building traditions.


TECHNOLOGY

Indians had no choice but to build with raw materials from the land around them. They fashioned their dwellings from wood, bark, leaves, grass, reeds, earth, snow, stone, skin, and bones. Their principal types of construction were (1) tensile or bent frame with covering, (2) compression shell, and (3) post and beam (joined) wood frame with various walling materials.

The wigwam style of framing exemplified tensile construction (Figure 2.1). The dome-shaped frame gained enough springy strength from its bent saplings to support bark, mat, or thatch covers. In the compression shell, illustrated by the snow block iglu of the

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