Vernacular Toolbox

Department: Architecture
Author: Sony Devabhaktuni
Principal Investigator: John C.F. Lin
Research Assistant: Eva Herunter, Rebekka Hirschberg, Bo Yee Lau, Chengwei Xia

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In rural China an informal wave of building catalysed by economic and social transformation has rendered some villages unrecognisable. This building boom has created densities more often found in urban areas. At the same time, the rapid transformation of rural villages has generated some remarkable hybrid experiments where rural builders use generic construction methods to adapt traditional vernacular typologies that have existed for hundreds of years.

Where prevalent approaches to traditional typologies in rural China call either for their preservation as heritage or for their destruction based on perceived obsolescence, the Vernacular Toolbox project looks closely at how self-builders transform their rural dwellings to identify innovative design responses that negotiate between traditional housing forms and the changing conditions of the rural village. The work presents these intelligent solutions after a survey of typologies from four regions of rural China.

This survey began with the observation and cataloguing of housing in villages clustered in each of the regions. From this initial survey, promising case-studies were identified and documented using photographs, axonometric drawings and interviews with the villagers living in these hybrid experiments. The research situates their self-built design solutions within the context of larger human narratives, thereby challenging ossified understandings of vernacular architecture that treat historical and cultural tradition as static. Although there have been numerous studies of each of the specific typologies, and research more generally on rural housing in China, the work is the first to identify the adaptation of these typologies as worth of study. The significance of the work lies in this discursive re-articulation of traditional understandings of the vernacular and in its capacity to be a guide to local builders and policy-makers to think differently about rural architecture and development more broadly.

The work was funded by the University Grants Committee of the Hong Kong SAR government and has been disseminated at the Venice International Biennial as part of the Japan Pavilion exhibition ‘Architectural Ethnography’; at conferences including an interdisciplinary symposium on Vernacular Architecture organized by the Frei Universitat Berlin; and in an interview about the research published in Chinese and English. A book-length work based on the research has been accepted for publication by ORO/Applied Research + Design Publishing.

Enlarge Photo: Vernacular Toolbox 1