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Sunday
Mar222015

A Renaissance of Vernacular Eco-Architecture

BAIJNATH, HP (INDIA) — India is playing host to the birth of a renaissance of vernacular eco-architecture. Hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds are awakening to both the urgent socio-ecological crises of our time and the potential for us to find solutions in India’s own rural traditions.

Case in point: To preserve and advance the distinctive and beautiful forms of traditional earthen architecture of the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh, the Dharmalaya Institute, in partnership with esteemed vernacular architect Didi Contractor, established a formal, academically-supervised Internship in Vernacular Eco-Architecture in May 2013.  

Not quite two years later, the Dharmalaya Institute has grown to become one of the most popular vernacular architecture training centres in India and South Asia. Though it has not yet even completed the construction of its campus, it has already attracted scores of architects and civil engineers from across India, Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most of whom learned of the institute either through the recommendations of their architecture professors or by word of mouth spreading far and wide among the green-minded designers and builders of India and beyond.

And it isn’t just architects and engineers: Hundreds of curious and compassionate citizens each year make the journey to the Dharmalaya Institute to explore the arts of earthen construction, organic gardening, meditation and yoga, and other traditional practices that, together, comprise a sustainable and compassionate lifestyle that is good for both the person and the planet. The formula is holistic, but the epicentre of this lifestyle exploration is the beatiful earthen structure in which much of the action happens, and that gives all Dharmalaya’s visitors (whether architects or not) a deeper appreciation for the power and potential of the traditional architecture of the region.

What is Vernacular Eco-Architecture?

‘Vernacular architecture’ is defined as any regional system of domestic building design and construction that is passed on through generations as local tradition and (historically) is learned through practice rather than through formal academic study.

The term ‘vernacular’ is used here in a similar manner as in linguistics. In language, the vernacular is the way ordinary people actually talk in a given locale, in all its local colour (as contrasted with formal or technical language). Likewise, in architecture, ‘vernacular’ refers to the way ordinary people design and build their homes and other non-monumental structures as per the customs of their region, with their unique blends of aesthetics, materials, and characteristic features (as contrasted with formal, industrial, political, religious, or monumental architecture).

The term ‘vernacular eco-architecture’, then, refers specifically to those examples of vernacular architecture that minimize negative ecological impact through the use of primarily natural, local, non-toxic, renewable, and biodegradeable materials. Until around the time of World War II, virtually all vernacular architecture in the world was more or less natural and eco-friendly. Since the postwar explosion of global industrialization, however, use of toxic industrial materials and energy-intensive methods has increased in many areas (including most of rural India, like the rest of the so-called ‘developing world’), giving meaningful distinction to the ‘eco’ in ‘vernacular eco-architecture’.

Why Does Vernacular Eco-architecture Matter?

Historically, vernacular architecture (both eco-friendly and otherwise) lived a life mostly disconnected from the formal traditions of architecture and was largely ignored by academia. In recent years, however, there has been a dramatic surge of interest in the vernacular traditions, and universities have begun offering courses in this newly-formalized (and hence legitimized) field.

Growing awareness and concern about the ecological crises of our world, as well as increasing disillusionment with market-driven architecture and unplanned ‘development’, have spawned the beginnings of a vernacular renaissance. Architects of all stripes (from first-year college students to seasoned professionals, east and west, urban and rural, rich and poor) are pouring into courses, workshops, and internships in vernacular eco-architecture. 

These vernacular-inspired architects are searching for a career path they can forge in integrity with their own values, and for a chance to be a part of a movement to restore a measure of good sense, sustainability, and beauty to the design and development of our communities and our world. 

For this burgeoning population of caring creatives, vernacular eco-architecture represents nothing less than one of humanity’s best hopes for a thriving future. Yes, vernacular eco-architecture is sustainable, and that matters today more than ever before — and will matter even more in the increasingly overpopulated future. The vernacular is also a living record of human culture, and that alone would be reason enough to preserve and study it. 

But vernacular eco-architecture is much more than merely ‘green’ and charming: It is supremely practical, being the most thoroughly vetted solution for human habitation. It has been proven by enduring the passing of millennia, with the best examples still standing after earthquakes and other assults of the elements, even when modern concrete structures crumbled. It is not only safer and better for human health than concrete structures, but also more comfortable, more beautiful, more affordable, and (to the surprise of some) also low-maintenance.

The Evolution of the Vernacular

Of course, one needn’t make a carbon(-neutral) copy of a traditional vernacular structure for it to be eco-friendly, safe, and beautiful. There is plenty of latitude for creativity and innovation when working with traditional materials and methods. And, to be sure, there is room for improvement, with lingering problems to be solved and new possibilities to be discovered. For passionate architects who care about humans and nature, this is a very exciting prospect — the opportunity to steward and curate the future of a traditional art form.

This idea of using tradition as a starting point from which to start a creative journey has inspired artists working in every popular medium for centuries. One such artist who has achieved great notoriety in the field of vernacular eco-architecture is Didi Contractor (originally from the US but living and working in India since well before its independence). Her neo-traditional buildings have garnered acclaim across India and around the world for their aesthetic beauty, innovative applications of traditional materials and methods, safety enhancements, and harmony with the sites where they are built. 

In the view of Ms. Contractor and other prominent ‘village elders’ in the world of vernacular eco-architecture, human society now faces an urgent need not only to document and preserve the fast-disappearing treasures of vernacular tradition but also to blaze the trail ahead, along which traditional wisdom will evolve into the future and remain relevant and pervasive.

Enter the Internship in Vernacular Eco-Architecture

Didi Contractor and the Dharmalaya Institute’s faculty designed the Internship in Vernacular Eco-Architecture to serve this pressing need for a bridge linking past to future, not only preserving India’s great wisdom of sustainable and sensible architecture but also improving and adapting them for the present and the future.

Eco-architecture interns at Dharmalaya have the opportunity for hand-on learning, gaining both practical experience and theoretical understanding while working with trained earthen builders on the development of Dharmalaya Institute’s eco-campus (and occasionally visiting other sites).

The Internship in Vernacular Eco-Architecture is open to current or past students of architecture (of all ages and backgrounds) who wish to deepen their practical and theoretical understanding of vernacular earthen architecture by making a serious commitment to a rigorous programme of hands-on work and experiential learning in a real-world environment. 

Since the founding of the internship programme in May 2013, more than a hundred architects have applied for the programme, and already several dozen have completed it. Applications have been growing dramatically each season, quickly exceeding the institute’s capacity to accommodate the interns. To meet this overwhelming demand, Dharmalaya engaged its own interns in a participatory design process to build a new two-storey dormitory, which is on track be completed in 2015.

While Ms. Contractor has since retired from regular participation in the programme for health reasons, she continues to serve on the faculty as a visiting professor and senior advisor, and occasionally meets with Dharmalaya’s programme participants as circumstances allow. In this capacity, she generously guides and trains the next generation of vernacular and neo-traditional eco-architects and others who aspire to live in greater harmony with nature, with others, and with ourselves.

The members of the Dharmalaya faculty hope that this programme will continue to make a small but meaningful contribution toward preserving the vernacular architecture of the Himalayas and promoting a resurgence of interest in earthen building and sensible living in India and beyond.


For more information on the Internship in Vernacular Eco-Architecture at Dharmalaya Institute, see http://dharmalaya.in/architecture-internship/.

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