January 24, 2011
Letter from Ecuador
Although vernacular architecture is more suitable to specific environments, it is often overlooked for mass-produced alternatives.
Several weeks ago the residents of Tingo built what is known locally as a chosa, a circular straw house of a type native to the high sierra, where long, resilient paramo grass grows abundantly. This particular chosa — framed in wood and tied with hand woven, straw rope –is enormous by local standards. While such vernacular architecture tends to be used in the service of tool sheds or detached kitchens, the Tingo building is intended as a community kitchen and dining hall. Its centerpiece, both in the sense of engineering and aesthetic drama, is a massive wooden pole, cut from a magnificent pine, harvested in the next town over. To bring it back to the village, 14 people labored for seven hours, using rope and muscle to drag the tree uphill to the closest road.
As monumental as that effort was, what’s more unusual about the Tingo chosa is that it was made in the traditional vernacular style at all, and not with concrete block. Block is the most common building material in the Sierra, in both urban and non-urban areas, and the result is that buildings everywhere share the same unfinished aesthetic quality; their exteriors are usually unadorned, often un-plastered on their sides and with thin bars of steel jutting upward towards what may one day become a second storey. This gives the region the feel of a perpetual, if overly-optimistic, growth — appropriate, considering Ecuador’s dubious honor as the most densely populated country in South America. Even where I live and work in the remote campo, almost every house constructed in the past decade is built in ash-grey concrete. Walls are always left un-insulated, and buildings are usually colder inside than outside during the day and stay frigid at night. Roofs, tin or asbestos, often leak in the rainy season. Whereas they were once commonplace in the rural paramo, new chosas have become rare in the past decades. Yet for all practical purposes, the vernacular provides better housing than the modern “upgrades”: Chosas are warmer than block houses, and their roofs are less likely to leak. They provide better insulation and, though concrete is itself quite cheap, they are cheaper to build than block houses–the high paramo yields lightweight and sturdy straw. Transporting block, which is generally imported from the city, adds to construction costs. And while there are reasons for local residents to eschew vernacular building techniques — ventilation is bad (due to the same dense layering that makes these roofs waterproof) and privacy nonexistent — block houses suffer the same drawbacks. The prevalence of concrete block, therefore, represents a clear rejection of the local vernacular. The phenomenon is hard to explain in practical design terms, considering the obvious upsides in cost and quality of using local materials. Of course, chosas are not perfect, but they‘re better than the alternative in almost every way. Choosing block over straw means trading comparatively cheap, efficient, traditional buildings for more expensive and less environmentally-appropriate ones.
This isn’t surprising. Architecture, both at the cutting edge and the hilt, is faddish. In some ways, at least, campesinos in rural South America are as much subject to architectural trends as are, for instance, designers in New York City. Only the trends themselves are different. In Guangaje, block houses are seen as western and modern, therefore superior to traditional versions, which may be better suited to the winds and cold of the high grasslands. Block houses lend their residents something that chosas do not, in the form of social status. With some exceptions, people who still live in straw and wood-built structures tend to be poorer than their concrete block neighbors, and they’ll say they hope to move — to upgrade — to block as soon as they can. The push towards vernacular design is often linked to a certain romantic nostalgia. Yet the fact is that in many poor places traditional architecture, developed through generations to fit into local conditions, simply provides a higher quality of housing. Convincing local residents of this may be an obvious means of improving their standard of living, but the effort will certainly draw on skills that are not usually considered part of a designer’s skill set. Chief among these is the ability to place architecture in a broader context, not just by considering the surrounding built landscape, but by considering the pulls of local attitudes and values.Trading adequate for substandard housing may seem counterintuitive, and in most respects it is. In a strange way, from a certain perspective, however, it also makes perfect sense.
George Beane returned to New York, his home town, after graduating from college in 2008. He worked for Metropolis (writing some memorable blogposts for this site) for a year before leaving, last June, for the Ecuadorian sierra.