What Indigenous Architecture Can Teach Us About Incorporating Nature

Indigenous architecture provides some important lessons in building with nature rather than against it.

While looking out over the turbulent waters of New York Harbor, an earthquake once played music for me on the remains of ancient trees. As I sat in my kitchen, the wooden frame of the 1850s warehouse building where I live in Brooklyn moved and creaked with the earth for a moment back in 2011. Magnitude 5.8 motions jostled the 16-inch timbers harvested from forests long gone. Wood so dense that it resists machine-made nails flexed peacefully from the energy of an earthquake not seen for two millennia on the Atlantic edge of the continent. It was as though in one visceral moment I witnessed the collective wisdom of humanity’s 800,000 years of experience building shelter. The moment produced shrieks of terror from my 12-year-old daughter and quiet wonderment in me.

The warehouse building that has been my home for more than five years flexed again during the hurricane of 2012, although I had evacuated from the water’s edge and did not witness it. My home nevertheless remains standing and is structurally sound. If it had merely housed bales of cotton instead of families, it would have been as unscathed from its probable first hurricane of this scale just as it was from its first significant earthquake the year before. Only the decorative metal and glass of the residential lobby and its fancy elevators grafted onto the brick, wood, and iron suffered flood damage from Hurricane Sandy. Power was lost, of course, but that was about all. Thousands of others were not so lucky but all of us were drawn, in some way, into the music of architecture’s ancient unaccompanied duet with nature.

In our time we have to look hard to see the bendable sinews in our shelters. We, in fact, prefer them hidden. We find ourselves reassured by the hardened silos of industrial might and technological leadership. The land of opportunity beyond the shores of what was once the New World is today bunkered up with layers of flood and fire insurance policies, backed up by emergency disaster relief funds all intended to supplement the concrete, steel, and glass. That this elaborate armor is a tragic and dangerous illusion is a lesson learned over and over. America’s modern urban architecture provides only limited protection from events on the planetary timeline. Our assumptions about climate and economics prove brittle in the tests on this edge of history’s eye-blink. We peer out from the fortress of our twenty-first-century culture with no apparent plan B. Thoreau’s dreams of self-reliance have become the wilderness cabins and personal arsenals of the Second Amendment. Today’s individualism is more ragged than rugged.

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Skylines, levees, and other monuments to manifest destiny and material success have proven to be shoddy defenses against the capabilities of nature. History teaches us that our social responses to adversity are highly evolved. It is our external postmodern trinkets—the high-rise cities, the mansions in the dry woods, the luxury beach frontage—that tend to crumble. The timbers and columns, shells and frames upon which we have built our settlements for centuries, wave or snap in the face of the elements. The verdicts delivered by nature become the starting point of our rebuilding or rethinking. The chewed-up rebar and other assorted rubble of Fukushima’s nuclear containments are cast about like pebbles in the wake of the 2010 tsunami, while the ancient stilts of nearby villages are built to step aside and let the occasionally hurried wind and water pass. The yurts deflect and breathe. The Japanese Gassho houses hug the mountains and silently shed winter’s worst.

Resilience is everywhere. Do we see it? Or do we conceal this essential component of our survival in clever engineering and hidden dynamics out of some cultural embarrassment? Contemporary features of structural resilience are known to builders, but must be taken on faith by citizens who find themselves more concerned with the fresh failures enabled by our digital age. We learn of the unanticipated vulnerability of urban residents who find themselves as alone and imperiled by a wireless network outage as they once were by fire and smoke.

The oldest human structures carry their message of resilience on the outside. Outward fragility guarantees flexibility in the face of the elements. Ease of construction ensures a quicker rebuilding and recovery. The diminutive scale contains the risk at the low end of potential casualties while always retaining the possibility of escape. These are structures built not to a code based on probabilities but dedicated to the certainty that while our earth delivers forces that cannot be withstood, it also always provides us with higher ground. Tides have lines, fires burn themselves out, and the ground eventually stops shaking.

We have serious challenges to our well-developed human resilience in a seven-billion-person world that finds itself concentrated in cities close to the water’s edge. It may require enormous energy and investment to retool our collective sense of resilience, to scale our expectations, and to be more ready than ever in human history to embrace sudden new realities and alternatives. But if we look carefully at the record of human success, it is our adaptations that distinguish us more than our loyalty to ancient traditions and inflexible values. The greatest monuments are the ones that vanished, succumbing to the narrative of erosion and change while humanity moved humbly forward. Despite the challenges of our era and the potentially grim mathematics of changes perhaps already in the cards, resilience, it can be said, is alive and well. Mostly, it is alive.

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