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Academic rigour with a practical agenda ISABEL ALLEN Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World Part 1 (Volume 1) Theories and Principles; Part 2 (Volumes 2 and 3) Cultures and Habitats. Edi

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The lifespan of the Mayan House of Yucatan starts with marriage and finishes with death. The structure, made of sticks, is erected during the wedding ceremony by the entire community. Celebrations last for up to three days, during which guests labour while enjoying music, food and drink, courtesy of the father of the bride. The couple take up residence, and complete construction themselves. The woman covers the structure with branches and rammed earth, leaving openings in the walls. Her husband, or a specialist, makes the roof from grass or palm, which is more durable. If palm is chosen, new trees are planted around the house to provide replacement material in 10 or 12 years' time.

As social activities take place outdoors, a single kitchen/bedroom is considered sufficient for the couple, but a separate room is constructed when the first son is born. When the daughter of the house starts courting, two benches are built in front of the house - one for the couple to meet, the other for the chaperone. It is considered unacceptable to inhabit a dead person's home, and the house is demolished when the last of the original couple dies.

Such is a partial summary of an entry in Paul Oliver's Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. It cannot be described as typical, for entries do not have a uniform style, but it is representative in that it weaves information about construction, materials, servicing, maintenance, ownership and cultural mores into a seamless whole. Consideration of a broad range of factors is implicit in Oliver's definition of his subject: 'Vernacular architecture comprises the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources, they are customarily owner- or community-built utilising traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economics and ways of living of the cultures that produce them.'

This locates the study of vernacular architecture as somewhere between anthropology and architectural history, disciplines which, as Oliver points out, have tended to be acquaintances rather than bedfellows: 'If they met it was in archaeology; vernacular architecture of the distant past was acknowledged.' In an attempt to apply this multi-disciplinary approach to more recent history, Oliver has approached over 750 contributors, who represent at least 80 countries, and a wide range of disciplines, and is quick to acknowledge the pros and cons of the diverse results: 'as a subject which has yet to be defined as a discipline, it both suffers from the lack of co-ordination of approaches and benefits by the diversity of perceptions which various research directions bring to it'.

Oliver has pulled these 'various research directions' into a coherent form by means of a strong structural framework. He rejects a traditional alphabetical classification and offers an eloquent account of its shortcomings, arguing that it fails to draw relationships between subjects, and tends to obscure what is missing. 'In particular I wanted the Encyclopedia to be transparent, to reveal its omissions and imbalances, so that indications may be given for future research.'

Instead, entries are arranged according to region, not by country - vernacular traditions pre-date present national boundaries - but by 'cultures' which 'relate to geo-physical and climatic features, and should broadly correspond with the distribution of vernacular'. By choosing to divide the world in this way, Oliver has set himself the gargantuan task of establishing 'size and territory of a culture, national and geographic limits of its terrain, physical and natural boundaries of a region and related architectural characteristics within it'. The result is, literally, a redrawn map of the world, which graces the inside covers of all three volumes.

The rejection of conventional means of classification is evident throughout. Perspectives, for example, 'can be misleading and so they are used sparingly', and Oliver is even a little apologetic about the use of metric and imperial measurements on the grounds that vernacular dimensions 'are frequently determined by the physical length of the builders' limbs and parts'.

But academic rigour is only one of Oliver's concerns. He also takes pride in the poetic and political implications of singing an unsung history - documentation of vernacular architecture is scarce, and the associated way of life is often endangered. There is a practical agenda too. An estimated 800 million vernacular buildings are currently in existence, embodying a vast understanding of climatic and cultural needs. For Oliver, this is a vital resource for the construction industry: 'mass housing is rarely successful and always wasteful of skills, knowledge and motivation; the solution to the world's housing demands will only be met, I believe, in the forthcoming century, through the support, enhancement, and servicing of vernacular architecture.' Paul Oliver will be profiled in next week's AJ

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