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Dwell time

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Dwellings: The Vernacular House World Wide

By Paul Oliver. Phaidon, 2003. 288pp. £35

I first became aware of Paul Oliver's work not in architecture but in music. His Story of the Blues is the clearest in a genre which revels in discovering the obscure and the unknown. I don't quite know how he made the transition from blues to buildings but he did it well.He approaches both subjects with the eye of a populist anthropologist, which is fine, as Heidegger's explorations of 'dwelling', and its subsequent appropriation by theorists, had taken it out of circulation for a while.

We all know how the blues were discovered by white boys in the 1950s and 1960s and gave us everything from Elvis to Led Zeppelin.At just the same time as the Stones were grinding out Jimmy Reed riffs, architects at the tail-end of the Modern Movement were evaluating what was being created and finding something lacking - Bernard Rudofsky, for instance, in Architecture without Architects (1964).There was something like a folk revival, as architects began to look to the simplicity of the vernacular, and the work of Hassan Fathy, Jose Luis Sert and the like, who were attempting to meld the local and the modern.

This was, of course, nothing new - Corb and Loos both sketched and loved the boxy white houses of the Mediterranean vernacular; in fact Neutra, Gropius and Sert were among those who ensured Rudofsky's book got funding.But something quickly went wrong. Folk architecture became associated with a conservative agenda. Interest in the vernacular has led to both the dimly-named English Heritage and the theme-park little England of Poundbury.

Oliver's major attempt at pulling the vernacular out of this mire was his monumental Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (AJ 15.1.98).

Dwellings is a bit like a condensed, easy-listening version of that bigger forebear, but it's far more detailed than Rudofsky's similar effort, which was effectively only a picture book.

Oliver delves into plans and spatial relationships, materials, responses to climate and, tantalisingly, the symbolism of the house in world cultures - the dwelling as a representation of the cosmos, a built version of a Weltanschauung. I say tantalisingly because, readable and fascinating as these sections are, they leave you wanting more.There are plenty of worthy but dull academic papers on, say, a particular Amazonian or African tribe, but there is little which brings the world together in this way.

Mircea Eliade perhaps comes closest to it in his descriptions of the construction rituals as efforts to found the world anew, to destroy the chaos of nothingness by the imposition of order and structure, but he was writing very much as an anthropologist or mythograper.

There are certainly more books on houses than on any other building type but few of them are really intelligent.They fall into three categories:

posh modern villas / houses / apartments (developed world); nice old houses / apartments (developed world and weekend-break second world, eg Morocco); and 20th-century houses (developed world).

Dwellings is different.Not quite a coffee table book (it's too ambitious), it tries to explain, not just to architects but to a broader public, why houses look the way they do and what they mean.

Accessible, well-illustrated and genuinely international, Oliver may have done for houses what he did for the blues, and written a book which will become a standard.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture correspondent for the Financial Times

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