Paul Oliver is the Sir Banister Fletcher of our age, chronicling the architecture of the people rather than for the people, the traditional buildings of most of the world's six billion population. 'I've tried to redraw the cultural map of the world,' says the 70-year-old Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes University, who is more concerned with physiological boundaries and language than with political maps.
The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture is his magnum opus, a distillation of a lifelong interest, recently published by Cambridge University Press as three hardback volumes with a price tag of £695. The idea first took root in the mid-1980s and was formally commissioned by Blackwell in 1988, only later being adopted by cup. Oliver acted as editor and, with the help of 780 contributors from more than 80 countries, the result is 1.7 million words - more than three times originally intended - over 1700 photographs, 1000 line drawings, 80 maps and 2500 pages. It weighs 8.4kg.
The son of the architect W Norman Oliver, Paul Oliver has difficulty defining his own discipline: 'A generalist' is the closest he gets but, when pressed, settles for 'architectural anthropologist'. As a teenager, he was taken round bombed-out city centres during the Second World War by his father, then seconded to the War Office. 'It shaped my direction without me really realising it,' he says. Although his father wanted him to follow in his professional footsteps, he lacked a mathematical skill and instead turned to painting.
During the 1950s he designed record sleeves and book jackets before applying for the job of Drawing Master at the aa in 1960. With the departure of Robert Furneaux Jordan and Sir John Summerson, he soon found he was teaching the history of architecture. It took two strands: one was Modernism, the other the Vernacular. He has maintained his interest in the former's ability to deliver 'simplicity and quality by very economic means', while the latter seems slightly at odds with the aa's reputation for the avant-garde. 'The attitude was that you can do whatever you like - but you've got to be bloody good at it'.
A short contract in Ghana in 1964, involving the resettlement of people displaced by the building of a new dam in the north of the country, opened his eyes to some of the pitfalls of what external consultants thought was appropriate new accommodation. This was a theme he was later to develop at the then Oxford Polytechnic, where he moved in 1978, in developing a policy on post-disaster housing. In current parlance, it boiled down to a commitment to 'enabling' rather than 'providing'.
All the while he was writing, starting with Shelter in Society in 1969, followed by Shelter in Africa, Shelter, Sign & Symbol, Shelter in Greece and then Dwellings: The House across the World, in 1989. One might have thought he had much in common with Bernard Rudofsky, creator of the 1964 exhibition at MoMA in New York, 'Architecture Without Architects', and later author of The Prodigious Builders (1977). They met only once and did not 'hit it off', Oliver finding him more concerned with vernacular architecture as 'beautiful objects'.
In fact there exists a network of people, conferences and publications devoted to a more anthropogical approach to the subject. David Saile, an Englishman at the University of Cincinnati, and Jean-Paul Bourdier, who organise international conferences on the vernacular in alternate years, were among his hand-picked advisory board for the encyclopedia, along with (among others) Miles Danby, from Newcastle, Ronald Lewcock, from Atlanta, and Suha Ozkan, a former student of his who is now Secretary General of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in Geneva.
They have focused on types of buildings still relevant to the twentieth - and twenty-first - century. If a particular example died out in the 1880s, for instance, it is excluded, whereas something which first appeared in 1902 is included. He has also relied heavily on the advice of his wife, Val, an artist and former teacher at the aa and then Oxford Brookes, and his assistant, Rosemary Latter.
His hopes are that the book will be a pro-active resource as well as a major record and reference source, influencing new development: 'My anxiety about architecture in general is twofold: its disregard for the community as a whole, and the emphasis on star architecture. The reputation and standing of architects in society has suffered'. Yet he is optimistic that contemporary architects will learn from the vernacular, in the understanding and use of passive systems for cooling, for example. He is not anti-modern materials and techniques per se, citing the Malaysian roofs which use traditional thatch for insulation on top of corrugated iron. Both clients and consultants have lessons to learn from this sort of example.
For the future, he is developing a Master's degree course at the Shelter & Settlements Unit at Oxford Brookes, unique as an international course in vernacular studies and involving students from many disciplines and cultures. He is also completing an international encyclopedia of popular music for publication next year; he been writing about Black music since 1959, and has 'about ten' music titles to his name. Vernacular of a different kind . . .