New Vernacular Architecture
But Pevsner's definition does not reflect the occasional ambivalence felt by architects about their role in providing "aesthetic appeal" or as conscious planners of the environment. Ever since the English architect A. W. N. Pugin rejected imported historical styles in favor of a more crafted Gothic in the 1840s, architects have tried to blur the distinction between architecture and craft.
New Nepalese Vernacular
When the board of trustees of a Nepalese charity asked Bergen (Norway) School of Architecture to run a student project to design an orphanage, two students took the idea very seriously. In 1994 Hans Olav Hesseberg and Sixten Rahlff traveled to Nepal and spent two weeks in the village of Chhebetar researching the project, which, at that stage, was purely hypothetical.
The site, a sloping piece of land above the village fields, had already been allocated, and a design had been completed by a large Indian engineering firm, which planned to build a concrete box containing all the functions of the orphanage under one roof and giving little consideration to the needs of the villagers or the spectacular site.
Back at college in Bergen, the young students drew up a preliminary scheme, but there was a limit to what they could do from so far away. The following year, with the approval of the charity and the backing of private donors, Hesseberg and Rahlff took a year out of architecture school to go back to Nepal and build their scheme.
Rahlff stresses that they did not arrive in Chhebetar with finished drawings. The building was mostly designed and drawn up from a small house that the students rented in the village.
"It wasn't like building in Europe," Rahlff says. "We could change a lot of things during the process." Having studied local building techniques, the availability of materials, and the way people lived in the village, Hesseberg and Rahlff came up with a design that treated the orphanage almost as a settlement in itself: a series of smaller buildings grouped around communal spaces.
The Clustered Scheme
Phase one — which is roughly half the scheme, consisting of the director's house, dormitories and toilets — was completed in 1996. Eventually the orphanage will have some five other buildings with sheltered spaces in between forming a playground, garden, and private court.
The site is arranged with toilets at the top of the slope, so that gray water can be treated and used to water crops in the fields below during the dry season. There is also a bio-gas tank, which produces methane from human waste for cooking, because wood, the usual domestic fuel, is expensive and its use is causing deforestation, which in turn is leading to land erosion.
At 1,640 feet (500 meters) above sea level, Chhebetar has a subtropical climate of hot summers and mild winters. Following the tradition of using thermal mass for cooling during the day and for warmth at night, the primary material chosen was stone, built into thick walls on the south and west facades as a block to the sun.
During the night and early morning, the walls radiate warmth to the interior. Stone was the most plentiful local material, and large rocks were taken from the river banks and hewn into rough blocks by the villagers. Different-sized boulders were used to form contrasting textures and arranged, as in the lavatory block, in an abstract composition of surfaces.
It was not necessarily the easiest or cheapest method of construction. Rahlff points out that it would have been cheaper to bring in bricks from India. But, conscious of their position as outsiders, the students were keen to root the building in its local context.
Blending New and Old
By mixing stone with modern materials such as plastic sheeting and sliding doors, they were able to solve some of the problems inherent in Chhebetar's traditional dwellings. The idea was to get as much light and air into the building as possible to help prevent the eye diseases caused by people living in houses without windows and cooking on open fires without ventilation.
The north and east facades have large openings, covered with sliding doors (the metal wheels were taken from motorcycle engines) and tilting panels of transparent plastic that provide striking views of the distant Himalayan peaks and allow breezes to enter.
The transparent wall panels have a double function: they allow light to enter indirectly when they are down, and they fold up to form awnings during the day. Other apertures in the walls are covered with timber flaps, which fold down during the day to make benches.
Wood was used sparingly for window and door frames and part of the roof structure. Posts and rafters were hand-sawn and planed using timber from a nearby forest and, to reduce the use of wood, rafters were trussed with steel wire.
Inside, the floors — which have symbolic significance in Nepal in that they are seen to connect humans to the earth — change levels to allow the occupants their own space and to mark out different areas of the room for different uses. The warm red of terracotta tiles symbolizes the earth, while the blue-grey of the roof slates above echoes the color of the sky.
With half the orphanage built, Hesseberg and Rahlff returned to Bergen to complete their schooling. At the time of this writing, five years later, Rahlff was planning a trip back to Chhebetar to see how well the building had survived and whether they had built more of it.
If the "new vernacular architects" express ambivalence about the Modernist notion of progress in society and see universal ideas only in the most primitive building forms, it is because their views reflect the reality of contemporary society. Vernacular architecture is perhaps the most appropriate mode of expression for an era that lacks a sense of transformative historic change.
New vernacular architects tend to put a greater emphasis on architectural history and research, which is unusual in an era where greater value is generally attached to new technology and forms. As the work of English Arts and Crafts architects has proved, learning from the past does not preclude the invention of challenging ideas.
Vicky Richardson,, who has a degree in architecture from the University of Westminster in London, is deputy editor of RIBA Journal and is a regular contributor to architectural journals.
This article is excerpted from New Vernacular Architecture copyright © 2001, first published in the United States of America by Watson-Guptill Publications (New York). Available where books are sold, including at Amazon.com.
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