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You are in: Ethnoarch Home » Articles Home » “House Form and Culture.” A book by Amos Rapoport.
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"Ethnoarch Presents" features articles on the topic of traditional, vernacular and ethno architectures.
“House Form and Culture.” A book by Amos Rapoport.
Gabriel Arboleda
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Title page of the book.
First published in 1969, this book is considered to be the first one in tackling the matter of the why of the house form, rather than just making descriptions of house forms. The why, in Rapoport's opinion, is not related to physical constrains as it was commonly believed, but to a more complex web of factors, out of which a cultural one, freedom of choice is the preeminent one.

In order to prove this assertion, Rapoport structures the book in six chapters logically interconnected. The first chapter, "The Nature and Definition of the Field" is a necessary attempt to define the work's discipline area, given its innovativeness. Chapter 2, "Alternative Theories of House Form" both presents alternative hypotheses on the origin of the house form, and questions them as the true origin. Throughout this chapter, he sequentially describes and questions the ideas of climate, technological constraints, influence of place, defense, economics and religion as the generators of form. On Chapter 3, "Socio-Cultural Factors and House Form," Rapoport details his theory, which he summarizes as:
    My basic hypothesis, then, is that house form is not simply the result of physical forces or any single casual factor, but is the consequence of a whole range of socio-cultural factors seen in their broadest terms (47).
After his main point has been presented in this chapter, Rapoport devotes chapters 4 and 5 to re-view two of the previously discarded hypothesis, acknowledging that they are important if limited to the status of secondary or modifying factors. Chapter 4 examines "Climate as Modifying Factor" and Chapter 5 "Construction, Materials and Technology as Modifying Factors." On chapter 6, "A Look at the Present," Rapoport ponders if house forms today still reflect those old concerns which he has been exploring throughout the book. He concludes that they do, by providing examples based on both the developing countries and the American house. His conclusion, that the house form is a matter of choice and that today's problem is one of excessive choice (which still reaffirms that choice is the main issue), clearly sets his work on the opposite side of materialist, Marxist-oriented approaches to the origin of house form.

This book should be read always keeping its historic context in mind. The book, indeed, is right on the edge between old orientalizing perspectives on folk architecture typical of works like Rudofski's Architecture without Architects, and more rigorous and broader approaches such as Paul Oliver's edited Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. Because of its being historically in the middle, Rapoport's book brings up significant points that have become themes in the recent discussions on the topic, but still cedes frequently to the orientalizing temptation. Two of the most salient orientalizing flaws of the book are, first, the idea that folk architecture is just a step in an unavoidable evolution towards high style architecture, and second that folk architecture does not change.

His proposal that folk architecture is just a point in a "process of differentiation that changes from primitive to vernacular and then to industrial vernacular and modern" (8) invites a worrying alternative reading that we all must aspire to be modern. On the other hand, calling some indigenous cultures as "stone age and very primitive" (43) only reflects an orientalizing bias that is today actively questioned. The main failure behind that bias is assuming that whatever looks as primitive today has always been primitive. Beyond question, back-and-forth developments have also been part of the history of house form. As a matter of fact, stone age-looking houses are being built today by sophisticated urban dwellers, as temporary structures in times of economic or natural calamities or wars.


Reference

Rapoport, Amos. House Form and Culture. Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin, 1969.

See Spanish version of this article.

Published: August 20, 2006 . Category: Books
For academic purposes, please cite this page as:
Arboleda, Gabriel. “House Form and Culture.” A book by Amos Rapoport. [online]. Berkeley, CA: Ethnoarchitecture.com, 20 August 2006 [cited 7 December 2016]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.ethnoarchitecture.org/web/articles/article/7850>.

 
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