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“House Form and Culture.” A book by Amos Rapoport.
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
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
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 5 December 2013].
Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.ethnoarchitecture.org/web/articles/article/7850>.