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You are in: Ethnoarch Home » Notes Home » Frequently Asked Questions About Ethnoarchitecture.com
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'Released by Ethnoarchitecture.org' showcases personal - professional notes related to Ethnoarch webmaster's current work. In other words, this is Ethnoarch's blog.
The section also details new content added to the site, technical improvements and, in general, how Ethnoarch.com is going.
Frequently Asked Questions About Ethnoarchitecture.com
December 4, 2006
What is this site for?
Who is this site for?
What is the vision of this site?
How did this site appear?
What is your experience in Ethnoarchitecture?
Who else is involved in setting up this site?
What is the relationship this site has with MIT?
What is the relationship that this site has with U.C. Berkeley?
What is Ethnoarchitecture?
How does an Ethno-architectural analysis work?
What is the relationship between Ethnoarchitecture and "Green Architecture"?
What is the difference between Ethnoarchitecture and Vernacular Architecture?
I am new to all of this. What is Vernacular Architecture?
How relevant is to talk about Ethnoarchitecture and Vernacular Architecture today?
What place takes the discussion about race in this website?
About the design, what is this reference to 1950s movies about?
This is not a commercial website. So, why not .org instead of .com?
Why do you use interchangeably Ethnoarchitecture.com and Ethnoarch.com when talking about your site?
I saw an image or a cool article in this site and I want to post it in my own public project. Can I?


What is this site for?

This site is dedicated to discuss the role that architecture plays in today's social and environmental crisis. Can architecture worsen the crisis, or can it help alleviating it?
The phenomenon of local architectures in the context of this crisis is complex and highly interesting. It involves the fact that cultural crisis may not mean necessarily the disappearance of "pristine" cultures. The problem is not that simple. Cultures mix, and interesting things happen from that mixture. Cultural crisis means, rather than disappearance, cultural adaptation, cultural transformation, and, finally, cultural survival.
The general point that I would like to stress through this project is that architecture is not exclusively a technological or a formal problem, but also a cultural one, one that deals with people, poverty, survival, and not only with abstractions about space or form.
The site discusses these issues using its database as a point of reference. The Ethnoarchitecture.com database contains information on the architecture of almost 7,300 different groups, distributed in 228 countries and territories.


Who is this site for?

Architects and builders, anthropologists, activists, social scientists, students, travelers, curious people... In general, the site is for everybody interested in cultural and social issues and how they are reflected in building.


What is the vision of this site?

To become the Internet's first and largest database of, and discussion forum on, traditional architecture (vernacular and indigenous); something like the Archnet.org of traditional architecture.


How did this site appear?

I first had the idea of developing a web page to contextualize the research I was doing as a student of the Master of Science program in Architecture at MIT. My research was very specifically focused on ethno-architectural expressions in the Ecuadorian Upper Amazon. Sometimes I had problems explaining basic ideas such as what is ethno-architecture (or, more specifically, what I think is ethno-architecture). The web page was supposed to explain the basic concepts and main motivations underlying my research. Then, when thinking about making that conceptual contextualization as comprehensive as possible, I ended up with the idea of developing a database of vernacular/indigenous buildings, a sort of online version of projects like the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World.


What is your experience in Ethnoarchitecture?

I must have a resume somewhere. Let me see... Here it is: HTML, PDF.


Who else is involved in setting up this site?

Jennifer Rulf has helped editing some of the site's articles and is constantly providing valuable feedback. Jennifer holds a Master in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Her current work focuses on literacy, nutrition and social sustainability issues (although she'll hate to hear that I am relating her to such a cliché. I need to edit this, J...).


What is the relationship this site has with MIT?

The site was born while I was a graduate student at MIT, as I mentioned before. I used to work on it, especially during the spring and summer breaks. Knowing through direct contact with Rotch Library's collection that there existed a lot of material published on local architectures, and through similar contact with Harvard's Tozzer collections that there was an incredible wealth of material on local cultures, I was very encouraged to pursue the project in the idea that there should be an online way of discussing that combined material. The website, however, was not part of MIT's network of websites, nor it was hosted on MIT servers (I have always had it hosted on commercial servers although it is expensive).
Coincidentally enough, it was also at MIT where the Technicolor technology was developed by Thomas Kalmus in the 1910s. "Technicolor" is a theme I have used in the website design, and a metaphor to say that anything we can say about local architectures is just mere re-presentation...


What is the relationship that this site has with U.C. Berkeley?

I continued working on the project after MIT, and have continued it in my free time (which sometimes can be only Sundays from 2 to 4 am) while at Berkeley. Berkeley has been a particularly inspiring environment for this project, because of the spirit and expertise of its faculty and students. Also, and significantly enough, the Anthropology department at Berkeley is right in front of the Architecture department. That allows me going back and forth between both libraries and in general between both ways of seeing the world on a daily basis.


What is Ethnoarchitecture?

Ethnoarchitecture is architecture seen through a cultural relativist perspective. By cultural relativist architecture I mean architecture that is conceived, made or studied emphasizing on a local rather than a global point of view.
To provide an example, from a conventional architecture point of view the thatch-and wood "huts" of indigenous peoples in the world are not as efficient as western, "global" houses are. They are not as durable as western houses. From an ethno-architectural point of view, the response to this assertion is that both houses last as much as they are needed to last. In the case of the hut, it is not necessary that it lasts for a long time, because the communities using it are fairly mobile. People's lifetime in a specific place is often equivalent to their house's lifetime. The same can be said for western housing. The only difference is that westerners' lifetime in specific places spans for a longer period of time, and sometimes it goes over several generations. Their houses have to respond to that.


How does an Ethno-architectural analysis work?

From an ethnoarchitectural perspective, we would not say the western house is better than the traditional house. Indeed, both respond with the same efficiency to the requirements of their respective cultures. The conflict comes when we evaluate one type of house using the point of view we use to evaluate the other one. However, this is not limited to the analysis, but also to the building itself. Should we switch both types and build a hut in a "global" environment, it would result completely ephemeral to a culture that is based on stability and permanence. On the other hand, should we build a global house in the jungle, it would be a waste of energy and money, because it is not necessary that a house in such place lasts so much.
However, both types are not, and should not be, understood as completely separated, kept "pure." There is, in actuality, an interaction. The global house in the jungle starts making sense when the local culture changes and becomes more stable (as it is happening all around the world). Conversely, some typically indigenous attitudes start (re)appearing in the city when people become more mobile (because of commuting or social situations such as homelessness or displacement, for example). Both processes of transformation from indigenous to western or from western to indigenous are not completely clear-cut but progressive. This progressive cultural transformation—by the way amazing—is what ethnoarchitecture focuses on studying.


What is the relationship between Ethnoarchitecture and "Green Architecture"?

The main problem that architecture faces today is in my opinion, more than environmental, social. But the problem of "going green" in architecture is being way too often reduced to a mere technological problem, that of creating sun or wind powered devices, or using more efficient appliances. Sustainability must be understood not only in terms of technical feasibility, but also in terms of social impact. If "green" solutions are efficient, energetically, environmentally, economically, but do not propose anything to change the unequal distribution of resources they are helping to save, things are just going to continue the way they are. With the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, the planet, as an abstract, will be saved, but social inequality will continue increasing.
Sustainable development is "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," as the classic definition of the World Commission on Environment and Development says. Guaranteeing that those resources will exist is just the first step. We still have a lot to do about guaranteeing the fair distribution or access to them.


What is the difference between Ethnoarchitecture and Vernacular Architecture?

Conventionally it is acknowledged that the phenomenon of traditional architecture is actually two phenomena, one being "vernacular" or "urban" or "global" and the other "traditional," or "indigenous", or "ethno." In other words, there is mobile architecture everywhere around the world, but there is only one specific form of mobile architecture called "tambo" in a specific area, that being the Upper Amazon.
Some could alternatively say that vernacular architecture refers to all the expressions of architecture without architects in the world, whereas ethnoarchitecture refers to those expressions related to areas of "ethnic interest" (i.e. indigenous cultures). In other words, vernacular architecture is urban and ethnoarchitecture is rural. That differentiation could be fairly acceptable in the American context, where the term vernacular architecture is mainly used to designate the American domestic architecture.
In any case, there is not any irreconcilable difference, and both terms can sometimes even be used interchangeably. I could have actually used vernacular architecture for this project, but I like ethnoarchitecture because it is much more inclusive (ethno = culture).


I am new to all of this. What is Vernacular Architecture?

I have assembled a number of definitions specifically for the website. I wrote two, a short one and a long one, that relate this concept to sustainability. And I have an extra one that relates it to language. That one is part of the glossary of ethnoarchitecture-related terms (look for "vernacular architecture" at the bottom of the page).


How relevant is to talk about Ethnoarchitecture and Vernacular Architecture today?

After more than thirty years of eco-crisis, industry has managed to find technological solutions to many of the environmental threats that the planet faced a few years ago. This has made some scholars wonder if today we should keep talking about eco-crisis or if that is just an eco-myth. That pondering is often being used politically, but that's another story. The main issue is that, although solutions exist, in many cases there is just no political willingness to embrace them.
There is not, in my opinion, such thing as an ethno-myth. In times of globalization-mundialization, local cultures are in crisis. Many influential organizations such as the United Nations have acknowledged the magnitude of that social, cultural crisis. Statements such as the 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the 1992 Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, and the 2000 United Nations Millennium Declaration among others, confirm that the concern today is more about human beings, than about their natural environment exclusively.


What place takes the discussion about race in this website?

Between science and anthropology we have come to realize that races actually do not exist. Race is considered to be more a cultural construction than a biological fact (or, in other words, this concept is more an ideology than a reality).
I use, in that realization, the idea of "color" in a satirical way, metaphor-izing the old-fashioned differentiation between colored and uncolored people in the website's slogan, "Architecture in Technicolor."


About the design, what is this reference to 1950s movies about?

Everything in relation to "primitive" cultures and environments has, as a norm, been over-exoticized in modern times. We see this since the very beginning, in narratives such as Robinson Crusoe's saga, and we keep seeing it today in reality shows such as "Survivor." In recent times, that over-exotization has experienced a strong resurgence, triggered by the Web, tourism, and even charity.
There has always been a distant look to the subjects of that over-exotization. We have ideas about them, and we could eventually approach them to dispel those ideas, but we generally prefer not to. Today, the most common way people ("us") approach the phenomenon of local cultures is through media or through the visor of their (our) own cameras. The website design comments on that. It intends to point out to the fact that local architecture has historically been always re-presented but, furthermore, that such representation might be unavoidable. The website is not exempt from it; in the end, it is also a screen-mediated project.


This is not a commercial website. So, why not .org instead of .com?

This is also part of my satirical comment on today's great show of the primitive peoples being represented online. However, you can also access the site via Ethnoarchitecture.org.


Why do you use interchangeably Ethnoarchitecture.com and Ethnoarch.com when talking about your site?

Ethnoarch is shorter, more convenient. Ethnoarchitecture is more descriptive. In any case, both domains point to the project. So, feel free to just write Ethnoarch.com in the URL field of your browser. You will be redirected here.


I saw an image or a cool article in this site and I want to post it in my own public project. Can I?

No. Unless otherwise specified, all the material in Ethnoarch is copyrighted by Gabriel Arboleda and/or the site contributors. Using this material without authorization is illegal. For more information about using the material published in the site (or to publish your own material) refer to the site's terms and conditions document.

About this article
This is a much-necessary, and much-delayed FAQ document, that I have been finally forced to clean up (began writing it in 2003). I am uploading it as part of the preparation work to make the database public.

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