It’s National Architecture Week and that got me thinking about some of the most interesting buildings I’ve seen lately. Keeping in mind the fun my friends over at The Blue Line had with Top 10 lists recently, I didn’t want to come up with Ten Most Amazing Buildings or My Top Ten Historic Buildings. Instead I browsed through photos from trips over the past few years and selected a few particularly memorable vernacular building types.
Shirakawa-go, in the Japanese alps, was a complete surprise to me. I was not expecting to see snow still on the ground and I certainly didn’t expect to feel like I was back in Switzerland! The way the houses are dotted on the hillside and in a small cluster in the center, not to mention the buildings’ size and shape, all reminded me of Swiss alpine villages. Those commonalities certainly make you think about how much our buildings are shaped by their environment and how similar solutions emerge in similar environments.
The Gassho houses are wood and have steeply pitched roofs. In Switzerland, in Zermatt for example, the oldest houses have stone roofs. In Shirakawa-go, they are thickly thatched. The largest of the houses have several stories, with the top used for silk worm cultivation and production. The interiors are darkened from the smoke from the fires inside, which acts as a preservative. The family member we chatted
with explained that houses that are “smoked” last significantly longer than those that our not. I didn’t ask about the effect of the smoke on their lungs!
The spring day we were there, one of the houses was being rethatched. The workers were using some modern equipment such as aluminum ladders (and hardhats!) but the materials and the method were the same as they been for hundreds of years.
My other selection for the day is the dialou, or tower houses, of Kaiping, China. These are fascinating because they are a response to the social and political environment of their time rather than the physical environment. The building type itself dates back over 500 years and was traditionally defensive towers that could shelter an entire village from storms or attacks.
There are approximately 1800 early 20th century dialou in the The Four Counties region, which is the homeland of many Chinese who emigrated to America, Canada and Australia in the late 19th century. In the 1930s the region was overrun with bandits during a lawless time. Upon their return to China with their fortunes, the overseas Chinese again built fortified houses, but incorporated fanciful architectural detailing that they had seen in places such as San Francisco and Vancouver. Functionally, they were very traditional, with brick stoves and separate kitchens for the different sons’ wives, and altars for ancestral workshop on the top floors.
Their decoration and ornament however were very different. The buildings had the typical painting over the door way but the Chinese motifs incorporate, or are even replaced by other elements. In one house, there is that most American of symbols: an eagle with arrows in its talons.