Buildings without Architects


A Global Guide to Everyday Architecture

For the uninitiated in anything concerning architecture, Paul Oliver’s massive Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World defines vernacular architecture as, “comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources they are customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them.”

Stepping into Oliver’s shoes, author and journalist John May has compiled the slender and concise Building without Architects, a wonderful introductory and comprehensive visual guide of the different types of housing and dwellings from around the world that were created by anonymous builders. The book includes numerous color photographs that detail intricate craftsmanship and include hand-carvings, spires, cupolas, thatched roofs, as well as stone work, decorative paintings on mud houses, and the varied structural uses of bamboo, reed, and recycled materials.

May provides profiles of each building type, and groups them into geographical chapters that explore the cultural approaches, the materials and techniques used in construction. Each architectural type consists of a two-page spread on individual building types and features a description, a map highlighting where the buildings are found, references, along with charming illustrations by Coral Mula that show the form and detail the workings of each structure.

A broad selection of building types from Inuit igloos to trullo stone houses, tipis and adobe houses are examined, but two of the more intriguing sections include the ancient cave dwellings in Andalucía, Spain and Mike Reynolds’ earthships made with local, natural resources and recycled materials.

Spain’s caves date back to the Iron Age and had multiple uses as dwellings, stores, churches, burial places, and catacombs. The rock formations in the area consist of sedimentary sandstone composed of alternate layers of hard and soft rock. The hard rock provides a strong roof and is water-resistant while the soft rock can be dug out. During the 1960s many of the cave homes were abandoned when the local economy collapsed, but during the past ten years, there’s been a revival in the region where the dwellings have been bought as vacation houses and permanent residences, which have been renovated with the addition of an external building.

In response to mass production and consumerism, Mike Reynolds’ “biotecture” designs or earthships are energy efficient, sustainable homes with a low-carbon foot print. Earthships are designed and built with indigenous material like rocks, earth, reeds and logs as well as man-made by-products like tires, glass and plastic bottle and aluminum cans, and are powered by both the sun and wind and reuse its own waste water. Primary building blocks include recycled steel belt rubber tires that are packed with earth and used as bricks to form a fire-proof and indestructible bearing wall. Interior walls are made from glass or plastic bottles, or aluminum cans set in cement. Most earthships can be customized for a variety of climates and many have been used in disaster relief.

Whether it’s the simplicity and utility of early American Shaker buildings or the structural beauty and mechanical marvel of Dutch windmills that pique one’s curiosity, Building without Architects is a wonderful and informative reference guide that offers an ideal introduction for anyone who is interested in the disappearing traditions of handcrafted structures that combine beauty, form, and necessity.