A Vernacular of Uncertainty
book is the black and white print version of a full color Kindle
book based on research conducted at the University of California,
Berkeley. Its long delayed publication mirrors a concern for the
security of the builders and vendors seen in the hundreds of photographs
of informal settlements included in its pages.
thought of as squatters, the photographs are of houses assembled
by untutored builders on land that others feel they have no right
The objective of the research was to document the work of these
builders and the methods used to complete their constructions.
The conclusions drawn from the research propose that what we see
as a seemingly chaotic dwelling actually embodies a continuously
evolving approach to house-form. In this, physical form was found
to be sculpted by indeterminate events, endured in a marginal
existence, and resolved according to basic human instincts for
shelter and survival.
Important is that these houses were built in places where style
and design had no meaning. Instead, construction began with the
hands-on challenge of piecing together a physical form that could
provide immediate protection. For these builders, a homebuilt
house was the focus of an informal process that gave life purpose
in its making, sustaining not only an unregulated spirit and resilience,
but a sense of pride in a visible expression of autonomy and self-determination.
In many ways, the process closely paralleled the evolution of
prehistoric shelter as a protective space that allows its occupants
to remain in place for an extended period of time. In more recent
times, land became real estate and shelter became property, shifting
values with codes and zoning laws that promoted market interests
in a larger formal economy.
At the same time, in those regions unable to control growth, marginalized
people were forced to circumvent bureaucratic inefficiencies and
formal market systems that sustained these formalities by creating
Field studies revealed that in these unregulated transactions,
building materials and service suppliers were found to be actively
supporting informal homebuilders. In an informal construction
market, values were adjusted according to a slow strategic process
where unknown events, random tools, and unpredictable materials
became form givers.
Pieced based computer animations illustrated the tactical nature
of dwellings slowly assembled on invaded land already occupied
as a home. Without a plan and with no way to predict what the
next step might be in their constructions, small and simple shelters
were seen on a timeline to evolve almost imperceptibly according
to an intuitive approach to survival in a very uncertain world.
The results are the distinctly disordered characteristics of the
vernacular seen in the photographs in this book, features that
are a direct reflection of an underlying culture of uncertainty.
This is a house-form that begins by ignoring any preconception
of style or design, anticipating shape and purpose only as it
is defined by a material held in hand, pieced together strategically
without a plan or schedule.
As such, every dwelling is a tentative solution to a continuously
evolving physical form. It’s only in the last stages of
its construction that house-form matures to display the sense
of security evident in more permanent or decorative features.
With luck and time, informal values and an indeterminate sense
of order come to visually represent a confidence that can only
come from the certainty of a tenured landholder.
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