Rural Architectural Traditions in Central Asia

Anthropologist Thomas Barfield on ethnic distinctions of architectural forms, earthquakes, and local construction traditions adapted to the environment

videos | August 17, 2015

What can we learn from indigenous domestic architecture? Why are houses made of traditional materials becoming chick and expensive? Why are the old parts of the city more likely to stay intact during an earthquake? These and other questions are answered by Professor of Anthropology at Boston University Thomas Barfield.

When people look at Central Asia, particularly Afghanistan, but also Uzbekistan, Tajikistan , Iran, parts of Pakistan and they see mud-brick buildings, there is a sort of an assumption that this is a landscape out of the past. The best thing we can do for this building, for these people is to replace these mud buildings with concrete microrayons or high-rises. Because these are modern. They’ve got glass, they’ve got metal. But what this misunderstands is that this is actually a tradition that’s many thousands of years old and has not survived out of inertia, but because it’s highly adapted to the regions that the buildings are in and the materials that are available.

So let’s talk about mud. Nothing sounds more primitive to say ‘a building is made out of mud’. But if we actually look more closely, we find that it’s an exquisitely good building material in certain environments. Obviously, it does not work well where it rains a lot, it will fall away. But these are areas where rainfall and snowfall are relatively scarce. Or if it’s snowfall Afghans have wooden shovels – the first thing you do is get the snow off your roof if you don’t want it to leak, but you can take care of it.

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But what we discover – and we also see this in the southwestern United States with adobe construction – is these massive mud walls are actually tremendous thermal insulators. That is, the temperature inside a room in one of these mud-wall buildings or mud-brick buildings is remarkably constant, because if you’ve got a mud wall that’s a meter thick, it takes in a very hot summer day all day for the heat coming from the Sun to reach the interior of the building. By the time it has done that, the Sun is gone down, and now everything gets very cold. So what we discover is that in the evening those walls radiate heat to the inside and during the day they keep it cool, because the Sun has to penetrate it. You require remarkably little heating or cooling in that kind of building.

We also find – this is both in the southwestern United States and in Afghanistan and Central Asia – that these buildings, mud buildings are actually rather sophistically oriented so they maximize solar radiation. They are placed in such an angle that they get more solar radiation in the morning, when the building is cold, and less in the afternoon, when it’s been heating up all day. We can work out the physics of this, we can talk about the ideal angles, but should the people building these buildings know that? No. They know that some angles are better than others because some buildings are hotter than others. This is one of those sort of indigenous types of science that people learn through experience.

By contrast, if you move into a concrete building – a concrete building heats up as soon as the sun hits it, and it freezes as soon as it comes down, you need a very strong heating system. But you also have the problems of earthquakes. A concrete building, unless it’s very well put together, is liable to collapse and pancake in a high seismic zone. And Central Asia is a very high seismic zone. So you look at these mud-brick buildings, and people say, “Well, they are very vulnerable to earthquakes”. Which they are, I mean, mud-bricks will just collapse on you. But in the areas sort of just south of Hindu Kush, and then north of the Hindu Kush into Tajikistan or Uzbekistan what you discover is they have a particular variety of mud-brick architecture, that they make the first floor out of heavy walls of just pressed mud. The second floor is going to be made out of bricks. But they don’t just pile the bricks one on top of the other, they actually create a wooden framework; it’s sort of a rectangle and then it’s got two crossed beams. And they fill the bricks, so the bricks are not in a single line, they are pushing against each other. And they put four of these together, link them together, and actually what you have is a cage for bricks.

What happens when there’s an earthquake? The building begins to shake, but all the bricks are held within a wooden cage.

So that wooden cage will shake and not collapse. It turns out that when you do, as we did, looking at seismic zones in Afghanistan, this type of construction is most highly correlated with the high intensity earthquakes. Now does this mean that somebody went to an “Afghan Earthquake Institute” and settle this? No. Obviously, they get earthquakes so often that you watch which buildings stood up and which buildings fell down, which buildings damaged, but didn’t kill people, and which buildings collapsed and did kill people. And one of the things about all of these pieces of architecture is they are not built by professionals, they’re built by local villagers. The architectural plans, the concepts – they’re all in their heads. All the materials are local materials.

So, for example, in areas where they have poplar trees they cut the trees, use the polls, and they make flat roofs, when you put mud on top of the polls. What happens when you don’t have wood? Well, if you look in parts of Iran, southern Afghanistan, parts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, you’ll see they lack wood. They build domes and vaults. They figure out how to build a building that requires no wood, and that is, a domed building or a vaulted building.

So what we see is that these are local traditions, they’re adapted to the environment. They use local materials and they’re built by local people. But because they’re built by local people who are not particularly educated, because they use local materials, there is an assumption that these people are backwards. If they only had better materials, they’d live like us, in the West. More concrete, more steel, more glass. But when you actually look as what are the advantages and disadvantages, you begin to see that this rural architectural tradition has survived for thousands of years because it’s so exquisitely adapted to local conditions. This rural architectural tradition has survived for thousands of years because it’s so exquisitely adapted to local conditions. And that we could actually learn some lessons from that. I would say, if you go to Santa Fe in the southwestern United States, the highest priced buildings are now made out of adobe – pressed mud. Because forty years ago they were considered primitive, now they are considered chick, they are considered to be really good investments. So the best thing that we can think out when we look at other peoples’s architecture, indigenous domestic architecture, is ask ourselves: what can we learn from this architecture as opposed to how can we replace it.

One of the interesting things about indigenous architecture is that groups are very conservative about the types of things they build. That is, in areas where wood is available you’ll discover that ethnic groups, for example, like the Turkmen or Uzbeks will still build domed and vaulted houses because, as far as they’re concerned, that’s their house, that’s what they should be using.

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But a more interesting aspect of this is nomads. We see many tents, but what we don’t understand sometimes is that the tents can actually tell us which group that community is from. Because there is a dozen different ways to put up a black tent. Black tent is fairly simple, it has polls, it has black goat-hair cloth, you use tension, you pull it together. But you have some where you just use sticks that go straight up, you have some that have a T-bar in the middle to hold the center up, and there are some that are actually what are called a ‘barrel vault’. These all look different.

So from a distance, even from a couple of kilometers away, you can look at a tent and be pretty sure which group is doing it because each tent is distinctive. We also find north of the Hindu Kush, for example, in Afghanistan, and into Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, we find people don’t use black tents. Instead, they use yurts. Yurts are sort of domical and incredibly well engineered. The framework of a yurt can last fifty years, you replace the felt – the outer part of it – maybe once every five years.

But the interesting thing about that is we find no yurts south of the Hindu Kush. One of the reasons? Because south of Hindu Kush it’s too warm, you don’t need that kind of protection. A yurt can survive even the most severe winter in Eurasia. It can’t be blown over. But it also requires specialists to make the wooden parts. They are highly engineered and they have to fit together. The nomads who use yurts do not make the frameworks themselves, they buy frameworks from local artisans who are not nomads, but make those kind of yurt frames – so, a once in a lifetime sort of purchase.

And even with yurts – you can look at it and you can see if it’s sort of hemispherical or a sort of relatively low dome, that’s a Turkish yurt. If you see a conical yurt, that’s a Mongolian yurt. They’re both yurts, they are both structurally similar, but there’re cultural differences on what people consider to be the appropriate one for their own group and they tend to replicate that over time.

In rural areas both in Afghanistan and in Central Asia we find the traditional structures still existing. Sometimes upgrading, maybe have a metal roof instead of a mud roof. What we find in terms of those being replaced is in cities. Kabul now, since 2001, has got all kinds of high-rise glass towers. Parts of it look like Dubai, well, a mini Dubai. But the more interesting thing is some really rich people, many of whom are the smugglers, probably, of opium and other things. They build what they call “narco-palaces” – these are incredibly gaudy five-story buildings, and they have all kinds of glass on them and huge balconies. They obviously cost a lot of money and they’re always made out of concrete. You never find those in the countryside, only in the cities. But Afghanistan has not had a major earthquake recently. If it ever does have a major earthquake, everyone of these narco-palaces will either collapse, or at best lose all of its balconies.

There is a reason you don’t have a balcony tradition in places like Afghanistan. Because they’ll fall off.

The other interesting thing about the use of glass and steel which is very popular in high-rise buildings in Afghanistan and new shopping centers is, again, it looks good now, but what if there is an earthquake? Will that glass hold up, will it collapse? And while California or Japan may be building modern buildings to earthquake standards, in most parts of the world the standards are not very good. The problem is we never know how poor the standards are until a natural disaster strikes.

And the one thing that you can always notice is the old-fashioned buildings – and this was true during the Soviet period in the major earthquake in Tashkent – the old part of the city was pretty much intact, the new part of the city pretty much collapsed. And I think that’s one of things you have to give tradition is it has a lot of time experience in terms of experiments. So we don’t really know how well things are adapted until we’ve had thirty, forty, fifty years to see. And the desire now, particularly among people who consider themselves modern, to get rid of these old traditions – they may be giving them up a bit too soon.

Professor of Anthropology, Boston University, Director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization, President of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies.
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