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The University of Hong Kong

Interpreting Vernacular Architecture in Asia

The University of Hong Kong via edX


This course is about architecture. But it's not about grand structures such as monuments or royal palaces. Rather, it is about the built environment that the ordinary people live in. Instead of the architectural techniques, we use stories to understand the processes through which people make their building decisions.

We use Asia as the backdrop for the discussion of these topics. Partly because of Asia's rich heritage and diversity, but also due to the unique complexity that the people in the region face as they go through rapid economic, social, and cultural changes.

In this examination of the connection between vernacular buildings and peoples' cultural identities, we will review real-world examples and talk to experts in the field. At the end of this course, you will gain a unique perspective about the everyday environment that you live in - one perhaps that you've never had before. You will begin to understand and appreciate the value of the ordinary built environment around you.

Whether you are an avid architect or you simply just care about the built environment you live in, this course is for you.


Week 1: Interpreting the Vernacular
A relatively new field of study, vernacular architecture does not yet have a commonly-agreed definition. This first week we examine several definitions of vernacular architecture and discuss why the topic is especially pertinent in the context of Asia.Alongside the expert discussions and examples,wefurther discuss the notion that culture is a form of tradition and connect it with Asia's vernacular architecture.

Week 2: Climate, Building Materials, and the Vernacular
Vernacular buildings are local and very much influenced by local factors, two of which are climate and local building materials.This week we study how the eight major climatic belts influence people's building decisions. We also look at how people make use of locally available materials, and how construction methods and building rituals are passed from one generation to the next.

Week 3: Vernacular Landscapes and the Rural Built Environment
This week we talk about the vernacular landscape. We define what it is, the meaning of it, and through the lens of the rural vernacular environment, we appreciate the seemingly un-self-conscious process of building that is indeed timeless.

Week 4: The Urban Vernacular
This week we focus on cities, or the urban vernacular. We discuss the process through which the urban vernacular is built, we also delve deep into topics such as sense of place, types of urban vernacular buildings, and how the urban vernacular evolves over time.

Week 5: Informal Settlements
Have you ever paid any attention to the slum areas in cities? Why do they exist? Are they of any significance or vernacular value to people and society? Termed informal settlements, we look at these built environments in cities through economic, cultural, and social lenses, and connect this unique type of urban vernacular with the future of cities.

Week 6: Sustainable Conservation and the future of Asia 's Vernacular Architecture
In this concluding week, we differentiate conservation from preservation and discuss the challenges and approaches to conservation of Asia's vernacular built environment. We also discuss the future of vernacular architecture in Asia by contrasting tradition and modernity, and by asking the question of how they can coexist. We argue that the best way to ensure the continuation of the built heritage in Asia is to view vernacular architecture as a living tradition that evolves with time but without losing its cultural value.

Taught by

David P. Y. Lung and Howard Davis


5.0 rating, based on 1 Class Central review

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  • Profile image for Emily Ward
    Emily Ward
    I realize that the topic might sound hilariously niche. Vernacular architecture is the architecture of everyday life and the houses and shops and things that ordinary people use and live and work in. Asia is, of course, a hugely diverse continent, c…

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