The Living House
La casa vivente (The living house)
Repairing spaces, learning to build
La casa vivente (The living house) combines anthropology and personal experience, travel and ethnography. In a quest for the profound meaning of living, the author tells us that houses are alive and invites us to rethink our way of seeing ourselves in space.
Are we sure that our destiny is to live “shut up in concrete cages”, full of often useless objects, behind armoured doors? Anthropologist Andrea Staid suggests a different approach to rebuild a positive relationship with the environment. If we really do intend to embark upon a path towards “ecological transition” – that is, towards sustainable economies and societies – the best way to start would be to radically rethink our way of “inhabiting” places: “We have to rethink how we inhabit by realising that we were made for the outdoors, for mountains, prairies and forests, that we used to like and perhaps still like living outdoors and that we used to make light-weight, makeshift houses”.
By mapping out the different ways in which the Earth can be inhabited, Staid invites us on a journey to see the typical ways of life of other societies and cultures, and tells how the house of the future will be dictated by hybridisation rather than by western urban standards.
In ten years of travelling, the author came across a wide range of styles of conceiving, building and inhabiting a house: from the goahti of the Sami in Scandinavia, covered with turf and canvas, to the logs of the Russian izba cabins, to the black tents of the nomads of the Middle East. “Other peoples’” houses are made of materials that are available locally, easily transportable and environmentally friendly. The people who build them, often with the help of the community they belong to, have a plan in mind, a project that includes dreams and future plans. They do not engage others to envision the house they are going to live in.
The nostalgia of anthropologists? Totally unfeasible in our suffocating, urbanised times? Not at all. A growing number of architects and engineers are intrigued by the wide variety of human dwellings. They are taking another look at what some call ‘vegetecture’, going back to age-old building materials such as straw and mud, taking advantage of the right exposure and orienting houses towards the light. Tradition and highly advanced technology can go hand in hand if the aim is a real transition and not simply a novel way of camouflaging aggressive architecture.
However, Staid’s heartfelt appeal to change our way of living is not made to the building specialists primarily. Each of us should reclaim the ability to envision how to inhabit a place. Starting from the observation that the house is first and foremost a relationship, that it is part of a community and a context which are also in need of a major overhaul. Our cities, for example, “should be covered with plants. Not only in the designated areas, like parks, gardens, avenues, flower beds, but literally everywhere: on roofs, on building facades, along streets, on terraces, balconies, chimney stacks, traffic lights, guardrails.”
Our very survival is at stake. Re-immersing houses in the plant world, making them “lighter”, emptying them of piles of useless objects, to ensure that, in the end, they leave (almost) no trace, like alpine huts that collapse into a pile of stones and little more.
Giving new meaning to living is giving new meaning to what it is to be human. Staid invites us to get over the fear that always comes of questioning ourselves, to start considering ourselves differently as a species, and to act accordingly. His invitation, like his writing, is clear and straightforward – we must “introduce the future into things that are done in the present”, try out new ideas so that the house stops being just a building and instead opens up to a wider network of possibilities and meanings.
The book opens with a brief introduction to ethnography, not a hegemonic-quantitative study – the superior gaze of a (supposedly) evolved civilisation that benevolently observes (supposedly) backward societies – but rather, a qualitative study based on exchanges and interaction with equals. When conversing with the most diverse populations during his travels in Asia, Staid often found himself up against inverted visions of things we take for granted (one example that springs to mind is the fear of sleeping with the door closed rather than with the door open). These comparisons have given rise to the urgent need to question both the concept and indeed the power of living.
1 The house for man
This chapter describes the concept of the house seen from an anthropological point of view: what the house represents for a human being, how different cultures interpret living and what they look for in the place they inhabit, what we can learn from a comparison with other ways of conceiving dwellings, how society affects our way of living. The relationships between man and the environment are also analysed through the writings of some authors who have focused their research on the subject of living.
2 Organic and transparent architecture
Do we still know how to build our houses? We lost so much when we forgot how to be the builders of the places we live in. This chapter analyses the relationship between man and nature on the basis of man’s awareness of the territory he inhabits and identifies knowledge and know-how that could be useful in creating sustainable and environmentally friendly architecture.
3 A world tour. Vernacular architecture.
This chapter takes us on a tour around the world through different living experiences. The author recounts direct experiences he has had of the world, a world in which living coincides with self-building and in which the relationship between nature and man is preserved and leveraged. He discusses Sami architecture in northern Europe, the black houses of the Hebrides islands, the Russian izbe, the tents used by nomads in the Middle East, the tower houses of Yemen, the Japanese minka, the Chinese tulou, the houses built by the Indian populations of the Nilgiri plateau and Kerala, the tolek of Chad, the houses on stilts on Inle Lake in Myanmar, the river dwellings of Laos, the Mongolian shepherds’ tents, the adobe houses of the Peruvian highlands, the architecture of the Korowai people who live in West Papua and US architect Michael Reynolds’ earthships.
These examples describe a possible way of interacting with the landscape, providing the stimulus to think about architecture in a critical, conscious way.
4 Living in the crater
This chapter provides some examples of self-build housing, which became popular after the earthquake that hit central Italy in 2016.
Self-building is explained as a formative moment from both a professional, but above all from a cultural perspective, which is capable of creating a link with the geographies and the spaces that will be inhabited.
The central section of the chapter focuses on the need to return to an understanding of the dynamics and methodologies of construction and self-building in order to be able to return to seeing the house not as a passive place, but as a place where you can actively create your identity.
5 Small gestures, big changes
This chapter starts out from the notion that living is an act that incorporates all our everyday gestures. Living in a place means taking care of it and organising our lives according to dynamics of sustainability and respect for the environment. The author lists a series of gestures that we can make to improve and protect the planet. From practices of self-management to the use of heating systems, from household water management to neighbourhood sharing schemes, from reducing waste to gift economies.
6 An anthropologist’s house
In the final chapter, the author recounts his experience of building a house directly in nature, in the Ligurian hills. Beyond the architectural considerations, the decision to build a house in nature brings with it various reflections on our relationship with the earth and with space, on reclaiming our inner time, on the different interpretation of our needs and requirements, on a new vision of interpersonal relationships. The book ends by returning full circle to the anthropological reflections it started with, this time put to the test of a radical and rigorous lifestyle choice.