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A Vernacular of Uncertainty

This 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.

Often thought of as squatters, the photographs are of houses assembled by untutored builders on land that others feel they have no right to occupy.
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 informal exchanges.

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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