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House Form & Culture
Amos Rapoport

This book deals with identifying
the determining factors in what
form, or physical arrangement,
human dwellings take, in the
context of popular or vernacular
This is can be a good design tool
on the scale of a house or an
urban settlement.
It examines the physical
determinist theory (Chapter 2),
taking the argument that man
was a symbol-making animal
before he was a tool-making
animal. [p.42, #5]
Examples from history are used
to support these arguments.

It then identifies a number of
influences (Chapter 3) under
classifications of determining
factors and modifying factors,
while explaining that no single
cause can take credit for the form
developed but that socio-cultural
forces primarily act behind our
Such socio-cultural forces are
explained, and the relationship of
dwelling to settlement.
Chapters 4-5 (not reviewed here)
deal with the physical structure of
houses in response to climate,
material and building techniques.
It concludes with the determinants
of the (then) present-day scenario,
which is still largely appropriate.

Chapter 2: Physical
Climate and the Need for Shelter:
The author argues the question of
why so many forms of the house
have been developed within the
limited number of climatic zones.
[p.19 # 7]
Differences in urban patterns and
house types within one area show
them to be much more related to
culture than climate.
Sometimes, the way of life leads to
almost anti-climatic solutions, due to:
- Economic activity
- Status, social organization
- Imported attitudes towards
privacy, usage of spaces and their
sequence, etc.
- Religious prescriptions

Chapter 2: contd.
Materials, Construction &
In societies with limited
technology, the materials that
can be used constrain the forms.
With more complex building
techniques, more forms can be
developed. But,
knowledge of technology does
not mean it will be used.
[p.25, #1]
The same materials can result in
many different forms.
The author argues that these
factors modify the form, rather
than determine it, and that they
do not decide what is to be built.
Chapter 2: contd.
The author suggests that the site
influences both the city and the house
but does not determine its form.
In choosing the site, its effect is
cultural rather than only physical
because the site represents the goals
and values defined by a particular
culture or group of people.
Tradition may cause people to
preserve a site which is unsuitable in
many other ways.
Saying that religion is the one cause
for a given form is oversimplifying the
case; it offers the choice of symbols
and, therefore, possibilities.
everything, including the house, can
assume symbolic significance.
[p.41, #4]

Chapter 2: contd.
The value system and the focus of the
defense varies from culture to culture.
Defense may often be symbolic as
The author argues that defense, when
it plays a part, is never alone in
determining form.
Many factors are neglected by
accepting defense as the only
[p.33, #3]
Things that make good economic
sense are not always the choice taken,
due to tradition, prestige or lifestyle.
Similar forms of economy still lead to
different arrangements of rural
settlements because of social
There is a variety of ways that needs
are met, comprised of the same
elements but handling the
requirements differently.
Chapter 3:
The physical choices are
numerous, the actual
choices may be severely
limited by the cultural
[p. 47, #1]
Physical factors like climate,
technology and materials, or site
are modifying factors while
certain non-physical forces,
referred to as socio-cultural,
are the primary deciding factors.
The dominance of any of these
variables is a result of criticality.
When physical criticality is low;
choices are possible and decided
primarily by socio-cultural
- Basic needs:
Basic needs are defined
differently by different cultures:
how a thing is done may be
more important than what is
done. [p.60, #4]
Chapter 3: contd.
Sociocultural factors affecting form
and spatial arrangement include:
- Family structure, kinship
- Social organization, like the setup
of herder or agrarian societies
- Attitude: The need for religious
sanctions and contempt for
manual labor (lack of
specialization) for example
- Position of women
- Need for privacy
- Religion - Ritual orientation of
buildings or streets is an example
of this.
Need for security and for social
stimulation, visual complexity and
religious and ceremonial impulse.
The customs, attitudes and the
different man-woman relations;
social meetings places, nondomestic
areas and monumental elements.
The transition from dwelling to street
and beyond, defining thresholds and
separating domains.
Chapter 3: contd.
Relation of House and Settlement:
the living pattern always extends
beyond the house to some degree
[p.69, #3]

2 types, with various degrees between
- The settlement is the setting for
life, the dwelling is a more
private, enclosed, sheltered part
of the living realm.
- The dwelling is essentially the
whole setting for life, the
settlement, as connective tissue,
is secondary in nature, leftover.
Climate, technology and materials,
forces of tradition and economic
surplus are of the past.
Todays constraints are different but
no less severe.
Density, population growth,
institutionalization of controls (codes,
zoning, banks, insurance and
planning bodies, etc.)

Chapter 6: The Present
With the greater institutionalization and
specialization of modern life how applicable are
these arguments today?
[p.126, #1]

In developing countries there tends to be:
Breakdown of folk arts ,which lose their
symbolic value in the maelstrom of choices
Application of Western concepts without
truly considering the choices
In the Western world:
The issue of inclusiveness in society, like new
typologies to fit new behaviors and attitudes
(for example the single persons apartment)
The idea that house form can be in the
domain of fashion

The author proposes that:
Forms still reflect old concerns. [p.127, #3]
People no longer build their own houses, in the
tradition of popular or vernacular architecture.
However, the houses people buy still reflect
popular aspirations and values and today, the
problem seems to be one of excessive choice.
[p.128, #3]

How to make those choices?
Socially and culturally valid
Economical and affordable
Maintenance of the health of the inhabitants
Minimum upkeep over the desired lifespan.
Vernacular buildings provided a framework
within which peoples socio-cultural choices
characterized the building and settlement. There
is a lesson in that.