Too many publications suffer from elephantiasis; here is a book whose heft is justified by the richness and global importance of its subject. From earliest times, rural societies have developed organic responses to the environment, using locally available materials, and living in harmony with nature. Modern technologies and the exponential growth of cities have endangered these traditional ways of building. Even though that trend is irreversible, the authors of this scholarly survey argue that vernacular models continue to provide a valuable resource and can be adapted to serve current needs.

The diversity of forms and materials is astonishing. Traditional mud huts of desert regions are juxtaposed with the favelas of South American cities, where housing is patched together from scavenged materials. Shigeru Ban’s cathedral, with its cardboard tube roof vault, has a strong affinity to the tree houses of New Guinea. Thematic essays are followed by sections on five climatic zones. Dr. Piesik has enlisted a hundred experts to analyze specific responses in each of these zones, and to author appendices on contemporary versions of the vernacular, responses to natural disasters, and the properties of different materials.

It’s hard to overstate the value of so comprehensive a study, with its readable text, a thousand illustrations, and extensive bibliography. As a collaborative venture it is a triumph of enlightened publishing (inaugurated by Thames + Hudson in London) and should inspire architects and communities to consider alternative ways of providing shelter and communicate traditional wisdom on responding to climate.

Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet. Edited by Sandra Piesik (Abrams, $150)

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.