Thousands of years ago, a small civilization of hunter gatherers migrated to the coastal regions of Southeast Asia. These people progressed into a widespread tribe of travelling sea dwellers. To this day, they remain a stateless people with no nationality and no consistent infrastructure, sometimes living miles away from land. Yet these people are one of the few civilizations whose collective life practices have survived so long through human history. They are called the Badjao, and they have a surprising amount to teach us about architecture.
1. Architecture can be a collective initiative.
While the public image of Architecture is often fixated on the individual, the Badjao consider design to be a communal practice. Houses for the Badjao (for those who do not live on their boats) are built almost entirely out of driftwood and debris from coastal cities around Southeast Asia. When a storm hits a home or community, neighboring Badjao will spare as much material of their own as possible, to help fortify damaged homes. Their homes are built on stilts that are carefully placed in between coastal rocks and coral. This activity is a communal effort, so as to ensure no wildlife is harmed as they set foundations.
The public image of architecture is often fixated on the individual. Architectural critique can be skewed based on who designed a building, regardless of quality or appearance. In a community where all members contribute to each other's work, stability emerges in the form of structural and cultural support.
2. Adaptability goes beyond the building.
The term "adaptability" has been thrust into the architectural world as part of the ever-growing "green" movement. Yet the common outcome of this message has been energy efficient and "eco-friendly" appliances being added on to otherwise unchanging design. What could be fundamental components to the nature of design are often instead considerations for a checklist at the end of the design process. The solution then may not come from our design process, but from us. The Badjao show how it is possible for human beings to adapt productively to their environments.
After thousands of years moving around the waters of Southeast Asia, the Badjao have adapted to fit their surroundings in more ways than just their shelters. The average Badjao person can, without training, hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time, and dive as deep as 60 feet (18 meters) without losing focus or agility. They can also see as well if not better underwater as they do above. This skillset has been ingrained into their physique so that it stays with them from childhood to old age. They have become flexible in their very nature, to be able to move and act in a constant dance with the elements. If architectural minds were to reconsider their own relationships to surrounding ecological, social and cultural variables, then their design may follow suit.
3. Successful design can be born from fragility, instead of stability.
Fragility is a word that is often combated in architecture today. We generally aspire for solidity, thick and immovable construction, and maximum fortification. What this results in though is an opportunity for disaster to strike should our infrastructure fail. The ocean, being a naturally tumultuous place, made the Badjao accustomed to loosening the reins on their construction so to speak. Where we ride the bull so tensely that we are occasionally knocked off, the Badjao people have learned to love the ride. They build short term, and live long term. This is rather antithetical to modern notions of immediate satisfaction and safety. When every home and bridge is built with the goal of eventually becoming parts to fortify other bridges and homes, then there really isn’t ever any truly failed infrastructure.
4. Listening to our environment has positive results for us and our Architectural legacies.
The metropolis of today prides itself in a fortification against the elements, and nomadic tribes such as the Badjao pride themselves on a lifestyle with the elements. Learning from the latter may provide opportunities to prevent disaster when faced with inclement weather and natural phenomena. In 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami caused devastating destruction throughout Southern Asia. What was less highlighted in the news coverage of this natural phenomenon were the Badjao people. With their deep understanding of their surroundings, the major branches of the Badjao moved their communities, settling in areas that did not end up being drastically affected by the tsunami. This was not a matter of cosmological speculation or political agenda - the Badjao people were open to changing the way they lived in response to incontrovertible facts about their environment.
5. Surroundings and ecological impact are the defining qualities of our work in the long-term.
The Badjao are fundamentally tied in all aspects of life to the flows and forces that affect the sea. Time of the day is marked by the tide rather than hours and minutes. Most Badjao cannot pinpoint a specific date or even year that they were born, yet any child can recall the average sea levels from when they were born, or at any other significant moment in their lives. When we design buildings or spaces or urban initiatives, it is easy to get swept up in variables relating to profit, schedule and material consumption. What the Badjao teach us is that there are much deeper layers of forces and information that are equally (if not more) worthy of our consideration as designers.
"Nomad" is considered by many to be a term of condescension. It is associated with the vagabond and the traveler, the drifter and the vagrant. If anything can be learned from the Badjao people though, it is that designing for life on the move is one of the methods we have to integrate back into more open and natural systems. Architecture in the developed world is a competition of capital, supported by egos and trends. That is not to say that architecture has not occasionally contributed to shaping societies for the better. But rather, as we can learn from those who live less stable lives, fragility and adaptability is more beneficial than we may have thought.