“We should admit nature as an immense multitude of forms, including each part of us, who are part of everything”, says Ailton Krenak, renowned indigenous leader, in his book Ideas to Postpone the End of the World. The culture of native peoples does not understand humanity and the environment as things that are separate or superior to each other, but rather as parts of a whole. Through this particular understanding of the universe, these peoples are led to a sensitive appropriation of the territory, with structuring beliefs that are also reflected in their architecture, raising the very concept of sustainability to another level, since nature is not seen as a resource to be used, it is thought of as part of the community.
Analyzing a general context, it is impossible to present the indigenous culture and its constructive models in a homogeneous way, since the methods vary according to the region where they are (or were) inserted. However, this relationship with the territory, sewn through understanding and respect for the place, crosses different cultures originating in the Americas and is one of the great indigenous epistemologies that lends itself to rethinking contemporary architectural production.
Given the cultural importance of nature as something that defines the identity of a people, being the mirror and materialization of each individual — much more than a means of survival — its characteristics must be cared for and preserved. In this way, both the construction techniques used and the selected materials reflect structural, aesthetic and sustainable qualities that allow not only stability and protection, but are an ode to nature and collectivity.
To illustrate, the traditional dwellings of the Guarani — the most numerous ethnic group in Brazil — usually have their main structure made with tree trunks connected by vines. Wattle with rammed earth are used for sealing. For the roof, wooden rafters and palm leaves and, completing the building, the rammed earth floor. This palette of natural and regional materials indicates that it is not just about knowing that they exist, but about mastering geography and biology to understand where, when and how to obtain them. Straw, for example, has a detailed sociological procedure for its removal in order not to damage the straw itself and, later, the next harvest.
Of course, when it comes to durability, these buildings require periodic maintenance for the replacement of their constructive elements. However, in several cultures there is an understanding of houses as temporary housing that last for one or two years due to constant regrouping and separation of family units. But even in perenniality they stand out, since, even if they are eventually abandoned, their constructive elements are gradually reincorporated into nature without negative environmental impacts due to their natural origin — the true circular architecture that is so much discussed nowadays.
In addition to the precise choice of materials and the complete understanding of their application, it is worth mentioning that the compositional strategies also reflect the understanding of the climate with passive tools that increase thermal comfort. An example is the creation of generous eaves correctly oriented based on the sun’s path, protecting from light and also from rain, with roof slopes that vary according to the weather severity. In this sense, it is worth mentioning the scholar of indigenous culture José Afonso Portocarrero when he states that in a world where high technology is so valued, indigenous people use only design as technology and are able to provide excellent comfort. By using natural materials such as straw and wood, combined with the high ceilings and aerodynamic shape, good results are generated at a low or almost zero cost, when there is a preserved ecosystem nearby that allows the collection of material and when the community is organized for collective construction.
As examples, the materials and construction techniques mentioned above represent a small cut within the vastness that comprises all the indigenous ethnicities already cataloged in Brazil. However, even small, they already offer a vision of the importance that should be given to this culture as a source of inspiration for the future of contemporary architecture.
We realize that there is sustainability in their architectures by design, since they always carry two main premises: the use of materials available on site and respect for the climate of the region where they are located. In other words, through the understanding and observation of nature, naturally sustainable strategies are created with elementary building principles and low-impact materials.
Within the wide range of materials that can be chosen in a design process or the countless formal and compositional decisions that must be made, the great lesson that indigenous culture leaves for the future of architecture can be summarized in one commandment: understanding the place. Being aware of the territory where the building will be inserted is the first step towards a sustainable future. Mapping the existing and available materials in the region, understanding the climate, looking for low-impact passive techniques, respecting and interacting with the surrounding community means the environmental and social respect that is now more necessary than ever.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: The Future of Construction Materials. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.