It is generally considered that modernization of production process and the modern lifestyle' that accompanies it is the only or at least the inevitable path of development. At times the changed lifestyle brought about by modernization or some aspect of it is conceded to have done some harm, but this is generally explained away as the price that has to be paid for the many other merits that modernization offers. But more frequently nowadays it seems to be considered as if modernization is itself the goal and modern lifestyle in itself is a clear and obvious advancement over what preceded it. Modernization that has implied the concentration of resources and production processes in a few urban centres requires accommodating enormously more people in a unit area in comparison with villages and has markedly changed the nature of housing and the nature of interaction of people in a community. In the huge urban centers that have consequently grown, multistoried complexes made of scarce building materials such as cement and steel have become a necessity in contrast to traditional housing made from plentiful resources like mud and timber. Modern housing is no longer seen as a concession that has to be made since we have chosen a given path' of development,' but visualized increasingly as if it has tremendous intrinsic merits of its own and is being adopted by several countries and peoples often to their own great detriment. We wish to examine the increasing trend in the third world countries to discard traditional building practices in favour of modernisation not only in the' cities, but also in the countryside.
Malayan Housing :

Malayan housing

The traditional Malayan housing community, namely the 'Kampong' is an indigenous solution evolved through several generations of adaptation to local needs and environment. Initially the site for a house is chosen through religious rituals and after this a 'Kenduri' (big feast) is held to which all people of the village are invited. This acts as an instrument of socialization to acquaint the new resident with the villagers. After this' a small site, only large enough to accommodate the house, is cleared of vegetation. Houses are always oriented towards Mecca for Islamic religious reasons and this also minimizes the exposure to, and penetration of, solar radiation. Services do not dictate the layout of the house and water, electricity, etc., are installed only after building the house. Houses are joined by free-flowing paths and no barriers are made to [demarcate territories. There is no demarcation of 'public' and 'private' space and social interaction is thus unrestricted. The entire kampong has a canopy of coconut and other trees that provide shade and allow for the use of open compounds even during noon time.

Along with the rapid urban development in the past 25 years, Kampongs have been giving way to 'Housing Estate Houses'. These estates, usually built by private speculators, are often as big as cities occupying hundreds of acres. The development of a housing estate normally begins with clearing the site of all vegetation by a bulldozer. The land may be leveled, or low-lying areas filled in. Natural river courses and drainage systems are changed; change of ground cover increases surface water run off and can cause siltation and flooding in neighboring areas. Since many modern services such as electricity, water and sewerage are centralized they exit from and drain into a single cent re. Hence the network of conduits for these services is normally designed as a grid, to minimize their length and cost. Thus the simplistic monotonous arrangement of houses is made to maximize the number of houses in an area and minimize the cost of services and infrastructure, with no consideration for the users, needs or social implications. Since roads are meant for cars and vehicles, conflict points occur when pedestrians cross the road, and hence the definition of a road must be clear. Children cannot play there. The roads are meant to increase mobility between the urban and suburban areas, as well as house and place of work but reduce interaction among people at a community level.

Traditional Malay houses use material that is generally obtained free from the surroundings. The houses are built renovated by the users themselves, often with help from the neighbours and the community. They provide fuller employment for the users, who are free in the off-working seasons, since the nature of employment in Kampongs, mainly agriculture, is seasonal. Houses are often built slowly and additions are made gradually as and when time and money are available. In contrast the resident in a modern housing estate, has no part in the design process at al|. Architects who" build the houses are trained in Western methods and concepts and do not have much awareness of local environment and society. The houses are all similar in design and made of bricks, tiles and concrete. Houses are designed according to either foreign or scientifically determined average standards and there is not much room for users to make changes: Major changes or extensions have to be approved by the authorities. The architect has a 'paying client', namely the speculator who wishes to minimize the cost and maximize his profits, and his interests often clash with the 'actual client', namely the user. The users, needs are fitted into the house, instead of the house being designed to suit his needs.

The traditional Malay house is ideally suited to the climate and obviates any need for high energy gadgets (like air-conditioners) to render the interior comfortable Kampong houses are laid out at random and hence the wind velocity is not reduced substantially; they also capture winds at higher velocities since they are set on stilts. The houses also have minimal internal partitions, and they allow for good cross ventilation. Full length and fully openable windows ensure body level ventilation. The roofs have large overhangs which not only protect against rain but also allow the windows to be kept open most of the time. The use of light? weight construction wood and other natural material ensures that the house cools quickly at night.

In contrast the regular pattern of layout of houses in a modern housing estate, as well as hedges and solid fences, block the free flow of air. The interior is 'partitioned into several rooms which interfere with cross ventilation. Windows open at higher levels and there is no ventilation, possible, at the roof joints. The use of bricks, tiles and cement which have a high thermal capacity, leads to inadequate cooling since they re-radiate the stored heat at night.

The alienation of the users from the design and construction process and the treatment of houses as a commodity for sale, has subjected it to the usual malpractices and has affected the quality of construction, in spite of the advent of 'advanced techniques' and 'professionals'

Development in a Kampong is not based on profit or the modern concept of conquest and exploitation of, nature without fetters. The scale of development is small and | human. The design does not impose order on a site but is rather subordinate to nature and fits into it. It is clear that in many ways the traditional Malay house is more adequate and "suitable to the local climate than modern houses. Yet, the general trend has been to go in for modern housing that requires the use of scarce resources! and a lot of energy.

What then, are the" constraints that limit the use of traditional technology today? One reason of course is that the modem lifestyle is consistent only with a certain type of technology.. Hence, if this lifestyle is taken for granted as given o,r inevitable, it often leads, not only to the decay of traditional technologies by neglect but also to their active destruction by the,, constraints placed upon, them by modernization. Thus the industrialisation of India, that hassled to large scale destruction of forests, reservation of many existing ones and monopoly control by industry of forest products, j has affected traditional practices in areas such as agriculture and medicine. An equally important serious constraint is our own attitude towards traditional technology. Today traditional technologies are almost always seen as something second rate that one may be forced to resort to, if one cannot afford modern solutions, which we continue to percieve as the ideal to be aimed at. With this perception, even when we employ traditional technology, we are cleary that sooner or later as we' 'develop', we would replace these with modern technology from the West. This attitude is most dramatically seen in the housing policy of the Chinese government.

Chinese Housing Experience

Rural Housing :

The Chinese rural housing scheme is based on the principle of 'public aided self help' and encourages peasants to make use of traditional building materials such as mud and timber. Basic principles of planning, design and construction are being popularized by articles in the press and cheap illustrated books. The designs incorporate traditional architectural styles and take into account resistance to natural calamities, rational use of energy to cook and heat etc. Fast growing trees have been planted along many roads to provide timber for construction. Anil Agarwal states that during his trip from Beijing to Kasghar, 'We saw nothing but mud buildings all the way. Everywhere mud had been used intelligently, deliberately and in a planned manner making full use of the science of .structures and exploiting to the maximum, opportunities that the local climate offered'. In places like Xian, where the rainfall is high for exposed mud walls, the tiled roofs had overhangs to prevent the walls from getting wet during rain and a layer of bricks separated the mud wall from the floor to prevent seepage. But in the Gobi desert area the overhanging roofs and the bottom layer of fired bricks, was not present. These houses can survive for several decades. Mud houses are also ideal in. very hot areas since cement houses,, in such climates, would be too hot to live in. This housing programme has by and large proved successful since it encourages popular participation, uses local resources and allows for individual variation. It has been providing about six million houses a year.

Urban Housing :

In contrast, China's urban housing has failed to keep up with the growing urban population. The per capita residential floor space in urban areas has in fact eclined since 1949. Not only is the number of buildings inadequate, but also the existing ones present a hindeous uniformity of characterless multistoreyed buildings'. Older cities like Beijing, still have some uniqueness left from their links with the traditional architectural styles but new ones like Urumchi which have grown up since 1950, 'present a totally uninspiring environment; box like 4-5 storey structures all over the place with nothing to break the ugly monotony'. The building effort in cities is totally state - controlled and depends on scarce, modern resources like cement, steel and concrete. This results in uniform construction units that do not allow for much diversity. Many third world housing schemes have in fact ended as fiascos because of escalating costs of scarce resources. Typically many such schemes meant for housing the poor end up as middle - class housing while the 'poor continue to remain homeless. New cities like Urumchi also contain run down "houses along with multistoreyed blocks like in any other third world city. Yet the same city has carefully built mud houses with a lot of inner space, but building such houses in urban areas is not the Government policy. The Chinese Government itself perceives mud houses only as a stop - gap arrangement that is forced on it by immediate practical necessity. In fact the current Government hopes that, by the end of this "century, 'every peasant family in China will be living in a brick and tile house with its own toilet land water supply.

This policy is not just a response for meeting the growing needs of an urban population, but in fact reflects a vision that sees intrinsic merit in such modern housing itself. The goal is toj provide brick and cement houses in villages also. It is this same vision that has doomed every other third world housing programme to failure. We feel that it is time we examine this vision, its origin and the extent to which this is compatible with values like social justice and equality.

Any vision of society will of course be compatible only with a certain science and technology and path of development both of which impose serious constraints on the nature of the society social relations that it can achieve. Thus mud houses can provide every citizen with I an affordable home 'at the same time'. In contrast modern houses that depend on scarce resource's like cement can by necessity only trickle down slowly' if at all and they create in the wake of their use a smallminority in modern houses and a large majority without any 'houses', that look up to the former as a symbol of higher status. Thus, depending on a technology that employs such, scarce resources,' contains within it the seeds for the stratification of society, since" only a favoured few have access to it. In China, villages such as Fenguo and rich communes outside Beijing, are replacing their mud houses with brick ones. There are also reports ir the Chinese press that '......certain officials have tried to use their political power to jump long allotment queues, or get spacious rooms which they do not deserve.

The best solution to the housing problem as many studies suggest, would be to create conditions that will release people's energies to build for themselves. To implement such a policy, security of tenure over land must be ensured. Third world countries in general can not ensure this since there is seldom equitable distribution of land, 'land question was perhaps But this should not be a problem in China, since the the major question that was solved by the socialist revolution of|l949. Yet the Chinese government's plan is not to follow this path of ncouraging the people to! build for themselves, but to base its plans on the vision of providing all with cement and brick houses, a programme that is doomed to failure. The vision appears to be unrelated to their own requirement and reality; it is a western vision, probably the vestige of a colonial past.

Use of traditional technologies for construction requires that traditional techniques be respected while in practice many third world countries have, regulations that place a number of constraints on their viability or even their survival itself. Thus in Malaya the architectural by - laws are still based on western conditions. For houses to be legal, plans have to be submitted and approved. But the traditional Malay craftsmen do not start their operations with a 'plan', and are unable to do so. This is forcing them out of operation.' The failure of third world countries by and large to provide for the basic needs of the people has attracted a number of explanations. Most of these have addressed the question at the. level of determining the bast tactic to achieve an industrialized western society. We feel however that we need to question the extent to which this vision itself is consistent with the building of a just social order which provides at least for the basic needs of the people. The restoration of land and resources to an 'independent' government is only a nominal first step in decolonization. Decolonization proper would begin only when we start questioning the path of development and the vision of future that we have uncritically adopted from the west.

Author: Madras Group


* This article examines two specific countries, Malaya and China. The information on Malayan housing is based on a United Nations University report (HSD TSTT-3/UNUP-249) : A comparison of the traditional Malay house and the modern housing estate house. by Lim Jee Yuan. The information on China's housing is mostly from the report 'China's Habitat by Anil Agarwal. (Report Nos. 50. 51 and 52 from Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1982).

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