Nomadic people use traditional, locally-sourced materials to construct temporary or permanent dwellings, shelters adapted to suit both the climate and specific needs of the tribe. Houses are built using materials available in the area and are considered extraordinary modern-day examples of ancient vernacular architecture.
One example of such construction is the versatile Mongolian ‘ger’ (yurt), which remains cool in the heat of continental summers and holds warmth in the sub-zero temperatures of winter, with a central ventilation hole (that can be closed if needed) and a chimney for the stove.
But what exactly do we mean by ‘vernacular architecture’?
The term ‘vernacular’ means "domestic, native, indigenous" and originates from the Verna for "home-born slave". It refers to spontaneous architecture characterized by the use of local materials and traditional knowledge that makes it adaptable to climatic needs by taking advantage of the environmental resources available.
Some nomadic shelters have been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites due to the vast heritage their architecture preserves, while others have inspired contemporary artists to create new works.
Let’s discover a few examples…
Mud Mosque, Dogon Country
The cliff of Bandiagara has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding cultural significance and natural beauty. Part of Dogon Country, the cliff conceals unique villages rich in tradition, not least vernacular architecture. But why have these particular constructions been regulated? Historically, the cliff provided protection from enemies and severe weather conditions, while living on the cliff freed the land of the plains for agriculture, and as such, enforced protection of the cliff has guaranteed the preservation of centuries of ancient Dogon culture.
Korowai Tree Houses
Korowai tree house
The incredible architecture of the Korowai tree houses, suspended well above flood-water levels, is another example of defensive fortification. Built to prevent rival clans from capturing members of the tribe for slavery or cannibalism, they also protect its inhabitants from biting insects and even—it is believed—evil spirits. All of the materials used to construct the tree houses come from the jungle, with branches making the frame and bark of the sago palm used for both floorboards and walls. The roof is woven from larger leaves and rattan bindings serve to fasten everything together securely. The Korowai are known to build their houses in a matter of only one or two days, yet they typically last between three and five years, with new houses constructed in the same clearing—or moved to another, depending on the available resources of food and materials in the area at the time—as required.
Tiébélé Court Royale Houses
Tiébélé is a village in the east part of Burkina Faso Country. Famed for its colorful windowless traditional houses, it is inhabited by the Kassena: the oldest ethnic group in Burkina who first settled in the region in the 15th Century. Tibelé Court Royale is a stunning example of a village constructed starting from natural local resources and used to express a stunning culture. Kassena people paint unique designs on the exterior walls of their houses, using colored mud and chalk, with this decoration done by the women, normally once a year. The bold colors of black, white and red are made using natural local materials: clay, kaolin, and coal. Tiébélé’s houses are built with defense in mind, be that against the climate or potential enemies, with protection ensured by their small doors and lack of windows.
One of the most notable examples of architecture designed for the extreme climate it must defend its inhabitants against: easily disassemble and movable at short notice. A traditional Bedouin tent might be relocated daily, so is both light and quick to dismantle and re-erect. Tents are made out of local materials: goat or camel hair, and plant fibres. Typically black, they have almost mythical status in the field of nomadic architecture, with dozens of different variants. The tent’s loosely woven material allows the air to enter and circulate, meaning it is pleasant in the summer season, but that when it rains in the winter months the fibres swell making it waterproof. Traditionally, one side of the tent is the ‘makhad’, a place to meet and receive guests, while the other is where the family lives.
Ndebele Homeland Houses
Ndebele tribes have adopted a cone-on-cylinder build consisting of mud walls and a thatched roof since the late 1800s, however in current rural settlement patterns these single, nuclear family houses are built on square stands rather than the traditional cylindrical shape, and a wide range of modern building materials and designs have been introduced. The most dramatic feature of Ndebele homes is their colorful wall decorations, and the Ndebele’s unique designs have become a source of inspiration for designers all over the world: French footwear designer Christian Louboutin designed a pair of shoes using the culture’s traditional motifs, and Esther Mahlangu, an internationally recognized Ndebele artist, has had her work commissioned for commercial use by BMV and South African Airways.
Torajan traditional ancestral houses in South Sulawesi (Indonesia) are called ‘Tongkonan’. They are constructed on wooden piles, topped with layered split bamboo roofs shaped in a curved, sweeping arc, and detailed wood carvings in red, black or yellow adorn the exterior walls. The word ‘tongkonan’ means "to sit”, in their language, as the house is central to the tribe’s social activities and represents a link to a family’s ancestors. With distinguishing boat-shaped, oversized saddleback roofs, the construction of tongkonan is laborious work, and the houses are usually built with the help of all family members or friends, making it a special social activity. In the original Toraja society only nobles had the right to build tongkonan, while commoners lived in smaller, less ornate homes known as ‘banua’.
Tataouine Storey Buildings
An example of vernacular architecture designed to ensure the protection and conservation of food supplies, Tataouine multi-storey vaulted buildings are made from adobe: raw, earthen bricks made with a mix of clay, sand and binding material. The buildings are located in the southern part of Tunisia. The ‘ksar’—meaning “historical district”—consists of two courtyards, each with a perimeter of multi-storey vaulted adobe cellars called ‘ghorfa’. The cellars were originally used to store grains, olive oil and animal fat, with the food kept cool and dry behind the thick brick walls and palm wood doors: quite a miracle considering temperatures easily reached 40°C. The entire Tataouine complex was a fortified settlement, with only one entrance shaped to protect goods and food from enemies and theft.
Konso Village Ethiopia
iStock.com/Josep Maria Barres
Konso, a small town in Southern Ethiopia, has a population that lives primarily from cultivating cotton and agriculture in general. Named after the Konso people, the town—and its 5,500ha of surrounding cultural landscape—was declared a World Heritage Site in 2011 due to its historical terraced agriculture and traditional villages. Important features of the site are the unique designs of the houses themselves, as well as their organization: 32 individual dwellings set behind 1 to 6 rows of defensive stone walls and fossil beds. The communities build traditional reservoirs to supply the villages with water during the dry season, and the terraces are built behind stone walls up to 5m in height to prevent soil erosion and maximize the collection of rainwater for use in such instances, to both ensure and enhance agricultural production.
NOMADIC TRIBE TEAM
Cover photo Dogon Village iStock.com/trevkitt