Architecture in Motion
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Architecture in Motion

The history and development of portable building

Robert Kronenburg

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eBook - ePub

Architecture in Motion

The history and development of portable building

Robert Kronenburg

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About This Book

The idea that architecture can be portable is one that grabs the imagination of both designers and the people who use it, perhaps because it so often forecasts a dynamic andcreative solution to the complex problems of our contemporary mobile society, while at the same time dealing with issues of practicality, economy and sustainability.

Architecture in Motion examines the development of portable, transportable, demountable and temporary architecture from prehistory to the present day. From familiar vernacular models such as the tent, mobile home and houseboat, to ambitious developments in military and construction engineering, all aspects of portable building are considered.

Building on his earlier works Portable Architecture and Houses in Motion, Robert Kronenburg compares traditional forms of building, current commercial products and the work of innovative designers, and examines key contemporary portable buildings to reveal surprising, exciting andimaginative examples. He explores the philosophical and technological issues raised by these experimental and futuristic prototypes.

By understanding the nature of transitory architecture, a new ecologically aware design strategy can be developed to prioritise buildings that 'tread lightly on the earth' and still convey the sense of identity and community necessary for an established responsible society. This book provides a unique insight into this pivotal field of design.

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In the history of architecture, the early dwellings of prehistoric societies are largely ignored. Architectural history begins with the examination of significant, usually stone buildings that primarily fulfilled civic or sacred functions. The reason for this is no doubt related to the availability of relevant, easily examinable remains and in some cases largely intact structures, but there is also the possibility that most historians believe that what Bernard Rudofsky termed ‘non-pedigreed’ architecture has had no bearing on the mainstream development of the subject: ‘Although the dismissal of the early stages [in architectural history] can be explained, though not excused, by the scarcity of architectural monuments, the discriminative approach of the historian is mostly due to his parochialism.’1 Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his influential work Structural Anthropology, first published in 1958, calls this prejudice an unnatural division between anthropology and history that led to unnecessary confusion about the importance of early human history.2
In recent years, this ‘confusion’ has become less easy to understand as archaeologists and anthropologists, equipped with better techniques and more advanced technology (for example, carbon dating can accurately date artefacts up to 50,000 years old within a few decades), have been able to make more accurate and complete our understanding of early peoples’ day-to-day existence. Though it is difficult to separate chronologically the confused, overlaid activities that took place at complex prehistoric sites, experience has enabled much greater detail to emerge from research into early human settlements. Contemporary architectural historians now have a far greater source of archaeological information than available to those in the past, even if they still choose to ignore it.3
Eight to five million years ago our human ancestors evolved from the apes in the continent we now call Africa. About two million years ago the first tools began to be made: simple chipped pebbles like those found in the site at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, East Africa.4 These early hominids were adapted to life in a tropical climate and probably had little need of shelter beyond the use of a convenient cave. Around one and a half million years ago the first full-scale Ice Age occurred – a significant change in climate that probably encouraged intelligence as an aid to survival and consequently favoured early humans as a species as they developed further their ability to make tools and clothing, and to organise their daily existence. This meant finding increasingly scarce food, locating or creating shelter and defining temporary and permanent settlements. These new requirements were the reasons that the early hominids spread from the original African homeland into Asia and Europe. The fundamental pattern of existence for prehistoric man was the hunter-gatherer, living off wild edible plants and fruits, but becoming increasingly dependent on the flesh of wild animals, which his abilities with tools enabled him to catch, slay and prepare for food.
A site at Bilzingsleben in Germany has yielded much information about the early Europeans. It was occupied by a group of huntergatherers from 700,000 to 120,000 years ago. They lived primarily by big game hunting, the remains of rhinoceros are most common, but nearby vegetation also contained nuts and berries, wild honey and resin, and a river and marshland contained fish and birds. As well as sustenance, the animals were also valued for the raw manufacturing materials they offered. Beaver were caught for their fur, and the bones of the larger animals used for tools and props for the first primitive shelters, which were covered with their skins. At Grotte du Lazaret near Nice in France, a mid-Pleistocene (150,000 years old) excavation revealed the temporary dwelling of a group of hunter-gatherers – an 11 metre long hut, 3.5 metres at its widest, built against the wall of a cave, its edge marked by stones that are thought to have founded upright posts supporting animal hides as a covering.5
Homo sapiens emerged about 100,000 years ago and by 30,000 years ago our species had spread throughout the habitable regions of the world; however, it was only as recently as 10,000 years ago that human kind became a widespread successful species. The Upper Palaeolithic period (35,000 to 12,000 years ago) shows a marked increase in the number, size and complexity of sites – the remains of larger dwellings, huts and tents and the beginnings of signs of permanent settlement. The timber buildings of a village of hunter-gatherers have been found preserved in peat on the banks of the Chinchihuapi Creek in southern Chile dating from 13,000 years ago. These buildings consisted of rectangular wooden frames 3 to 4.5 metres across, clad in mastodon (a type of extinct elephant) skins, the remains of which were still attached to the poles. Each hut had a fireplace and there was also a much larger structure with the remains of plants and herbs of local origin and also from surprisingly large distances. All the signs present indicate an organised community with established manufacturing and storage areas.6
The people who lived at the site in Pincevent in the Seine Valley, northern France, about 10,000 years ago lived in 4.5 by 3 metre ‘portable tents constructed of wooden poles with animal skins lashed to them’.7 This site was occupied seasonally, between mid-summer and mid-winter, as the hunters followed their prey, a pattern of existence that was common to human existence worldwide. Palaeolithic cave drawings found at Font-de-Gaume in the Dordogne, France, indicate dwellings with circular openings and dome or ridge roof forms.8 Finds in the Tehuacan Valley, Mexico, show the hunter-gatherers moved between the valley floor and the uplands depending on the season and would even disband or reunite depending on conditions. From 10,000 years ago, a gradual shift in this community's organisation has been charted which shows the change to a fully agricultural pattern of existence and the establishment of permanent dwellings.9
1.1 Reconstruction of a 10,000-year-old tent structure from remains found at Pincevent, northern France.
It is from this period that formal architectural history begins, with the establishment of permanent communities, occupied year round on a continuous basis, and the inhabitants’ ability to invest time and energy in permanent, substantial structures. However, it is clear that for many thousands of years before this humans led a transient lifestyle – for a much longer period than that of our subsequent primarily settled existence. Though the very first dwellings were provided from a natural resource in the form of a cave or a tree, the first manufactured shelter was undoubtedly temporary. Initially made from easily available materials and then discarded when a move became necessary, these developed into part of an expanding kit of portable tools. The ability to move from territory to territory was an essential factor in the early humans' survival of the first major Ice Age and those that then followed at regular intervals.10 In these travels, people needed to be able to find food regularly and to rely on shelter. To these early humans, this shelter was a preserver of life, as were their tools, weapons and clothing. Without these items they would certainly have perished.
The detail of these essential artefacts appears ill defined because of the transient nature of the materials from which they were made. It is only by freak chances that traces of the physical objects have come down to us to examine today as there was at that time no sense that these practical tools would one day be of immense interest and value. Prehistoric architecture was generally functional and personal, and has proved ephemeral – it does not bear a message of formal cultural aspirations – perhaps this is why it has not been of interest to architectural historians. As has been discovered by anthropologists, there is a valuable research resource available for the investigation of these dwelling systems in the legacy of those who live on in the patterns adapted from those of their ancestors. Furthermore, much of the technology developed by these ancestors is invested with the ingenuity they possessed and an inherent understanding of their environment that they utilised to develop such appropriate and long-lasting solutions with limited resources. Amos Rapoport, in his book House Form and Culture, stated emphatically that the study of vernacular building is important to our understanding of contemporary architectural issues because the heritage of the traditional model has been one of collaboration between many people over many generations who had an intimate knowledge of the way in which the buildings would be used as well as the way in which they were built. Vernacular architecture does not make use of construction professionals who are not directly involved in the community's culture and traditions: ‘these houses, being direct expression of changing values, images, perceptions and ways of life as well as of certain constancies become a very fruitful topic for study’.11 These finely tuned and innately appropriate forms present lessons for those who seek to solve related problems today, often based in similar environments and addressing comparable logistical and constructional issues.12


Though agriculture and the pastoral life has led to enormous changes in the pattern of existence for the majority of mankind, a number of societies have retained nomadic ways as part of their culture, some by necessity and some by choice. A few have even changed to a travelling existence after many centuries in stable, permanent communities, ensuing complete and dramatic changes in their lifestyle and t...

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