Traditional Is Modern: An environmentally sustainable approach to earthquake-resistant construction | India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran


Traditional construction and vernacular architecture in earthquake areas. By focusing on traditional examples of earthquake resistant construction. Showing evidence of how one of the most extreme environmental forces to which buildings may be subject to can provide a fulcrum for understanding differences between indigenous traditional buildings and post-industrial construction using steel and concrete, now perceived as “modern.” The examples are based on experience from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran, as well as in Italy, Portugal, Haiti and Central America.

12 thoughts on “Traditional Is Modern: An environmentally sustainable approach to earthquake-resistant construction | India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran

  1. I don’t mean this in the wrong way, but I was surprised by how much I got from his presentation. I am not an architecture, civil engineering, or any relevant to Mulford Hall major. I am a premed, so nothing I have learned or am pursuing is relevant to his presentation. But one thing that struck me, is the general theme that modern is not necessarily better.
    I’m a tentative nutrition science major. What fascinates me about nutrition is the amount we don’t know about what to eat. Healthy eating means something different to everyone—some are indifferent, some are paleo, vegan, etc. But all these fad diets are obviously not solving our obesity and diabetes crisis.
    Something that I’m really passionate about is understanding what the perfect diet is, or if there is one. What I’m starting to realize, though, is that it’s the traditional families who know how to cook that are the healthiest. For example, traditional French cuisine (my personal favorite) is extremely lavish, but also really good for you.
    I think the unfortunate part of this is that as we try to change food so much to solve our health crisis by chugging kale juice or restricting carbs, we are losing sight of the beauty and importance of traditional food. It’s incredibly beautiful to me that people who didn’t have access to 99% of the technology that we have today actually cultivated the healthiest food.
    Throughout the presentation, I was just thinking about a chevre salad and some rotisserie chicken, and how it’s traditional, delicious, but also the food that I should be eating. The architecture of the past is gorgeous, and the fact that it was creating with just wood and bricks is truly noteworthy. India is not a wealthy country, but people have worked around that to create a durable house.
    While I don’t have a personal desire to go into architecture, I think it’s really cool that this idea of traditional not quite being obsolete yet parallels through multiple fields. Now when I think about all this European architecture, I understand that the beauty of the exterior comes from this simple interior structure. It’s fascinating that something so aesthetically appealing is very simple.

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  2. What an amazing use of the lecture … if you are in (Food & Nutrition), then I congratulate you for making great use of the lecture as a metaphor.
    You do not need to be in Architecture to learn something new, however, the colloquium is relevant to the natural and built environment and trying to anchor different topics around it to share and spread experience. Maybe the (Food) talk was more relevant to your work. I am glad to receive such perspective about the talk, and definitely not each and every talk will be equally interesting to each and every one, but I encourage people to have your positive perspective.

    Back to two points in your feedback:

    POINT (1) Tradition is Modern:

    Well, this is an endless discourse when it comes to other topics beyond the earthquake. And again my example will be relevant to the built environment. I will borrow this part from AlSayyad (2014):

    4 types of physical environments that are produced today, under globalization, with the notion to make them representation of the cultural tradition:
    -1- Dreamscapes that mimic/replicate traditional settings (i.e. Disney Land replicating Marceline, Missouri and Fort Collins, Colorado)
    -2- entertainment urbanisms that copies historical settings (i.e. Las Vegas)
    -3- heritage sites that use history beyond their legitimate claim (i.e. Bali gets preserved by the 1st world for the 1st world people’s consumption) and (Maldives in Indian ocean package them selves as (Tropical) and Isolate themselves from local community)
    -4- nostalgic places with exploit cultural heritage and normalize it for everyday life. (i.e. The Seaside and Celebration in Florida are perhaps the most well-known icons of this movement).

    And I encourage you, if not going to read the book, just check it out and seehis discourse about what is traditional, vernacular and authentic.
    AlSayyad, N. (2014). Traditions: The “Real”, the Hyper, and the Virtual In the Built Environment. Routledge.

    POINT (2) people who didn’t have access to 99% of the technology that we have today actually cultivated the healthiest food:
    That is very correct and it is a question that might have answer way beyond food. And this takes us back to the bigger question: (Where are we going? And Is the world going towards the right direction). This is a fundamental sustainability question that might have answers related to encounters occurring on a higher scales: (geo political forces, capitalism, food monopoly, …. and allot more). (This might need a stand-alone lecture.


  3. Vernacular buildings are inherently well suited for their locations due to the fact that they are the products of long-term design development. People have used iterative trial and error processes to create buildings that work well with the local climate, topography, and other physical determinants. However, unlike constant or periodically recurring conditions such as humidity or monsoon seasons, earthquakes are usually very rare and atypical events that occur with no warning. How can one learn to build defensively against earthquakes when they might last for only seconds and then not happen again for years? For this reason, I have wondered whether vernacular buildings could never be very good with earthquake resistance. However, Randolph Langenbach convinced me otherwise by arguing that the methods used in places like Srinigar were indeed empirically worked out through direct observation. After an earthquake, people would go out and look at what was still standing as evidence. This happened, for example, after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Even though people may not have had sophisticated computer programs to calculate structural forces, they were able to observe the aftermath of seismic events and use those observations to better their understanding of earthquake-resistant building.

    For me, this is another example of why architects and other professionals today should study vernacular architecture. The buildings built by non-professionals contain centuries of embedded wisdom. Perhaps one day the term ‘vernacular’ will no longer be needed as a qualifier; Dell Upton, an architectural historian who used to be a member of the faculty at UC Berkeley, has suggested that in the future the distinction between vernacular and “academic architecture” could be eradicated in favor of a more complex paradigm that values all types of buildings, in what he would consider to be a truer and more complete version of architectural history. I think this is an exciting prospect.

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    • Thanks for a very thorough feedback. I fully agree, and it is amazing how things used to work better before all this technology. We can attribute the challenges the world is facing to complex reasons and even technology is not helping much to resolve them. I also agree that architects and other professionals today should study vernacular architecture, and not only as (traditional) style in this case, but to dig deeper in understanding the engineering of it (loads, beams, tolerance, flexibility, resistance,…etc).


  4. I found this talk by Randolph Langenbach to be quite interesting. Although it was about a very specific subject manner: evolutions of traditional masonry construction withstanding earthquakes, its conclusions reached wider. The fact that various age-old techniques of timber and masonry construction significantly out perform shoddy modern building methods ubiquitous in the Global South (certainly present in the North as well) can be seen as a metaphor for so many facets of modern development in relation to ever shrinking vernacular histories.
    I appreciated the detail in which Langenbach analyzed real world examples of various structures and construction styles post earthquake. The photos allowed us to explicitly see how different building methods reacted differently. Along the way I also thought there was quite a bit of interesting contextual information. Points such as: that modern buildings are designed to a reduced force load rather than actual for economic purposes (a building can conceivably never experience a big quake its life), or comparing a building surviving an earthquake to a palm tree in a hurricane. Interesting insight into something I knew nothing about overall.

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    • Great feedback Patrick, thank you, and I would like to stress on two of your points: (i) that this traditional buildings are not limited to “Global South” but also exit in the “Global North”, so traditional sustainable buildings are probably linked to specific eras of urbanization more than specific geographical focus, (ii) it is indeed a metaphor on how the other types of modern developments (not only architecture or urban) can learn from their predecessors processes.


  5. I found this talk by Randolph Langenbach to be very insightful and one which I believe will benefit me a lot in the future. As I am a first year architecture major, I have yet to take any architecture related classes that deals with sustainability and design. When I thought about buildings and designs I have only thought about how the modern designs seem much “cooler” or more “convenient”. However after attending this lecture, I became aware of what I lacked to consider such as designs that can withstand the natural disasters and how the visual and exterior designs aren’t all that we must consider.

    If there’s one thing that I took away from this lecture, it is that new and modern don’t always give the best results. In this time and day people think that the latest models of everything is better than the old ones. However from the lecture we see that it isn’t necessarily true. It seems that in terms of buildings that can withstand the earthquakes the traditional style of masonry is the way to go. As Mr. Langenbach had stated repeatedly, it isn’t the force that tears down the buildings but it is the vibration in the building that does. Such as the case “flexibility, not strength” is what will make the building stay up. So the traditional timber-laced masonry buildings have the power to withstand the force of the earthquake as they are flexible compared to the rigid modern concrete buildings.

    Now the part that was the most interesting for me was how there were many different types of timber-laced masonry. When Mr. Langenbach first presented the masonry with timber ladder and stated that it can make a building pretty flexible to withstand the earthquake, I thought that the later vernacular buildings will be built with the same design and structure. However there were other styles such as patchquilt wall and Gaiola (cage) constructions that seem much more complex yet as the same time seemingly aesthetic (although we can’t see them). This might sound weird but I thought the cage construction of timber-laced masonry would look pretty cool even if they weren’t covered with concrete after because they look like they are design patterns on the wall. This in turn made me question why this style of traditional building should be limited to as traditional? Can’t we input this in modern buildings?
    Overall the talk was really intriguing and beneficial for me as an architecture major.

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    • Throughout feedback and ending with great questions that stimulate thinking and allow us to dig deeper into where is the profession going and how one can improve and learn from traditional buildings.


  6. Often seen are instances of engineering driven by technological advance in design evaluation, construction technique, and materials science, which fail to consider site based situations both environmental and vernacular. Randolph Langenbach’s investigation of empirical evidence from earthquake sites, as well as from soft soil areas of the world, seems to be a wonderful way to revisit the iterative knowledge of our societies triumphs and failures for analyzing the current practice in developing our world. As he showed through thorough and exploratory photo-documentation and historical research, so many problems that we still deal with as a global society have been historical challenges as well. These historical and vernacular lessons to be learned are crucial to moving forward with future challenges to development as specific examples of solutions to problems, but also as models to be built upon.

    I wonder how these building materials and methods, which are formulaic in design and use very traditional building materials, could be tested and researched as prototypes for new materials that could perform similarly but last longer. In many instances of documentation within his presentation, Langenbach showed that while many of these buildings were left standing after earthquake events, etc., they were in poor conditions of disrepair. An example of the patch quilt wall construction was shown where the stress energy of the earthquake was absorbed by the masonry within the wooden frames, and it was stated that only grout which it softer than the masonry unit can be used. In these conditions, however, the masonry was severely deteriorated with this softer grout essentially being squeezed out of the masonry structure, leaving the building seemingly beyond repair without significant rebuilding and shoring. The people were saved, but the building was left in a precarious condition.

    Using these building materials and methods as examples, can we begin to create new and more resilient building materials that can produce similar structural capabilities during stress events, but return to a stable condition post-event?

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  7. Fully agree that it is crucial to study the traditional buildings from a constriction standpoint. This niche of science might already be there but not to the extent one may expect. The extreme engineering of it might not be the core of the talk, but for specialists in the topic (architects, civil engineering,…) it is indeed worth exploring.


  8. Randolph Langenbach’s presentation was very interesting for me because he introduced the idea of using old methods of structure to create more efficient earthquake-resistant buildings. I was very surprised to see that old buildings have withstood harsh earthquakes and have had little to no damage. As someone who lives in a world where technology is seen as the path to the future, I believed that old infrastructures would be more susceptible to being destroyed by earthquakes. I thought that the metal frames in which most of our buildings are designed, would outlast old methods of infrastructures, but I was wrong. It showed me that although we are developing new technology it is always good to look back at our predecessors because although they did not have the technology we have today, they had great idea and designs that we can add on through technology. We should not completely disregard old designs instead we should incorporate them and add a bit of our knowledge to make a design that reflects the best of both the past and present. Thus, in order for us to create more efficient earthquake resilient building I believe we should incorporate the methods used in India with its use of masonry panels and diagonal frames which are filled with clay or bricks. The homes that they have constructed in India have been very efficient for earthquake resistance, and if we incorporate at least a similar framework and add new materials or technology we can build very efficient infrastructures that can last longer.


  9. As a native of the East Coast, where fewer earthquakes occur as far as I know, it was intriguing to hear a presentation on readying structures to withstand earthquakes. My background is architectural engineering in addition to landscape architecture, thus buildings are as important to me as the landscapes around them. I moved to the Bay area in late August and not even a week passed before I encountered my first earthquake. Although, it was mild and only remnants of the more destructive quake in the Napa Valley area, it was still unreal. I watched videos, read articles, and searched for photos to further comprehend how bad of an earthquake struck. At the time of the quake, my mother was in town; needless to say she was very worried for me and asked if there were any more earthquakes after she travelled back home the day after my first earthquake.

    Randolph Langenbach’s presentation took me back to my undergraduate classes. All I could think about were the Architectural History and Material Methods of Construction courses I had once taken. One of the assignments in my history class was to sketch a vernacular building. I then drew the traditional adobe in its entire classic splendor. I thought of these clay and mud baked houses that lasted for what seems like forever and apparently remain relevant today. My construction class went through the types of materials ie. wood, concrete, brick, steel etc. and all of their properties. This presentation hit close to home for me in more than one way.

    The concepts of old vs new, high tech vs low tech is a never ending cycle. It is imperative that while we continue to innovate and build a new that we must take the lessons learned from the old and incorporate them in the design as well. It is obvious that the old may be winning the battle in terms of earthquake resilience. They are definitely becoming the “last building standing”.


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