Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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Built By Hand – Steen, Steen & Komatsu (2003)

**Built By Hand, by Bill Steen, Athena Steen, and Eiko Komatsu. Photographs by Yoshio Komatsu. (2003)**


For thousands of years humankind has created shelter for itself in a dazzling array of styles and forms. From the mud-built cities of Yemen to the igloos of Alaska the homes we build have responded to and defined our culture, our traditions, our climate, and our creativity. Ingeniously simple design solutions, no architects, engineers or building control officers, and a real sense of place, all combined to make buildings with a timeless quality. Houses were generally built to last using local materials, and as they aged, they acquired a sense of grace and a venerability all too rare in our age of disposable buildings.

And then along came concrete. And in the fifty years since the concrete revolution began ravaging our land it has laid waste to our indigenous vernacular buildings, as well as to our sense of having some kind of ownership over the shelter-making process, and we have also, perhaps, lost a shared sense of what a beautiful building might look like. What is the effect on the psyche of a culture to be so surrounded by rectilinear boxes so bereft of grace and beauty? When did a cement-built house profoundly move you?

Built by Hand is a rare gem. It is beautiful enough to take your breath away and inspiring enough to move you to build something beautiful. Right from the front cover, showing a stunning earth-built mosque in Yemen, you are entranced. Page after page of colour photos, almost no text, you can ‘read’ the whole book in a three-hour gasp-filled orgy of visual splendour. I couldn’t put it down. The photos are so rich and well printed that you can almost feel the grain of wood and stone. Buildings of earth, buildings of stone, timber, bamboo, and reed, all created by people still in touch with an instinctive feel for the shapes and forms they are dealing with. One thing that struck me about the homes pictured here is that Yoshio Komatsu photographs them with people in them. In contrast to many modern architectural books or home magazines where having people in the photographs would clutter the architect’s immaculate vision the homes pictured in Built by Hand are real houses for real people. In contrast to the popular western idea that these natural buildings are backwards and their inhabitants near-destitute, Komatsu’s photographs reveal proud, graceful people, rooted in their culture, living simply as well as surrounded by beauty. We could learn a lot from them. These are buildings that are alive, the people and cultures within them are alive. What touches the western reader so much is not only the beautiful structures, but also the sense of community that these buildings and settlements generate, which we have all but lost.

If I had one suggestion that could improve this exceptional book, it would be to have included some newly built natural buildings, a couple of strawbale houses or recently built cob homes. To place the two in the same context would reinforce the point that new natural buildings are a continuum of an historical tradition, and that older vernacular buildings have a relevance beyond being merely tourist attractions and whimsical curios. The tragic reality is that in most of the countries where these houses were photographed they are now seen as backward and what people strive towards is the concrete house.

This book is as compelling an argument for the ‘slow building’ movement as you will ever read. When people build homes that celebrate their local materials, traditions, crafts and climates, free from the hungry grasp of the building industry, the human race is capable of greatness. ‘Built By Hand’ is exquisite, and you will love it. Its depths and richness are heartwarming and uplifting and even though you may live surrounded by concrete boxes now, your heart will brim with the hope that the majority of people in this world do things differently. This book is like a long soak in a hot bath, hop in and luxuriate.