Book Review: Southeast Asian Houses: Expanding Tradition

Southeast Asian Houses:  Expanding Tradition, edited by Seo Ryeung Ju

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Edelweiss/Seoul Selection.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

One of the more notable aspects of the architecture I noticed in my own time in Southeast Asia was the influence of animism on so much of the building, including the frequency of spirit houses that found their way in property as part of the building design [1].  This particular book is an excellent one at pointing out the traditions from which contemporary Southeast Asian home design spring, seeking to give proper credit and attention both to continuity across the complicated region as well as showing the diversity of those housing forms based on history as well as contemporary pressures.  Animism and its influence is definitely one of the unifying aspects of this book in its look at the housing of half a dozen nations in Southeast Asia, all of which helps to indicate that the authors of this book’s essays are interested in looking for unifying principles and influences as well as diversity of form, and manage to succeed wonderfully in this challenging and difficult task, at least for those who are interested in the housing design of Southeast Asia.

This book of a bit less than 150 pages is divided into six essays that look at the housing traditions of various parts of Southeast Asia.  The first essay shows the authors examining the unity and diversity of housing traditions in the region–with a lot of the unity coming from a shared commitment to animism as well as the widespread frequency of Austronesian languages.  The second essay tackles the tension and continuities between tradition and modernity in the vernacular housing of Indonesia, including gendered notions of space and structure.  An essay on Malaysia and the balancing between housing that is made to order and made to suffer and the balance between individual and community that the society strives to fulfill follows.  The fourth chapter looks at the transformation and endurance of tradition in the housing of Central Thailand, the core region of that troubled country.  The fifth chapter is a brief look the traditional houses of the Khmer, especially in the post-Angkor period when Cambodia suffered a great deal of chaos and confusion.  The sixth chapter continues the theme of the tension between modernity and tradition in looking at the housing of Vietnam, allowing the reader to see that diverse countries have faced similar pressures as well as a similar base of traditions.

Aside from the spirit houses of Thailand, something I had been familiar with from my own observations, what struck me as the most interesting aspect of the shared vernacular of Southeast Asian houses was the nature in which housing was so sharply marked by gender.  To be sure, the housing of other civilizations is marked as gender–we are all familiar with mancaves and home offices and the way that women are judged to be at home in the kitchen, to give some examples from American housing, but beyond spaces, in Southeast Asia there are structural elements in the house, including poles, that are judged to be female as well as male genders, something which strikes at least this reader as somewhat unusual.  It should also be noted that the authors generally praise the nations of Southeast Asia for being able to preserve a great deal of their native traditions in the face of colonialism in much of the region as well as the pressures of rising population and shrinking size of properties that make detached housing a more difficult challenge in many areas.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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