Book Review: Southeastern Asian Houses: Embracing Urban Context

Southeastern Asian Houses:  Embracing Urban Context, edited by Seo Ryeung Ju

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

Having lived in Southeast Asia (in Thailand, specifically), I was interested in reading about the urban or suburban context of the houses of the area, and this book did not disappoint in discussing the influences that led to the variation of regional forms within a nation.  It is somewhat remarkable that there has been no systematic discussion to this subject in the literature, although the author shows a great deal of awareness of the architecture of the region [1].  I was pleased that the publisher let me download this excellent volume to read, as it provided a very thoughtful look at the influences and variety of housing construction in Southeast Asia and allowed the reader to see that this variety present in different countries was not a matter of chance or accident but had a great deal to do with the context of history.  As a student of history as well as a student of structural engineering in the course of my education, this was an area that received insufficient attention in my own learning but is useful to ponder.

This short book of barely over 100 pages is divided into five chapters that deal with five countries in Southeast Asia and examine the historical content of their variety of urban housing.  The first chapter looks at the types of urban housing in Malaysia, which before British occupation had little in the way of urban settlements, and which shows a preference for semi-detached housing that allows for narrow width but a great deal of depth to houses.  The second chapter examines the importance of the Dutch colonial experience as well as post-colonial politics on the formal development of Indonesian urban architecture.  The third chapter looks at modern housing types in Vietnam, with its influences from French villas for elites as well as the egalitarian styles of the early Communist period and the contemporary rejection of that egalitarian style.  The fourth chapter looks at the divergence between housing for the poor and for elites that came about because of Spanish colonialism, the destruction to cities that took place during World War II (especially in Manila) and the influence of American detached housing as a desirable urban model.  The fifth and final chapter looks at the influence of indigenous Thai design principles on the high-density housing of Bangkok and how even crowded cities can maintain a certain degree of green spaces due to the preservation of vigorous standards that seek high property values as well as a preservation of some balance between human use and the desirability of natural vegetation.

One thing this book does very well is demonstrate some of the influences that have shaped the urban housing of Southeast Asia.  The colonial experience brought various European and American forms of architecture as prestige designs for local elites, and at times even postcolonial regimes blindly adopted certain forms of urban design without sensitivity for their applicability to their particular environment and needs.  Local traditions also had a great deal of influence on the cities that were built.  In addition to this, politics had a lot of influence on the buildings that are built.  How much money is invested in building socialized housing?  How great is the influence of informal and illegal housing?  What are the attitudes towards public and private space in a culture–is there a focus on private space detached or semi-detached from neighbors or is there a culture, as is the case in the Philippines, where sidewalks are used for parking because garages are viewed as an extension of the house?  These are questions and concerns that are well worth investigating and this book does a good job at raising such concerns.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/01/23/book-review-ancient-angkor/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/02/04/book-review-fundamentals-of-regional-geography/

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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