REFLECTIONS FROM A YEAR ON THE ROAD
Final report submitted to the Watson Fellowship on August of 2006
Now that I have returned to the US, it is refreshing to look back at my Watson project and have the distance to process not only the past year and what I learned, but also what brought me to these places. My project sought to examine the relationship that nomadic people have to their natural and built environments and how that relationship, as expressed through portable, domestic architecture, communicates a different understanding of space and place than that of settled people. My methodology was rooted in a belief that architecture functions as ideology in built form. Homes are more than just houses, more than just shelter. Not only do structures shape the people who live in them, but communities use architecture to invent and reinforce visions of themselves. Additionally, structures are powerful communicators of identity and values that one can learn to read.
The project was formulated within the framework of Cultural Geography, or Cultural Landscape Studies, a field that focuses on how people use everyday space – streets, buildings, fields, town squares, parking lots, factories, farms, etc. – to create, support and express the ideas and values of the community. In this case, landscape is more than scenery; it is it is the connection between people and the spaces to which they belong, those from which they derive collective meaning and identity.
I began my project in Mongolia with a long list of questions, but with little intention of doing formal interviews. I was there to live with people, to move with them, to dismantle and rebuild their homes, to try and understand what these structures meant to them and how they spoke through the homes they were perpetually building. In retrospect, I was relying on an audacious series of assumptions. Were I wrong, I ran the risk of spending a year sitting in many tents in many deserts consuming many, many cups of tea and learning very little.
My project brought me to incredible places. I learned to communicate in half a dozen languages. I made new friends and families, cooked meals, played with babies, killed goats, rode camels and horses, trucks and bush taxis, passed weeks singing and listening to stories. As the months passed, I also learned how to listen to the spaces I was occupying. Like the people who built them, these structures and spaces had so much to teach me.
The project also began with a line from a book. Labelle Prussin, in one of the few texts published on nomadic architecture, states confidently, but with no elaboration, “for the nomad, “home” cannot be understood except in terms of journey, just as space is defined by movement”. These words have stayed with me since I read them two years ago. I now see that my entire project was an attempt to understand this statement. After twelve months of continuous movement across ten countries, I am finally beginning to understand her words.
Only in the first world is the building of homes something left to professionals. Throughout history, and to this day in much of the world, people built their own homes. This building remains an integral function of communities and is essential to survival. Buildings speak of the land they sit upon, of resources (social and physical), of the needs, values and politics of the people who spend their lives moving through and creating spaces. Nomadic people are particularly interesting in this regard as they create communities and build remarkable structures quite different from those of the settled majority. They build their homes to reflect and facilitate a lifestyle based on movement. As they move from place to place – setting up their homes and taking them down and setting them up again –they maintain a direct and continual engagement with physical and social construction.
Around the world one finds nomadic people fighting for space, for access to land they have always walked over, and for the right to use it in a way compatible with their culture. As some of the most marginalized communities in the world, nomadic people are also continuously in a position of having to explain and defend their way of life. Nomadic and settled people speak of homes and space in words heavy with meaning, assumptions and connotations that don’t make sense to each other. Nomads engage in this conversation everyday with words as well as through the homes they carry with them. The layout and construction of their homes are as much rooted in a nomadic ethos that contradicts or confuses many of the values of settled communities.
Around the world, there is a persistent tension between settled and nomadic communities. Everywhere I went I found the same demand spoken in many tongues, Settle, settle, settle. We have no problems with nomadic people, so long as they stop moving around. Mongolia is a rare exception to the rule. Still, even in Ulaan Baatar, there is pressure and the ger suburbs/slums grow and grow. As land rights shift and codify, resources are snatched away and traditional relationships that supported settled and nomadic communities crumble, more and more nomadic people are being settled. In doing so, they lose their autonomy not only to move as they have for generations, but to build their own homes and to freely shape their communities. Nomadic people understand that as their housing environments change, their culture and lifestyles will change. Many of the nomads I spoke with were adamant that I understand that many of the problems plaguing their communities: extreme poverty, poor health, alcoholism, depression, and breakdowns in the traditional family structure began with their forced settlement.
The most exciting aspect of this project was that it challenged me to rethink concepts at the core of architectural theory and design. Within a few months, I found that my previous definitions of such simple concepts as home, shelter and building were inadequate. The very notion of characterizing mobile structures, as Architecture is contentious and loaded, as it calls attention to the grace and skill with which nomadic people design and build homes. The building process of nomadic people, and all of the daily activities that it includes, encourages a view of architecture as a creative process, not just a product.
Nomadic architecture is not about “buildings” as we understand them. The emphasis on temporary, communal, flexible, inventive spaces challenges the sedentary bias in western architecture and its tendency to privilege monumental, permanent, static structures. I have begun to see how architecture is really the practice of creating environments and marking space through relationships, ideas and actions. Day after day, I watched people build “shelter” without constructing any material forms. For nomads, this process is one of survival, and the actions are those of everyday life. It is not a theoretical or philosophical standing. You can imagine my initial confusion when, several months into my project, having set out to study “architecture” and “movement”, I spent a great deal of time living in the desert with people who don’t build anything and with nomads who no longer move.
The transient nature of nomadic communities alone does not explain their consistent labeling as outsiders and position as some of the most marginalized communities in the world. Nomad camps, and temporary, collaborative structures in general, make settled people and hierarchical power structures extremely uncomfortable. Much of this tension is ideological. Nomads call attention to a nascent instability in the world. The structures that they build are based in a natural movement in society. They render visible aspects of all of us that we choose to ignore and are comfortable with a sense of impermanence and change that many people find unsettling. Still, in every community, buildings are put up and buildings fall down. Fortunes change hands, power shifts. Everything is in flux. The flexibility and movement (both social and spatial) practiced by nomads are strategies for dealing with this instability.
Governments, development agencies, and settled communities at large generally deal with this clash by forcing nomadic people to leave or settle. In settling nomadic people, there is little effort to ask what might constitute healthy spaces for nomads/travelers. During this project, I tried to understand not only the present housing conditions of nomadic people on the road and settled, but also what sort of spaces they wanted to live in. I was constantly asking, is there a nomadic design sensibility, a preference that reflects their specific identity/tendencies to be on the move? Can these preferences be transferred into design principles and program for more permanent, place-based housing? Should this even be considered? What happens to nomads when they are moved into homes built for settled people?
There is no one type of ‘healthy housing environment”. All homes must be specific to the community for which they are built. Architects, planners, politicians and developers should feel obligated to do more than provide people with shelter. They must listen to communities and try to understand how specific design decisions can support and enrich lives. As so many well intentioned, but disastrous settlement plans have shown – what constitutes a healthy and well-designed space for one community can be paralyzing and terrifying for another.
Understanding and supporting nomadism lies in recognizing it not as an attribute of a particular ethnic or cultural group, but as a problem solving tactic and skill that some communities have utilized and perfected over the course of history. Nomadism is a practice found within the context of particular communities and cultures, but is not limited to these groups. Many of the people with whom I lived this year see movement and nomadism as a central element of their identity and survival. But, to a certain extent, all people display nomadic tendencies and tactics at some point.
Most settled people couldn’t travel the way that pastoral or trade-based nomads do. However, many “settled people” move quite often while plenty of “nomads” live in houses and rarely move. There is plenty of bleed between the categories “settled” and “nomadic” and much variation within each. Still, nomadism remains a helpful construct in which to describe groups of people who not only spend a great deal of time moving from place to place, but who also have created a sense of space, home and community that is intimately related to moving over the land. The privileging of movement and the inherent flexibility that nomadic people have learned over generations affects their entire outlook on life. Nomadism entails a different way of seeing things, a different attitude towards accommodation, family, work and life.
Nomadism supports a lifestyle that, contrary to popular belief, I don’t see to be in any danger of dying out. Certainly, nomadic lifestyles are changing. But, material culture is not all that makes a community. To think that Traveller culture is about barrel wagons is as foolish as to say that Irish culture is about thatched roofs. While the manifestations of contemporary nomadism change, the core values of these communities and the methods that they employ are consistent. So, we see Mongolians herding sheep with motorcycles, Berbers trading their camels for trucks, Raikas taking the bus to check on the migrating herds hundreds of miles away, Travellers selling their ponies and moving into camper vans and mobile homes, Touregs with cell phones shuttling white tourists through the desert and between borders in beat-up Mercedes.
Nomadic people have always been forced to re-invent themselves, to defend their culture and to struggle to survive. So long as nomadism can be seen as a thing of beauty and a life of dignity, these cultures will continue and we have much to learn from them.