Online Course Probes Cultural Context of Asian Vernacular Architecture

The Ise Grand Shrine in Osaka, Japan. . Image © Flickr User Tetsuya Yamamoto The Ise Grand Shrine in Osaka, Japan. . Image © Flickr User Tetsuya Yamamoto

A new online course offered by the University of Hong Kong (UHK) through knowledge-sharing platform edX will probe the relationship between Asian culture and the continent’s vernacular architecture. Free and open to anyone, the introductory course entitled “Interpreting Vernacular Architecture in Asia” has an inclusive mission: to make the often alienating world of art and architectural history accessible to the general public by removing barriers to entry.

Tai O fishing village, Hong Kong Tai O fishing village, Hong Kong

The course’s content mirrors the inclusivity of its enrollment process, explicitly deviating from architectural history’s traditional focus on monumental structures to instead examine the everyday. Professors David P. Y. Lung (of UHK) and Howard Davis (of the University of Oregon) say in their course description that they prioritize the“built environment that the ordinary people live in” over “royal palaces.” And instead of centering building techniques, as an architecture studio would, the thrust of the class is socio-cultural, highlighting “the processes through which people make their building decisions.”

Courtesy of edX Courtesy of edX

The professors’ deliberate positioning of the course as antithetical to both a traditional art historical perspectives and to architectural practice forges a middle ground–one in which architecture isn’t a lofty academic pursuit, but rather a relevant cultural entity that ought to be studied as such. In this excerpt from the first week of the course, for example, footage of food, nature, and cultural ceremonies gets nearly as much screen time as do examples of Asian vernacular architecture itself. In this case, it seems that cultural context is not an aside—it’s what makes architecture interesting. As Professor Lung says in the class’ sneak peak video, “These places have people still living in them. They are not archaeological sites.”

For more information on enrolling in the course, read the course description, watch the course trailer, and check out these short excerpts.