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Vernecular architecture

Vernacular architecture is a region or society’s solution to a design problem or requirement that is entirely specific to that place or time. Subtle differences in culture or knowledge and technologies can lead to incredibly distinct architecture. Conversely, cultures that are seemingly entirely different due to their location, time period, or values can also develop very similar building strategies. The ancient cities of Catalhoyuk and Mohenjo-Daro exemplify this notion. Although today we may consider the present day locations of Çatalhöyük and Mohenjo-Daro as part of the same broad region of western Asia, at the time of their development their individual material availability, geography, climates, and social patterns resulted in vastly different architectural vernacular.

The Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey was settled between 7400 and 6000 BCE. The ancient city defined a transition from a culture of nomads to one of permanent settlements, which came with the development of farming and agriculture. Because of its location on an alluvial plain, the city of Çatalhöyük had access to rich materials such as clay and mud from which to construct its homes. Inhabitants of the city used unbaked bricks made from this mud to build their houses, supported by half-timber frames and coated in plaster. This structural wooden frame was important to the survival of Çatalhöyük in its seismically active location. The frame, which created vertical pockets that were filled with the mud bricks and then covered in plaster, would dampen the shearing forces during an earthquake, while the easy availability of mud meant any damage could be quickly repaired.

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Each home in Çatalhöyük was built directly against its neighbor, and lacked windows and doors. This method of construction made circulation possible only on the top, roof level of the city, upon which each structure had a ladder leading down into the house. The lack of roads, doors and windows meant protection from the outside when needed. Inside, the houses featured a “similar basic rectangular size and shape, and internal arrangement of features, such as platforms, basins, hearths and storage bins. Some houses were more elaborate than others, with intramural human burials, wall paintings, sculpted wall reliefs or art installations using animal bones.” History was preserved in every layer of the house. After the passing of a family member, their bones would be buried beneath the current floor. Construction was never finished in the city; as each successive generation would bury their dead beneath the floor, a new ground level would need to be made and the house rebuilt again. Çatalhöyük’s social structures can be deduced from the evidence left behind in its ruins. The focus was entirely on ritual and religion. The shrines belonging to each household were unique in decoration, despite there being no other differences in the homes to distinguish social classes and hierarchy. The connection to one’s past was enforced by the burial of ancestors below the floors of each family’s home. As stated by Nicole Boivin, the unearthing of Çatalhöyük’s layers “[relate] to the human lifecycle.” Thus, the architecture of Çatalhöyük could be interpretted as a living fabric; every house stitched together to form a larger mass.

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The Indus Valley civilization of Mohenjo-Daro appeared many millenia after Çatalhöyük, in 2500 BCE. Unlike Çatalhöyük, Mohenjo-Daro was divided into two distinct areas: the citadel, and the lower districts which housed the majority of the population. The citadel was elevated above the rest of the city, clearly demarcating a structural hierarchy. One of the main differences between these two cities, however, was their circulation. Mohenjo-Daro had been clearly planned out before its construction, laid out on an orthogonal grid with wide streets and rectilinear houses. The lower town’s grid was characterized by two main streets aligned north-south and east-west. The houses were built from the same mud brick as Çatalhöyük, however, the Mohenjo-Daro bricks were fired. This small change in how the material was finished allowed for more extravagant features such as the creation of a city-wide, underground “network of wells, sunken cylindrical shafts several meters deep built of wedge-shaped, standard-size bricks. The wastewater and other sewage of almost every house was channelled into the drain running along the street outside.” This idea of connecting individual buildings to a system of drainage and sanitation, so far ahead of its time, allowed the city’s population to grow to up to 30″,000, far larger than Çatalhöyük would ever be. Houses were more elaborate than in Çatalhöyük; they featured courtyards, shops on the street level and upper floors accessible by stairs. As population grew, so did the need for large “municipal” buildings, such as the public granary and Great Bath. The latter was constructed from bitumen mortar, brick, and plaster, and likely signified the society’s spiritual connection and respect for water. Because of the region’s unpredictable patterns of floods and droughts, the people of Mohenjo-Daro recognized the importance of controlling and conserving water, the most important resource. Thus, water became deeply connected to ritual, perhaps in the form of bathing. Although water was linked to ritual, there is no evidence that this ritual was part of their local religion. In fact, the city lacked any kind of religious or monarchical monument or building. Therefore, it is assumed that the society had no ruler, and was run instead by assemblies. The city also did not seem to need protection from invasion and attack, as the thick walls that surrounded Mohenjo-Daro were better suited for protection against the elements and natural disaster, specifically, floods, rather than keeping competing civilizations at bay. This was clearly a pacifist society. With its careful design and advanced plumbing, Mohenjo-Daro’s architecture points to a modern city preserved in time.

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One of the greatest factors influencing the vastly different vernacular architecture of Çatalhöyük and Mohenjo-Daro is the individual culture and values of each of these great cities. Although they shared an abundance of mud and clay with which to build, the fired bricks of Mohenjo-Daro represent a style of architecture that was meant to last. On the other hand, Çatalhöyük’s method of building their homes symbolizes the cyclical nature of life and of the home, with their constant rebuilding of their dwellings. Both cities were located in regions prone to floods, but Çatalhöyük also faced the threat of earthquakes, which led to their mud and timber construction. Çatalhöyük relied upon their thick outer walls of their abutting homes as protection from floods, but Mohenjo-Daro’s more advanced knowledge allowed them to build reservoirs and drains with which they could actively control water. Thus, a more active role was taken in the planning of this city. Not only did Mohenjo-Daro have streets, unlike Çatalhöyük, but these streets were laid out orthogonally and lined up with the cardinal directions. Mohenjo-Daro’s clear division of the lower districts and the elevated citadel proves the citizens of this city were concerned with structural hierarchy, but Çatalhöyük’s homogenous building typology proves that they lacked such hierarchy. Neither city had any social hierarchy, as evidenced by the fact that all homes in Mohenjo-Daro and Çatalhöyük were of virtually the same size and shape as other homes.

All in all, Mohenjo-Daro may seem to be the better city, due to its many features that mimic what is considered vital to a successful, modern-day city, namely drainage, public buildings, and well-planned streets. However, it is important to remember that when comparing the vernacular architecture of two different societies, evaluating them solely on technological advancement does not suffice and is not an accurate depiction of the success of each vernacular. Çatalhöyük and Mohenjo-Daro each respond to different environmental, societal, and technological cues. They attempt to fulfill the needs of their inhabitants. The people of both cities devised viable solutions to their individual design problems, and as such, each city and population thrived at some point in time. The fact that both cities have survived thousands of years, enough for them to be discovered and studied today, proves that the architectural vernacular of each city’s time and region was successful.

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Boivin, Nicole. “Life Rhythms and Floor Sequences: Excavating Time in Rural Rajasthan and Neolithic Catalhoyuk.” World Archaeology 31, no. 3 (2000): 367-88.

Ingersoll, Richard, and Spiro Kostof. World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Fairbairn, Andrew. “A History of Agricultural Production at Neolithic Çatalhöyük East, Turkey.” World Archaeology no. 2 (2005): 197. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed September 16, 2017).

Jansen, M. “Water Supply and Sewage Disposal at Mohenjo-Daro.” World Archaeology 21, no. 2 (1989): 177-92.

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