Architecture & Sense of Place in the Indian Himalayas

A review of Spirit of Place and the Evolution of the Vernacular House in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, India, by Melissa Malouf Belz.

Melissa Belz examines the visual character and social relevance of vernacular architecture in the ancient village of Kalpa in the Indian Himalayas (Kinnaur district, Himachal Pradesh) as a case study for interpreting landscape distinctiveness and its relationship to a sense of place. Belz seeks to go beyond the static descriptive approach that has defined much of the scholarship on vernacular architecture and landscape in order to address processes of change and their impact on local house traditions and conceptions of regional identity. She compellingly argues that vernacular buildings are central to defining cultural landscapes and  the constitution of notions of place and placelessness. Further, she asserts that architectural adaptability, and the maintenance of its social relevance, is crucial for the endurance of these vernacular landscapes.

This important dissertation is largely based on Belz’s ethnographic field research in India, which combines her original visual documentation (photographs and architectural drawings) of previously unstudied architecture traditions with interviews of local residents (e.g. homeowners and craftsmen; detailed in her Appendix A) and extensive archival research.

In her introductory chapter, Belz outlines the primary research questions and methodology of the dissertation. Here, she addresses the guiding concepts for the dissertation’s central theme of place distinctiveness (e.g. “sense of place” and its antithesis, placelessness or homogenization, pp. 5-9). Houses form the focus of her study because they are telling indicators of social change and the shifting nature of place. Indeed, an underlying assumption of the dissertation is that vernacular architecture is in a constant state of flux.

In order to examine the social processes linked to the construction and reconstruction of cultural landscapes, Belz develops a “mixed theoretical approach” that primarily draws from the discipline of cultural geography (e.g. chorology, the humanistic approach, and structural theory) (pp. 19-20). In this chapter, she also discusses her interview methods and informant demographic. She uses a three-part method of landscape documentation and analysis (visual, functional, and contextual) that adheres closely to the work of Eleftherios Pavlides and Jana Hesser (“Sacred Space, Ritual and the Traditional Greek House” in Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition, Jean-Paul Bourdier and Nezar AlSayyad, eds. Berkeley: University Press of America, 1989) (p. 21).

In Chapter 2, Belz surveys the foundational literature for her research that spans the interdisciplinary fields of cultural geography, landscape studies, and vernacular architecture. This discussion reveals how studies of cultural landscapes have gradually shifted from a descriptive approach that privileged landscape as an object or visual scene to an approach more focused on the actively changing socio-cultural context of the living landscape (e.g. John B. Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984). In this way, Belz demonstrates that landscape represents a cultural process tied to human agency and positions the house as the key referent in this cultural landscape. In other words, “the house is ultimately a process reflecting the ongoing choices of the inhabitants” (p. 41). This firmly situates her work within a framework of continual change and cultural processes, as propounded by vernacular architecture scholars in recent studies (e.g. Lindsay Asquith and Marcel Vellinga, eds, Vernacular Architecture in the Twenty-first Century: Theory, Education and Practice. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2006; Kingston William Heath, Vernacular Architecture and Regional Design: Cultural Process and Environmental Response. Boston: Architectural Press, 2009; Paul Oliver, ed., The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

This chapter also highlights a major objective of the dissertation, which is to articulate “spirit of place” in the context of a Himalayan village. Belz defines “spirit of place” (which differs from “sense of place”) as the distinctive character or qualities of a place that can be created through human agency (p. 46). This unique character can be understood by examining the recurring patterns of specific features (“ensembles”) of the landscape or houses. This approach has been well-established by several geographical studies (e.g. Richard Francaviglia, The Mormon Landscape: Existence, Creation, and Perception of a Unique Image in the American West. New York: AMS Press, 1978; Pierce Lewis, “Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene” in The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, Donald Meinig, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979; Daniel Arreola, “Fences as Landscape Taste: Tucson’s Barrios.” Journal of Cultural Geography 2(1), 1981; “Mexican American Housescapes.” Geographical Review 78(3), 1988). Amos Rapoport, a vernacular architecture scholar, further emphasized the need for a “polythetic” or “multi-attribute” approach that addresses the relationships between these different elements (rather than just the elements themselves) in order to fully understand the character of places (“An Approach to Vernacular Design” in Shelter, Models of Native Ingenuity, James Marston Fitch, ed. Katonah: Katonah Gallery, 1982; “Defining Vernacular Design” in Vernacular Architecture: Ethnoscapes, Mete Turan, ed. Brookfield: Avebury Publishing, 1990) (p. 49).

The third chapter turns to Belz’s chosen case study by introducing the cultural setting of the lower region of the Kinnaur district, situated in the mountainous western Himalayas. Emphasis is placed on the unique local traditions that have historically characterized Kinnaur and its relatively isolated conditions until the surge of development that followed its official establishment as a district in 1960. Most significantly, Belz addresses the functional components of Kinnauri houses in relation to local livelihoods, namely agriculture and animal husbandry. Following the work of O. C. Handa (Kinnaur: Unfolding Exotic Himalayan Land. New Delhi: Indus Publishing, 2009), she shows that changes in the local khul irrigation system and increasing economic reliance on private horticulture have affected settlement patterns.

In the fourth chapter, Belz determines eight iconic features that characterize the “idealized” Kinnauri house based on her extensive field research and landscape analysis in the region: the (1) layered wood and stone (kath kuni) wall construction; (2) small windows and doors at ground level; (3) pitched slate roof; (4) ridgeline ornaments; (5) overhanging veranda; (6) veranda window bank; (7) carved wall panel on the upper story; and (8) carved fascia trim (jallar). While different combinations (“ensembles”) of these visual elements can all convey a sense of Kinnauri identity, Belz suggests that the latter three features are the most meaningful and common components of what she terms the “classic Kinnauri vernacular house” because of their strong cultural resilience and continued use to the present day (p. 128). The discussion especially focuses on the historical woodcarving traditions of the Kinnaura people. Through this visual and functional analysis, Belz also draws attention to issues of local knowledge, emic perspectives on local buildings, and the frequent “unconscious acceptance” of ordinary elements in the everyday landscape (p. 132).

Chapter 5 discusses the prominent changes in communication, resources, and accessibility that have affected the cultural landscape of Kinnaur since the 1950s. Belz persuasively argues that the most profound agents of change in terms of local architecture have been the expansion of the only major highway through the district, the transition to a predominant market economy, and increasing government restrictions on forest management. These changes in connectivity and the availability of resources have resulted in a reassessment of traditional practices, in terms of livelihoods, house forms, and spatial use.

Chapter 6 looks more specifically at the impacts on vernacular houses in Kalpa, identifying new building materials, construction methods, and house forms as the most significant changes. Of particular interest is her analysis of the creative adaptations of new materials and traditional modes of ornamentation to reflect current values and retain a visual “spirit of place” in the community. Belz’s house surveys and local interviews allow her to emphasize the economic and political context of these changes, as well as to assess the degree to which these changes reflect personal preference versus more pragmatic concerns.

In her concluding chapter, Belz argues that, despite changes in form and materials, the Kinnauras are able to maintain the essential character of their houses through the use of small-scale decorative features (which are secondary to the major components of form and construction type). The incorporation of these essential elements or qualities “evoke[s] a spirit of place” (p. 198), which the dissertation further illustrates through comparative examples culled from numerous international vernacular architecture studies (e.g. Gujarat, India; Russia; Massachusetts, USA). As Belz states, “cultures rich in decorative features may be more likely to have enduring vernacular landscapes. They have a greater number of adaptable features, therefore, an increased opportunity for preserving the central qualities of an iconic house” (p. 211).

Melissa Belz’s dissertation is a provocative study of the changing architectural character of a small Himalayan village. Her broad theoretical approach makes this research of value to scholars working within a range of disciplines, and her original visual documentation of historical and contemporary houses in Lower Kinnaur is an important contribution to a subject that, like its primary materials, is in a continual state of transition.

Natasha N. Kimmet
Department of Art History
University of Vienna

Primary Sources
Original architectural documentation and landscape surveys
Ethnographic fieldwork (interviews, questionnaires, participant observation) in the Kalpa village area, 2010 and 2011
Museum and government archives in India

Dissertation Information
Kansas State University. 2012. 243pp. Primary Advisor: Jeffrey S. Smith.

Image: Photograph by Melissa Belz.

Leave a Reply