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The Correlation Between Ethnography and Architecture

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Ethnography and ethnographic research help in exploring how interactions of human beings with their surroundings eventually impact the way the spaces are designed. The purpose of this study is to understand the terms and establish a relationship between ethnography, vernacular architecture and designing of spaces, and how these factors could make the planning and designing of spaces more efficient and organized. The ultimate goal of doing ethnographic research, using vernacular materials is to improve the design of buildings for the inhabitants.


Ethnography, in simple terms, is a research methodology where the main aim is to study the cultural and behavioral patterns of humans within a context concerning their society and surrounding. Through ethnography, one can design for the people based on their everyday activities and how they would carry out these activities.

According to the book, Digital Ethnography, the main concepts that are involved in ethnographic are – the experiences of people, their everyday activities, the objects that are in the surrounding spaces, the relationship of people towards social environments, the ideas on which people relate to each other and where they live, and the events that take place in the surroundings. These are what help a researcher draw conclusions of what is needed in a design.

Cranz, in his book “Enhancing Building and Environmental Performance”, argues that the role of ethnographic research in architecture helps to gain perspectives from the naturalistic description. It helps a designer to actually design for the inhabitant rather than just designing according to aesthetics. Ethnography helps in bettering a design, for example, in a space designed for elderly people, through ethnographical research, one can find out what they need their surroundings to be and one could maybe design a small garden space for them to relax or a space to practice their hobbies. Ethnography helps in designing better, ethnographical methods have been used in the study of the history of architecture, but there is little ethnographic research into contemporary architecture.

But, in contrast, Cranz also argues that ethnographic research is a tedious and time-consuming process that can be prolonged for a longer period since it involves observing certain communities and their everyday activities. This can also be justified by the fact the different people have different perspectives of viewing things and carrying out their everyday activities. In this case, for example, while designing a community space, only the general behavioral pattern can be taken into consideration and not an individual observation.

Atelier Bow-Wow, an architectural firm in Japan, believes in designing spaces after observing the behaviorolgical patterns and investigating the living conditions of people using that space through various fieldwork and design practices. Two of their famous works in Japan, K1, and Oshika were designed after recording the everyday activities of the groups of people living in that area. It was an attempt to rebuild Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake. In Oshika, the architects began using ethnographic research to document the daily lives and living conditions of the local people of that area and proposed efficient building methods for low-income housing. The methods they used to carry out the research included on-site surveys of living space, objects, people’s response to their surroundings, and their analysis of the relationships between houses, people and society, all led to proposals of urban and house planning. The documentation also gave rise to a new fishing school, since fishing was the main occupation of many in that area. This is an example where ethnographic research has contributed to the better planning and designing of spaces in a way that is useful for the people inhabiting the space. Architectural ethnography allows researchers to investigate through a different lens, both human and non-human, and all these together give rise to a better design.

Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture is a style in which buildings are built using locally sourced and available materials, which makes it true to its tradition, based on where the building is located. Using locally available materials can even help in cutting down the cost of the project, and can also ensure that the materials are well suited to the climate and hence are more efficient.

How can Ethnography and Vernacular Architecture Lead to Better and Efficient Design?

Ethnography helps in finding the cultural diversity and the needs, based on which one can design suitably. For example, in a traditional Indian village, people prefer to cook using the traditional stove which is called a “chulha”, made out of brick. So, while designing the building, one can use the locally available bricks and construct the buildings. Another example is that of a structure in a rainy place, where the provision of the sloping roof helps in easy flow of water. For such roofs, generally, people use locally sourced tiles which help in cost-cutting as well as long life of the material. Ethnology and its related research help in giving an idea of the users’ requirements to the designer, while vernacular architecture helps in building efficient structures. Hence, Ethnography and Vernacular Architecture can be interrelated, and both of them together can lead to better planning of spaces.

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