With an appreciation for indigenous architecture and recognizing its general demise throughout the world, I directed my Micronesian research in hopes of isolating the responsible key cultural and economic switches. Architecturally, I looked at both historic (pre-contact) and developed world influences. I interviewed individuals involved with the construction industry and end consumers and I reviewed public policy in with the hope of understanding the impetus of current building trends.
My findings substantiated what I have witnessed in other regions struggling to join the developed world economy. The built environment of Micronesia is rapidly moving away from its culturally rich indigenous architecture, which is by design sustainable, towards an import-dependent, energy-consumptive, monetarily-based architecture that is almost completely void of any cultural identity.
I found two major influences regarding this shift in architectural paradigm. The first I expected: Micronesians emulation of the developed world, brought about by the influence of tourism, television, videos and various other media.
From about 1962 the US, as UN Trustee, began to institute
a program of developing a political and physical infrastructure
to move the islands in the direction of eventual self-sufficiency
in the context of the world at large. By 1986 a great deal had
been accomplished in development of public utilities, construction
of roads, schools, hospitals, communications, transportation,
etc., but locally-generated revenue was still insignificant.
The emerging economy was firmly dependent upon US aid.
The second major influence, catalyzed by the introduction of metal fasteners, was more of a surprise. Micronesians have been living with typhoons for hundreds of years; their architecture evolved to respond to this occurrence. Their traditional structures at one time were lashed together with twine made from the husks of coconuts. The lashing is extremely strong and produces a wonderfully ductile connection. As Western materials and technology made their way onto the islands, specifically metal fasteners, a slow degeneration of the structural integrity of local houses occurred. It was subtle; in place of lashing there were nails or screws. Though the outside looked the same, the strength of the assembly had changed. With the traditional connection method, the structural components were encompassed in a high-tensile lashing, which maximized their structural qualities; whereas the new method of connection literally and figuratively split the members, defeating their strength. The buildings fell much more quickly to the ravages of heavy winds.
In an attempt to supply typhoon-proof housing and create an industry, the US Department of Agriculture made available Farmers Home Administration (FHA) residential loans. The administering of these loans evolved to require that houses be constructed of concrete; traditional materials, such as thatching, were not allowed. (See Appendix E, stock house plans.) Little consideration was given to the cultural, economic or environmental implications of such a focused finance program. A building industry formed in response to the available monies and the traditional methods of construction began to fade.
This shift, in turn, affected the family and community dynamics of the islands. Hundreds of years of environment-specific, culturally rich built form evolution is in the process of disappearing. Due to demands of employment, the family unit is beginning to fail; the built form, the cultural icons of home, with which Micronesians have identified for centuries, are losing ground. These trends will continue unless policies regarding the Micronesia building industry are altered.
On a positive note, not necessarily reflected in government statements (see Appendix C), I found interest on all three of the islands I visited in a partial return to the ways of the past. There seems to be a growing recognition by locals of the values of their indigenous cultures. The introduction of a life-skills curriculum in grade school is being discussed, and on some islands it is already being implemented.
I believe that all of the people on this planet need the cultural identity that is so clearly represented in indigenous architecture; it reinforces our own individuality and cultural uniqueness and broadens our vision. If there is an answer to the human condition it is going to come from cultural diversity, not homogeneity; our past gives us hope for a future. When working with a culture that has evolved over hundreds of years, policies that encourage wholesale changes should either be thoughtfully and carefully introduced or omitted altogether. What is gained by solving one problem is not always worth the repercussions in cultural and environmental losses.
Furthermore, I see indigenous architecture as instructional in bio-diversity. Much can be learned from indigenous architectural practices that is pertinent to the developed worlds ability to live within an ecological balance.